July 05, 2011

MOVIES: Cars 2 (John Lasseter & Brad Lewis, 2011)

Until now, I don't think you'd have found much disagreement with the idea that Cars was the worst of the Pixar movies, and by a fairly wide margin. But with the arrival of Cars 2, we have a new contender for that title.

Cars 2 finds race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) back home in Radiator Springs, looking forward to a few weeks of rest and relaxation. That doesn't last long, though, as he allows a pompous Italian car (John Turturro, doing an overly broad accent that's a bit too close to that of Tony Shalhoub's returning minor character) to goad him into taking part in an international series of races. That gets the sequel out of bucolic Americana and into a series of new settings -- Tokyo, London, Paris, the Italian Riviera -- which isn't a bad idea.

What is a bad idea is putting Lightning's sidekick, Mater the tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy), at the center of the story. Mater tags along with Lightning -- the first time he's been allowed to do so -- and while in Tokyo, he is mistaken by a pair of British spies (Emily Mortimer and an impeccably cast Michael Caine) for their American contact. He must be a spy, they reason, because no one could actually be that stupid. The spy story itself is a convoluted mess about an international conspiracy of Big Oil companies and clunker cars to discredit alternative fuels, which is where Lightning works his way back into the story, as his races are being sponsored by an alt-fuel mogul (Eddie Izzard).

As ever with Pixar, the movie looks spectacular. An opening Bond-esque action sequence is gorgeously done, and the new settings are wonderful to see. The London scenes that close the movie are especially beautiful, bordering on photorealism; there are moments when you'd swear these cartoon cars were driving through actual London streets. And the physical details of giving cars faces continue to be creative; Caine's Finn McMissile, for instance, has a grille in the shape of a perfect slim mustache (very David Niven).

But the story is such a confusing muddle, and Mater so horribly unappealing a character -- stupidity is not, in and of itself, funny -- that the impeccable art work goes to waste. Which Cars movie is worse? It's not even a tough call. The original Cars was merely a disappointing failure to live up to Pixar's high standards; Cars 2 is aggressively bad.

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