Human After All
The sentiment around Cars 2 being echoed by most movie critics is that Pixar's winning streak appears to be broken, and for the most part that's true. The animation studio's last streak lasted about four movies -- movies with grand themes, a mastery at tapping emotions, and perfection in presentation and execution. Yet with each successive film, I never conformed to expecting the next one would be every bit as great as the last. Instead, I maintained a sense of awe because I know these achievements aren't easy, even when a company makes them look so easy. All streaks come to an end, though, and that Cars 2 is not great Pixar, but a passably entertaining Pixar, comes as no shock to me at all -- it had to happen sooner or later.
And, truthfully, one could see this coming. I mentioned their last streak lasted about four films -- and the first Cars was five films ago. To me, that was the last non-great Pixar movie, yet there was plenty to admire about it, particularly in form, if not necessarily in content. Since Cars 2 is a sequel to a non-great Pixar movie, it would be astonishing if it surpassed the original. It does not, though, and for a variety of reasons. Like its predecessor, the new movie adopts a simple storyline with a simple moral. The first Cars basically boiled down to "stop and smell the roses, winning isn't everything." Cars 2 is automatically handicapped, however, because it boils down to "be yourself, even if it may take time for others to appreciate who you are." The first moral involved changing one's character and maturing. The second expects you to stay the same and hope others come around -- a much less challenging proposition.
Cars 2 applies this lesson to Mater the tow truck (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) this time around, as he becomes the protagonist in place of Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson). The plot is a loving parody of secret agent stories, with the dusty device of the redneck Mater being mistaken for a spy, and having him mostly luck through various dangerous situations. One's mileage with this movie depends a lot on how one reacts to the character of Mater in general -- I myself do not possess much love for the character, but neither does he irritate me. If the idea was to show that no matter how idiotic he is, his goodheartedness comes through, then I would consider the movie's portrayal of this a success.
The rest of the movie comes across as eye candy, for the visuals, which were the strongest part of Cars, impress every much as they had before, with a boost from "location" work -- the locales here, which are mostly the famous foreign cities of Tokyo, Paris, Rome, and London, are rendered with wonderful attention to environmental detail. It's clear the movie is meant to be an exercise in creating a travelogue; recreating exotic locations has always been a fun and challenging goal for animators. Cars 2 also spares some room for an acknowledgment of energy concerns and plenty of car talk for the car buffs (for instance, the plot has much to do with famous clunker models trying to exact revenge for becoming the jokes of car history).
So no, Cars 2 isn't another pearl from Pixar, but it's entertaining and well-made. Outside of a concern that it's somewhat more violent than their usual fare (the spy theme lends itself to a few captures and kills, with firing weapons and explosions), I think the movie stands up fine as a lighter offering. Had another studio produced it, the film might be seen as a better effort. I suppose it's dangerous for Pixar to set the bar so high for itself, but I feel it's reasonable to accept that they might crank out the occasional non-stellar work. It's interesting to see that their movies about sentient cars prove they're human after all.
(Released by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and rated "G" for general audiences.)
Review also posted at www.windowtothemovies.com.