Monday, July 18, 2011

CARS 2: Can Lightning Strike Twice?

CARS 2 Review:

- It's funny, talk to some people, and they'll tell you that the first CARS movie was one of the weaker Pixar movies - a decent, well-animated movie, but not on par with the best of the best Pixar flicks - the likes of Wall-E, Toy Story, and The Incredibles. But for me, CARS still stands among my favorite Pixar films. I loved the animation and the characters, but I also really liked the movie for its evocation of a certain flavor of Americana - that Walt Disney-esque version of the American Dream. The anthropomorphic cars in the film lived in this mythical version of 1950's America - a land of great hope and dreams, of shiny chrome and new frontiers. I loved the world and the themes of Cars, and so personally, I was excited to revisit it again with a sequel. Now, as hard as some Pixar fans have been on CARS, some fans and critics have been even harder on CARS 2. To some extent, I get it. Pixar doesn't typically do sequels, and when they do, it's usually only in special cases - telling the sprawling, surprisingly epic Toy Story saga, for instance. On the surface, Cars 2 felt a little like one of those old direct-to-video Disney cash-in sequels - it felt like it might have a little less purpose, a little less depth than the first film. The trailers made it seem lighter, less essential.

And to some extent, that's true. Cars 2 is a much lighter, bouncier affair than Cars 1. Where the first film covered BIG themes and ideas, the second one is, essentially, a Cars-ified version of a 60's spy movie - a James Bond take-off with cars. So no, there's not as much meat here as with other Pixar flicks, but that doesn't mean that the movie isn't still super entertaining. There's still a lot to like in Cars 2.

For one thing, the animation is as good as anything Pixar has yet produced, and some of the scenes just bleed off the screen, popping with color and vibrancy. The plot of the movie takes our old pal Lightning McQueen on an international adventure, so the movie really gets to show off with a variety of exotic settings and locales. Where the first movie was all about the American west - Americana - this one is all about the rest of the world. So Radiator Springs makes a brief appearance, but we also visit places like Japan and Italy. The Japan scenes in particular are pretty stunning, with gleaming neon cityscapes and a hyper-cute, anime aesthetic that is awesome to behold. I am also just continually amazed at the amount of expression and emotion that Pixar's animators get from characters who take the shape of cars. I know some critics can't help but fixate on the "why" of how this world of all cars and no people came to be, but to me, the world is so fully-realized and brought to life with such gorgeous detail that you just accept it as is. Okay, so one reference in the movie to dinosaurs is certainly a headscratcher (whaaaat?!), but 99% of the time, you just accept this strange, stylized world and soak in the exquisitely-rendered characters and scenery.

The voicework in the series also continues to be top-notch. There's no one standout performance like the late, great Paul Newman's in the original Cars, but there are, nonetheless, a number of excellent voice-actors in this one. Owen Wilson is back in top-form as Lightning, and he's joined by a top-notch supporting cast. Michael Caine as a veteran secret agent? Yes please. Emily Mortimer is also really good as his enterprising assistant. Eddie Izzard is great as the villain. And you've even got greats like John Turturro and Joe Mantegna in the mix as well.

However, all this leads to the Larry the Cable Guy issue, aka the elephant in the room. Look, I think Larry did a great job in the first Cars, and he continues to do a nice job here as the redneck tow-truck of average-intelligence, 'Mater. But Mater was great in Cars 1 as a supporting character, and the fact is there's only so much Mater, and so much of Larry the Cable Guy, that one can take before he gets a tad bit annoying. Cars 2 makes the mistake of putting Mater front and center, and it's a classic case of giving the sidekick too much to do and this disrupting the delicate balance of character dynamics in the series. Because Mater is so heavily-featured, Lightning gets the short shrift, and some of the better-loved supporting characters from the first film all but disappear into the background. In any case, I think there's just a fundamental structural problem here in that the movie shouldn't have kept Lightning so separate from Mater while the latter gets up to his ears in international espionage. It would have been nice to see the old friends team up in the movie's third act. Instead, it's the Mater show, and like I said, there's only so many of Larry the Cable Guy's shenanigans you can take without rolling your eyes a bit.

All that said ... man, those Pixar guys are clever. Somehow, in the midst of Lightning competing in an international racing competition, and Mater getting unwittingly caught up in a whole, big-action espionage thing, the movie sneaks in a.) a well-done, mostly heartwarming message about friendship, and b.) a surprisingly biting commentary on how big oil is holding back the proliferatin of alternative fuels. The first plot element is pretty expected - as Lightning travels the world and becomes a bigger deal, he becomes increasingly embarassed by Mater and his uncultured ways. Eventually though, Lightning has to learn how to accept his friend for who he is - big hugs all around, aww shucks moments by the bucketful, etc. etc. That part of the story can be a bit obvious at times, sure, but mostly, Pixar does this sort of thing with a subtlety, sophistication, and wit far beyond most kid-friendly flicks. The second plot element snuck up on me a bit, and I think that was the intention. I was ultimately sort of shocked that a movie this light and bouncy on the surface had such a cutting message about green energy and big business. It's an element of the movie that's more in the background until the end, but still ... ballsy by Pixar - I like it. And, at the end of the day, you realize that Cars 2 has a bit more depth than initially meets the eye.

Overall, I do agree with the critical consensus that Cars 2 is a shade below the best Pixar efforts. It just feels a little too goofy, a little too "cartoony" (as odd as that is to say about an animated movie) - and less substantial and meaty as compared to other Pixar films, in particular Cars 1. But, I also think that many critics overreacted - hugely - in calling this one a failure or by grading it uncessarilly harshly (though I will say, Dreamworks still remains the animation kind of 2011 thanks to the awesome Kung Fu Panda 2). But CARS 2 is still a supremely entertaining movie - filled with eye-meltingly awesome animation, great action, and functioning as a fun riff on 60's spy-movies. Not a classic, but still a really well done movie that continues Pixar's track record of quality.

My Grade: B+

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