Chief Justice Michael Stailey's extended Pixar warranty just expired.
A wise car hears one word and understands two. An unwise filmmaker takes one good story idea and makes two films.
I love John Lasseter's talents, his passion, and the films he's given the world. That said, we all knew this day was coming. Since the release of Toy Story in 1995, Pixar has been the undisputed animation superpower. Eleven straight blockbuster hits, ten of which were heaped with critical praise (the black sheep being Lasseter's original Cars). As is the case with modern society, the longer the winning streak, the more people want to see you fail. It's a perverse facet of our culture, one which doesn't appear to be going away anytime soon.
I will not join the chorus of reviewers who have branded Lasseter a "sellout." Yes, the Disney corporation has made a fortune off Cars related merchandise and invested a significant portion of those profits into building a Cars-Land at the Disneyland resort. However, in reading interviews with John and listening to his commentary on this release, it is clear the love he has for these characters and this world is as strong today as it was when the Cars concept was born. Producing Cars 2 is not selling out, but rather love blinding him to the fact that Pixar's golden rule is "story first."
Facts of the Case
Having survived a life-altering ordeal, Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard, Ocean's Thirteen) has seen the damning dependence on Big Oil and developed Allinol, alternative fuel source of the future. Determined to ween his earthly brethren off their petroleum addiction and prove his invention's worth, Sir Miles sponsors a World Grand Prix, inviting the finest racing cars from across the globe to compete in a three continent race fueled only by Allinol. Back in Radiator Springs, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson, Midnight in Paris) has just completed his latest racing tour, declines Sir Miles' invite to compete and is ready for some much needed downtime with his friends. But when pompous Italian Formula 1 racer Francesco Bernoulli (John Tuturro, Transformers: Dark of the Moon) bad mouths Lightning on national TV, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy, Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy) steps up to defend his best friend and draws McQueen's team back onto the track.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, British Intelligence has tracked a dangerous new weapon to the evil Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann, Valkyrie). Operatives Finn McMissile (Michael Caine, The Dark Knight Rises) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer, Our Idiot Brother) are to rendezvous with an American agent to obtain critical information on the weapon and how it will be used. However, when the American is ambushed at the opening ceremonies of the World Grand Prix, he plants the information on Mater, thus spinning our reluctant hero off on a madcap adventure of international intrigue.
And that's exactly what Cars 2 is—a Mater spinoff. Unfortunately, as we experienced with Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, taking a character who works extremely well as part of an ensemble and forcing him to carry an entire film is a recipe for disaster.
As one of the few people on earth who adored John Lasseter's Cars, I walked into this experience dreading what might unfold…and my fears were quickly met. Taking a sweet message picture about discovering one's true self and turning it into an action-spy-comedy was a bad idea. The establishing action prologue works surprisingly well. It's what follows that's the problem.
John admits to having problems re-establishing a connection to these characters in Radiator Springs, and it shows. Save for a brief tribute to the late Paul Newman (who voiced Doc Hudson in the original film), these are some of the most uncomfortable moments in the picture. From here the action shifts to Tokyo, where we get the usual fish-out-of-water scenario, with Pixar animators adapting everything from Japanese game shows and sumo wrestling to Kabuki theatre and rabid fandom. As you might expect, most of the gags are Mater-centric, as his homespun backwater sensibilities are no match for the sophisticated world of international racing. However, if you can make it to the 50:00 minute mark, the spy story converges with the Radiator Springs gang and the film becomes far more interesting.
The heart and soul of Cars was relationships, and character development is what made it all work. The only emotional investment we have with Cars 2 is a forced friendship betrayal, as McQueen is continually embarrassed by Mater's inability to adapt to a world outside his own. Everything else in this picture is classic Hollywood spy tropes.
Don't get me wrong, the action sequences and the insane level of atmospheric detail are awesome. Had Lasseter and company chosen to make an espionage movie, I have no doubt audiences would have been falling all over themselves to see it. But shoehorning those sensibilities into this world just doesn't work, and it pains me to say it. The hundreds of people who invested their time and considerable talents in bringing Cars 2 to life will not get the recognition they deserve. From Tokyo to Italy to the UK, the world they establish is unlike anything we've seen in animated form. If nothing else, you need to see this movie just for its visuals.
Performance-wise it's a mixed bag, ranging from journeyman voice work of Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Owen Wilson, and Eddie Izzard to overblown cheese by John Tuturro and Larry the Cable Guy. I love Mater, in small doses. Here, it just gets to be too much. And Tuturro really needs to dial it back. From Transformers: Dark of the Moon to Cars 2, he's quickly becoming an AOC (actor out of control). Every other character is little more than a cameo.
Presented in eye-dazzling 2.39:1/1080p high definition, I dare you to find any flaws in these visuals. From the color palatte to the smallest detail, everything pops with a life all its own, which is a shame because this artistry deserves a much larger audience than what it will receive. The same holds true for the multiple audio mixes, championed by another robust DTS-HD 7.1 Master Audio track that will turn your living room into a living breathing movie set. Hell, Pixar does action better than most live-action studios, and it doesn't hurt to have Michael Giacchino composing your score.
Once again, I face palm myself in disbelief over Disney's decision to limit the lion's share of bonus material to their five-disc Cars 2 (3D Blu-ray) release. This 2-disc set is stripped of 10 featurettes totaling two hours worth of material, and the product strategy infuriates me. I hope to God that 3D goes the way of Disney's highly touted BD-Live functionality and we never hear from it again. But I digress…What we're left with is yet another brilliant audio commentary and two short films.
• Commentary—In all seriousness, Pixar presents the gold standard by which all audio commentaries should be judged. John Lasseter and his co-writer/director Brad Lewis offer a master class, with more behind-the-scenes information and filmmaking insight that most film studies programs. In fact, John talks so much that Brad has trouble getting a word in edge-wise.
• Hawaiian Vacation (6 min)—The Toy Story crew attempts to console Ken whose dream vacation with Barbie is dashed when they're left behind with the rest of the toys. But leave it to Buzz, Woody, and the gang to step up and make the best of a bad situation.
• Air Mater (5 min)—A trip to Propwash Junction, an entire town populated by planes, is the setup for yet another Mater "Tall Tale" and Pixar's next feature film Planes. Can you say "pandering"?
• DVD Copy—With standard def versions of these limited bonus features.
Note: I make it a rule not to discuss unrelated studio trailers as part of my reviews, as they're nothing more than commercials. However, the trailer Disney included for Lady and the Tramp (Blu-ray) used some smarmy pop love song that's so unlike the film I couldn't help but get angry. Walt is going to be haunting whoever approved this mess.
For as presentationally arresting as Cars 2 is, I simply cannot stand behind its uninspired storytelling. What's worse, Lasseter and company take the opportunity to expand this world into planes, trains, and boats, which means there will be many more of these films to come. My love for Cars will not waiver, but I doubt I'll be revisiting this Pixar sequel very often.
"Who put the anti-freeze in my carburetor? Yuck! Blech!" ((Insert Hanna-Barbera Speed Buggy sound effect here))
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