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Cars 2 might very well be the first Pixar film that's a complete Disney marketing construction, made to sell more bedsheets, toys, coloring books and the eventual Cars-themed part of Disneyland. While I found the first film the weakest of Pixar's offerings to date, it still had novelty, fun character design and a couple of heartfelt moments. Cars 2 feels like the next day's warmed over leftovers; you're going to eat it but only because there's not much else in the fridge, or you're just too lazy to cook up something new.
(Yeah, I know, I'm making a food analogy about a movie that has talking cars in it, but what else can I do?)
The problem isn't that Cars 2 drifts away from having Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) as its central character, this time making Mater the Tow Truck (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) the most important talking vehicle. Actually, that part was a good idea because the character development in the first Cars is kept intact for the sequel. For instance, after learning that there's more to living than just winning in the first movie, Lightning doesn't regress back to being a shallow race car. He's still got his girlfriend Sally (voiced by the returning Bonnie Hunt) and he's still living in Radiator Springs. He's also still winning Piston Cups, so the story has slowing advanced between Cars number one and Cars 2. The sequel's biggest problem is with Mater's character arc, or lack of one.
Up to now Pixar hasn't been shy to tackle harder concepts for their stories. Marlin, Nemo's Dad, learned how to let go of his fear for not being their for his son all the time. Andy had to learn to let go of his toys in order to grow up and experience new things, and in the process, Woody and Buzz found a new home and reason to live. Pixar has been able to make brilliant mainstream animated movies that do follow a story formula but at least take it a step further.
The thing that's loveable about Mater is also his most aggravating quality: he's stupid and he doesn't want to learn to be smarter. He's happy living his life in Radiator Springs, spending the summers goofing off with his best friend Lightning. That's fine, but when Mater gets asked to go on the World Grand Prix and become a part of Lightning's pit crew, the simple fact is Mater shouldn't be there. That point is made abundantly clear in Cars 2 when the hero race car tells his goofy best buddy to get lost. Mater does, and off he goes off to become a secret agent by mistake. In true stereotypical fashion, Mater's idiotic way of looking at the world and mistakenly believing that he's taking affirmative action when he's in way over his head is seen by the veteran secret agent British sports car Finn McMissile (Michael Caine, of course) as being a brilliant cover act. Little kids won't care about this plot mechanization and older parents likely won't either. I'd forgive it if Mater actually learned something of note, but throughout Cars 2 and right up to its end, he doesn't get that he's still the problem.
The guys that put together the story for Cars 2 (director John Lasseter, Brad Lewis, Dan Fogelman and screenwriter Ben Queen) don't allow Mater to grow or change because then Disney would lose the most loved character in this extremely profitable franchise. Instead, Lightning is the one that has to change -- which makes no sense since it's Mater that's screwed things up for him.
And that is the most telling part of Cars 2 that shows it has been created purely to sell merch. While Cars wasn't Pixar's highest grossing movie, it has been one of Disney's most profitable franchises for product. How much? Try imagining what $2 billion dollars looks like in bills, and then realize that's what Cars-themed merchandise makes for Disney every year. Since 2006. Now you see why Cars 2 is here, and why there's a whole slew of new car/boat/airplane/submarine characters being introduced, as well as why this movie's story is beholden to the moronic comedic antics of Mater. The corporate owners of Cars 2 just can't afford to let Mater develop his IQ.
There was an opportunity here for Pixar to make a statement about not having to be the smartest guy in the room to be the happiest guy, and it drifts by like a passing puff of smoke from a vehicle engine. The jokes aren't even that clever in Cars 2, but there is plenty more action for the kids to dig. And strangely enough, there's also the first Pixar character to be tortured to death in Cars 2. How that gets in there when the screenplay is as pedestrian as it is, you tell me.
I know this movie is going to sell a lot of product and I'm cool with the business concept. Really, I don't have a problem with Disney selling its toys. The issue I have is that Cars 2 is with Pixar and the higher quality of storytelling that I expect from them. Cars 2 is on autopilot, satisfied with showing as many colors and characters as humanly possible before the credits roll. When judged by other non-Pixar 'toon films it's not a terrible movie; when stacked against Finding Nemo, the Toy Story trilogy, The Incredibles and Monsters Inc., you can smell the exhaust coming from Cars 2. I'll give Pixar credit for maintaining the continuity between the first and second movies, and acknowledging the passing of Paul Newman and his Doc Hudson character, but there's not much else to be found for depth in this sequel's framework.
The Toy Story short that runs in front of Cars 2? Wonderful. I only wish there was more of that magic in the feature film that followed.
Review Score: 44 / 100