Well, that was atrocious.
Cars was never a franchise I truly cared for: the first film’s plot felt oddly cliched for a Pixar film, filled with largely unlikeable characters, and now the second film is filled with so many strange design decisions as to become nearly unwatchable.
Someone at Pixar apparently must have thought that weaving an uncreative “just-be-yourself” message into the framework of a James Bond spy thriller would make for a good family film, and that is how our movie plays out. Secret agent Finn McMissile receives a video message from fellow agent Leland Turbo, who is promptly compacted into a cube–think of the trash cubes from WALL-E–by means of crushing. (The actual crushing is not shown. Its results are.) After sneaking onto an oil platform to uncover the schemes of a weapons designer, McMissile is quickly discovered by a number of henchmen and is forced to make his escape.
Then the gunfire begins, and many cars blow up. Welcome to Cars 2.
Cars 2’s violent approach to storytelling is its own undoing, as the movie (usually) exercises enough restraint to keep the action from becoming too intense or brutal for younger viewers, and yet the film has no problem at all with showing off stacks of machine guns and missiles whose destructive power really can’t be showcased in a film like this. Cars 2 is a family film that often seems as though it doesn’t want to be: bullets usually hit only tires; most deaths are offscreen, including the aforementioned explosion; and missiles are shown off but are seldom used. That being stated, this is still a movie that deals in outright death much more strongly than any Pixar film I can remember, including The Incredibles, which seems completely inappropriate for the target demographic.
After McMissile flees the oil platform, the story returns to two of the main characters from the first Cars film, the self-confident racing car Lightning McQueen and the kindhearted yet clumsy tow truck Tow Mater, the latter of whom is again voiced by Larry the Cable Guy. After McQueen and Mater have a happy yet somewhat awkward reunion, punctuated with irresponsible behavior (tipping over a dump truck), it doesn’t take long for McQueen to ditch Mater to go on a dinner date with the former’s girlfriend, Sally. As one of the very few sympathetic characters in the series, Mater understandably feels left out, a theme that echoes throughout the whole film.
A series of events sees McQueen being entered into the World Grand Prix, a racing series sponsored by an ex-oil tycoon as a means of promoting an alternative fuel source called Allinol. “BIG OIL IS EVIL” is one of the underlying messages of the film and could hardly be any less subtle; viewers who thought WALL-E was in any way environmentally preachy (I really did not) likely won’t be able to stand this.
The grand prix has many participants but few personalities, as the convoluted story rarely takes time to develop any of the numerous characters who have been established. What little character development there is, feels awkward and forced: Italian racer Francesco Bernoulli has a heavy Italian accent and is painted with the colors of the Italian flag. (Lightning McQueen isn’t painted with American-flag colors to show he’s from America, is he?) The racer’s later “character revelation” feels so out of place that I honestly don’t remember if it was meant seriously or as a joke. Tow Mater ends up in an awkward-to-watch relationship with another secret agent named Holley Shiftwell, who at least contributes a great deal of technical expertise as the story of international espionage unfolds. Few of the returning characters from the first Cars film, including Sally, receive much of any additional development or narrative use.
The spy story unfolds, none too cleanly and without charismatic main personalities, alongside the alternate plot of McQueen attempting to win the various races of the World Grand Prix, but his and his main rival’s personalities are so self-absorbed and unsportsmanlike as to make rooting for either to win the race difficult. Even McQueen’s defense of Tow Mater against racer Bernoulli’s insults feels awkward when it morphs into simple taunting.
The first of these races occurs in Tokyo, which is established as a colorful yet somewhat bland location, as the various signs feel somewhat copied and pasted from one another. I preferred the similar settings that WALL-E had. A series of several events unfolds at breakneck pace: The development of Tow Mater takes a turn for the worse, as he lacks any sort of social graces and quickly makes a fool of himself. (In another scene, the sound of rapid Japanese speech, or Mater’s lack of comprehension, apparently makes for acceptable joke material.) As the plots alternate quickly between the grand prix and the spy story, we watch a macabre fight scene where several cars ram repeatedly into each other in a bathroom. Shortly thereafter, another secret agent plants his gathered information regarding the sabotage plot on Tow Mater, immediately before the agent is captured and tortured to death in a rather disturbing sequence. (There’s no screaming or begging for one’s life here; still, the concept of a car being destroyed by having its Allinol fuel source detonated by a magnetic pulse is more than a little bizarre to watch.)
After Tow Mater’s antics ruin Lightning McQueen’s interview, McQueen, who wasn’t much of a likeable personality to start with, quickly ditches Mater yet again, making the latter more depressed than ever. That being stated, even though McQueen’s excessively harsh treatment of his “best friend” Mater is uncalled for, Mater does need to learn the disruptive and sometimes destructive consequences of his actions, a lesson largely ignored by a movie that’s too busy validating his behavior with a “be-yourself” message that feels far too blindly accepting and undiscerning, given that the movie contains plenty of visual examples of why it sometimes is good and necessary that we as individuals change who we are and how we behave for the benefit of ourselves and others. (This stubborn, sentimental refusal to change, for the simple sake of refusing to change, nearly compromises the spy plot as well, in ways I won’t spoil.)
One of the most intensely disturbing sequences in the film, to the point of being upsetting and depressing, comes as Tow Mater eventually does feel remorse over his lighthearted yet irresponsible antics and is forced to face an emotionally brutal montage of characters demeaning him as stupid and burdensome because of his actions.
Though the storytelling largely doesn’t improve as the races and the espionage plots unfold–there’s little room for the sorts of inventive solutions to inventive problems that characterize Pixar films in my mind–the art is truly the highlight of the film. Paris is quite lovely (sadly I noticed no Ratatouille references), and so is Italy. Neither of those locations ever feels self-indulgent in being showcased, and both provide spots of beauty that stand apart from the ambitious but disappointing plot.
As for other material that parents may consider objectionable, the various cars drink what strongly resembles alcohol, though it’s never referred as such by name. (One character proposes a toast, however.) Other dialogue lines seem laced with innuendo (“I give you good head-LIGHTS!” cries one character who frankly evokes images of a prostitute in a Paris back alley).
One of the main plot points of the movie is that the “big oil” villains not only endorse continued use of gasoline but altogether work to sabotage faith in alternative energy so as to capitalize on their enormous oil reserves. I can’t think of any “big oil” company so irresponsible and short-sighted. It definitely can’t be BP.
Ultimately I’m honestly not sure what to praise about Cars 2. It does have lovely art at times, but lovely art can’t make up for a plot that’s too complex and violent for its target audience, jokes that often fall flat (“ladies and gentlecars!”), unlikeable and underdeveloped characters, and a blunt message that feels divided against itself, as the main vice seems to be unhindered greed, not any sort of oil-related pollution or environmental damage. I can’t recommend the film to older viewers, even as a rental, and I can’t recommend the film for younger viewers at all.