Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 25, 2011)
All good things come to an end, and with Cars 2, Pixar’s 15-year streak as The Perfect Movie Studio finished. From 1995 to 2010, they produced 11 feature films, and each one earned praise from critics and big bucks from audiences.
All of that changed with 2011’s Cars 2. At the box office, it raked in $190 million, which seems like a good total but falls short of expectations. For one, it didn’t equal the movie’s $200 million budget, and in addition, it became the second-lowest total ever made by a Pixar flick. Only 1998’s A Bug's Life made less, though if we adjust for inflation, it was a bigger hit than Cars 2.
We need no adjustments to see how poorly Cars 2 fared with critics. If you look at Rotten Tomatoes, only one earlier Pixar movie scored less than 90 percent: the original 2006 Cars got a 74 percent. That’s still a good number, and it looked terrific compared to the dismal 38 percent received by Cars 2. A 38 percent on RT isn’t just weak when compared to the other Pixar flicks; it’s plain and simple bad.
I’d love to be able to say that the critics were wrong, and I do feel that way to a degree – it’s too good to be a 38 percent RT movie. Unfortunately, “to a degree” is as far as I can go. While it delivers some fun, I can’t deny that Cars 2 offers one of Pixar’s less engaging flicks.
In a prologue, we meet Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine), a British spy car. He gets a message from fellow secret agent Leland Turbo (Jason Isaacs) that sends McMissile to an obscure ocean location packed with oil derricks. There he observes evil Professor Zündapp (Thomas Kretschmann) – and the crushed remains of Turbo – before the baddies notice him. McMissile manages to escape this peril and ends up in Japan to get vital information from an American agent.
In the meantime, millionaire businessman Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard) launches a new series of races called the World Grand Prix as a showcase for “Allinol”, a new – and allegedly superior – alternate fuel he invented. Stock car hotshot Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) initially resists calls for his participation, but he can’t stay away after he endures taunts from Formula racer Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro) so he enters.
McQueen’s tow truck best pal Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) craves some “buddy time”, so Lightning brings him along to Japan for the first contest. There the various threads intersect, as a case of mistaken identity leads Mater into contact with secret agent Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). She believes he’s the American with whom Finn needs to contact – and unbeknownst to Mater, she’s right, as the real agent (Bruce Campbell) slips the info to the tow truck before Zündapp’s men capture him. All of this leads Mater on an adventure as he becomes a de facto secret agent.
I know the original Cars gets a lot of criticism, but I didn’t agree. I thought it was a blast when I saw it theatrically, and while I’ll admit it hasn’t played as well on subsequent viewings, it still delivers a good, fun ride.
As for Cars 2? Shrug. That’s essentially the reaction the film provokes in me: one of mild entertainment but not much more.
Perhaps I’m too hard on the flick because I expect so much from Pixar. As I alluded earlier, I think that was true of a lot of the movie’s critics: the studio’s had such an amazing run of quality that the shock of a “lesser film” like this makes it seem crummier than it is.
Make no mistake: Cars 2 isn’t a crummy flick. It’s not something I’d view as bad in any particular way, and like I said, that 38 percent on Rotten Tomatoes is an overreaction.
On the other hand, I can’t do much to defend Cars 2 as especially good. Some of its problems come from its choice of leading vehicle. When a movie elevates a sidekick to lead role status, it takes a real risk. Most of those “buddy parts” work great in their supporting capacities, but when forced to carry a film, their one-note personalities limit their ability to come to the fore.
That’s a definite issue here as the movie tries to take the first flick’s “comic relief” character and focus on him. It’s not a choice that genuinely flops, but I don’t think it works, either. Mater is fun in small doses but not a character who remains enchanting across 106 minutes. I admit that he never becomes as grating as I’d feared, but he also fails to take charge of the movie in the manner necessary.
I suspect that’s why the filmmakers ended up with problem number two: an excessively busy movie. Cars 2 comes with an awfully complicated plot – or 12 – and never integrates them in a terrible coherent manner. The film focuses on the spy story, but it throws in Mater’s character arc, the World Grand Prix, and a few other areas along the way.
Most of it adds up to little, and the attempts at fun aren’t enough to excuse the messy storytelling. The complications seem especially problematic given the film’s target audience. While all Pixar flicks work for kids, the Cars flicks appeal to an especially young crowd. Maybe the movie delivers enough flash and pizzazz to ensure they don’t get lost in the morass of a plot, but I suspect much confusion will greet the kiddies. Crud, I’m an adult of (theoretically) decent intelligence, and I thought it was hard to understand this sucker!
All of these complaints aside, I do think Cars 2 offers a reasonably enjoyable movie. It’s fun to see the Cars versions of the different international locations, and even with the messy plot, the flick cranks along at a good clip. We get the usual solid voice cast, and all provide nice work.
The film does remain a disappointment, though. Cars 2 gives us reasonable entertainment across its 106 minutes, and it never threatens to disenchant us. However, “perfectly okay” seems like faint praise for a Pixar flick; this is an enjoyable flick but not up to the studio’s standards.