The now considered Cars franchise with the release of the cleverly titled Cars 2 joins rare company within the well accomplished Pixar studio. Along with Toy Story 2, the John Lasseter directed film goes from a single release, like majority of Pixar’s films to a franchise with a ton of opportunity to enhance and expand the universe of a human less world where cars do literally everything. After a 5-year gap between films, Cars 2 much like Toy Story 2 races in with a key advantage over an original idea – it’s a world that is easily recognizable with charismatic character’s and endless possibilities for what story can be told next.
Pixar once again delivers on their promise of pushing the boundaries of their groundbreaking CGI technology and how its applied to the animation medium. Cars 2 is the best the technology has to offer (Of course, that is said with each new film), locations are full of rich details, shiny character models and a color palette that is pleasing on the eyes. Smoother transitions between scenes and times of day along with a splash’s of cultural references and accuracies that only a heightened sense of detail can capture.
Returning to direct Cars 2 while simultaneously being his final Pixar film as a director is John Lasseter, who first debuted as a director with Toy Story. In his final directorial feature, Lasseter raises the stakes for the Cars universe, as is the hope for a sequel. Because of the expansion, Cars 2 trades its small-town Americana roots for an international globetrotting experience. Since sacrificing his guaranteed win at the piston cup in the previous film, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) has since won 4 titles. Lightning’s absences from Radiator Springs is felt by all but mostly by self-proclaimed best friend Mater (voiced by Daniel Whitney).
Lightning accepts a challenge from Francesco Bernoulli (voiced by John Turturro), an Italian speaking Formula 1 racing car to compete in the World Grand Prix, set up by a former oil tycoon turned electric car Sir Miles Axlerod (voiced by Eddie Izzard) on a Larry King stylized tv show. Leave it to Pixar to add would issues into their films that a younger viewer wouldn’t normally pick up on due to the flashy animation but will largely appeal to an older viewer and have the subtilties in the messaging stick its landing. With the addition of environmental awareness in seemingly every film, Ben Queen’s screenplay doesn’t make the implications too obvious or pronounced that it overshadows the narrative of the film.
Leave it to a gas guzzling Jeep to have a change of heart and become more environmentally conscious.
After the events of the first Cars revolving around racing and its main star Lightning McQueen, one would think the focus would be on the rivalry between Francesco and Lightning as they embark on a 3-country grand prix in Tokyo, Italy and in London. However, Lightning, the face of the franchise takes an uncomfortable back seat to Mater and the main plot. Opening the film, Cars 2 begins introducing a new character, a spy car, Fin McMissle (voiced by Michael Caine), molded and inspired by early James Bond on a mission infiltrating a secret meeting of a group of lemon cars. Aided by Holly Shiftwell (voiced by Emily Mortimer) (another clever James Bond esque name), Mater gets roped into an international criminal organization investigation.
Trading in the small connected and contained town of Radiator Springs and its inhabitants is an ambitious undertaking of establishing an entire world of talking cars. Not just cars but boats and planes are added to the mix. Because of that ambition, I found myself during the events of the film becoming disassociated with the newer characters. Ben Queen’s script suffers the most due to the shift change from Lightning to Mater in the spotlight and the addition of several key characters that have to be introduced and set up. There is just zero connection to new characters, and I even struggled to latch on to the returning ones.
Compared to previous co-lead characters Mater isn’t as strong as a Buzz Lightyear or a Dory or a Mike and Sully. Mater just exists as the comic relief.
Cars 2 is at the mercy of multiple overstuffed yet underdeveloped ideas, taking in outside inspiration that normally is handled with extreme caution and leaving more to be desired as a result. There’s a reason Lightning McQueen is the lead character in the first film and subsequently in the marketing for 2. Having Mater carry most of the narrative heft holds the film back in ways that makes the choice to build franchises out for other Pixar films questionable. Toy Story 2 worked so well as a sequel because it stayed true to its main characters and their development where Cars 2 fumbles over itself placing the emphasis on a social commentary.
Out of the now 12 total films, Cars 2 is the first one that doesn’t fully rev its tuned-up engines and takes the viewer on a fantastical ride. It’s a clunker, a lemon, a hooptie, and a jalopy but has some redeeming qualities buried deep within that make the ride worth holding on to. As an ensemble, the cast give their full commitment to this human less world where cars do literally everything and hold every title of power from sports announcers to talk show hosts to bartenders and government officials, replacing us down to the most menial tasks. Maybe it’s due to the empty calories and over the top ambition but even Lightning’s signature “Ka-Chow” lost its zest every time he says the catch-phrase – there’s no more gusto behind it.
Screenplay By: Ben Queen
Story By: John Lasseter, Brad Lewis & Dan Fogelman
Directed By: John Lasseter
Music By: Michael Giacchino
Cinematography: Jeremy Lasky & Sharon Calaham
Starring: Owen Wilson, Daniel Whitney, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, John Turturro, Eddie Izzard, Bonnie Hunt, Thomas Kretschmann, Joe Mantegna, Bruce Campbell
Where to Watch: Disney Plus
Edited By: Stephen Schaffer
Release Date: June 24, 2011
Running Time: 1 Hour 46 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 39%