I’ve always been wary of the switch to computer animation from traditional animation. I guess I’m just too much of a sucker for The Lion King. But if anyone can persuade me otherwise, it’s the folks at Pixar. The majority of their movies – the Toy Story franchise, Up, Monsters Inc., and WALL-E – provide examples of expert animation and engaging plotlines. Even more, Pixar is able to avoid pitfalls such overwrought emotion and sticky-sweet life lessons that are common in most children’s movies. But with great success comes great pressure. We can’t expect every Pixar production to live up to the cinematic near-perfection of Toy Story or Up. So it’s alternately easy and difficult to criticize Cars 2 for being lackluster.

Picking up where the last Cars left off, the sequel finds the cherry red NASCAR champ, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), goaded into another race. This time he’s up against the world’s fastest cars in an international Grand Prix. But the speed demon McQueen is not the focus of Cars 2. Instead the movie’s attention is given to the incurably ignorant tow truck, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), who, in a case of mistaken identity, finds himself embroiled in espionage and intrigue a la James Bond involving a syndicate of lemons (not the fruit) and an alternative fuel source, Allinol. Along the way, we’re introduced to some new and somewhat interesting characters. There’s secret agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), former oil tycoon, Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard), and cocky formula one racer, Francesco Bernoulli (John Tuturro).

If you like Larry the Cable Guy’s brand of hick humor, or even if you don’t mind it, then Cars 2 will be entertaining enough. But if you’re like me and you have a hard time finding anything redeemable about fart-centric, butt-crackin’ Larry then the movie starts to get irritating, and embarrassing, very, very quickly. In my opinion, there’s nothing adorable or lovable about the clueless rust bucket. What’s worse is how Mater detracts from the other more interesting, and possibly more dynamic, characters. For instance, Owen Wilson’s McQueen exists only as a vehicle (pun intended) for the obligatory lessons about friendship and individuality, and it’s hard to believe that agents, McMissile and Shiftwell, can continue to excuse Mater’s idiocy as deep cover. As simple as this problem is, it’s clearly Cars 2’s biggest handicap.

However, nothing bad can be said about the visual fireworks of Cars 2. Per usual, Pixar leads the industry in eye-popping and original computer animation (even though every review suggest the 3-D was superfluous). Director John Lasseter is reported to be a big car fan, and as I am as well, a lot of the joy I drew from this movie came from picking out and identifying different makes of automobiles. I loved that the criminal element in Cars 2 was a cadre of disgruntled jalopies (Gremlins, Pacers, and Yugos). I took pleasure in the references to clutch plates and air-cooled Karmann Ghias, and I enjoyed the clever touches like mime cars in front of the Eiffel Tower and the renaming of Big Ben to Big Bentley. The scenery, too, was breathtaking ranging from Tokyo, London and especially a fictional town in the Italian Riviera.

All the details are painstakingly done and make for a beautiful study in modern animation, but one has to wonder: What’s the point? If so much time is spent gawking at the background with all its intricacies, what’s the value of the actual story? Nothing unfortunately. Cars 2 doesn’t offer much in this department. The film’s take on the spy genre is too little too late in the day (the hokey “spy theme” becomes redundant), and the vague political commentary (possibly a critique of fossil fuels) feels underutilized. All of this makes for a disappointing experience by Pixar standards; an unremarkable family romp.

But some of the things in Cars 2 that really bothered me, now in retrospect, seem dubious. I found myself a bit troubled by the scene in which one spy-car is tortured to death, and every time a car was crushed, maimed, dismembered or blown up I couldn’t help but draw parallels between the anthropomorphic automobiles and actual human beings. If these were real people, Cars 2 would be far from a family movie. It would be downright gruesome. Which isn’t to say Pixar doesn’t know how to deal with death. Toy Story proved that they can, but something is missing in Cars 2. Perhaps it’s because human counterparts are absent in Cars 2, so there’s no point of reference. Another thing that struck me as off-color was the ethnic typecasting of different cars. I know it’s silly, but casting Cheech Marin as a brightly painted low-rider seems a bit obvious, as does Tuturro trilling flamboyant Italian accent.

Blu-ray Special Features:

The special features on the DVD/Blu-ray release of Cars 2 include two charming shorts, “Hawaii Vacation” featuring the cast of Toy Story and “Air Mater,” as well as more conventional extras like commentary from director, Lasseter, and co-director, Brad Lewis. 3-D is also available on deluxe Blu-ray editions.

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