[NOTE: This was originally published circa September 21, 2011]
Much as I remember being the case with this film's predecessor, cries of skepticism have followed the production of Cars 2, it's gotten its share of negative press since being released, and it's raking in a ton of cash despite the ire. From a marketing standpoint, there isn't even a real reason for reviews of this film to exist, but I like writing reviews and I like being a maverick, so I'll do it anyway.
I'll admit it, I'm a Cars apologist. Barstow, California is my hometown, so the first film's ode to Route 66 probably has a personal appeal to me, but even beyond that, I appreciate the film on an intellectual level. As marketable as the franchise has become due to America's love affair with the automobile, the first movie itself actually offered some good commentary on the negative effects of said love affair. Cars 2 continues the trend of being deeper than it might seem at first, even if the majority of its audience is too young to pick up on that.
In fact, let's start with the assumption that this is a kids' movie. In a way, Cars 2 is surprisingly dark. With all the obvious James Bond influence comes a slew of explosives and guns, as well as the somewhat uncomfortable revelation that yes; cars can die. One death is someone we didn't even know, but the first scene relevant to the first movie reveals that Doc Hudson, Lightning McQueen's mentor, has passed away just like his voice actor, Paul Newman. Since Fillmore, originally voiced by the late George Carlin, simply got a new voice actor, this seems an unnecessarily macabre place to take the plot, but the violent-for-a-kids'-movie action scenes are a blast, and tellingly what this movie has been marketed around. More on them later.
The story of Cars 2 moves quickly, but it manages to have some depth, and it helps that the film feels self-aware. If the first Cars was set in a booming, gung-ho America with little reason to complain, this film recognizes that three years later, things aren't as ignorantly-blissful. Oil shortages are hurting an economy based on oil, and people (and cars) are scrambling to find an alternative, despite the risks. Against this backdrop, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) talks his best friend Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) into entering the World Grand Prix. While bumbling around in Tokyo, however, Mater accidentally gets implicated in an international espionage caper related to the race, when he is mistaken for an American spy, and much of the film comes to center around his misadventures alongside two British spy-cars.
I get it; the accidental-spy scenario has been done before. I get it; Mater is an obnoxious simpleton. However, if anyone can make lemons into lemonade, it's Pixar, and fortunately they do. The general annoyance at Mater is acknowledged in the form of him getting a lot of come-uppance from other characters and being a Clousseau-like anti-hero. Nonetheless, the movie makes him a more well-rounded character, giving him unique areas of expertise that were previously unrevealed, yet make sense given his day job, and when the cards go down and he has to save the day despite everyone else's prejudice against him, he becomes easy to root for.
It's not like the plot will be what draws most people to this movie anyway, though; that job belongs to its excessive flair. Detractors have dismissed this film as an extended, glorified toy commercial that should be beneath Pixar, and I can get that logic, but then again, who has done more than Pixar to prove that toys can be charismatic? The first thing that practically all critics will have to grant is that Cars 2 looks great. Long after CGI has become so widespread that its mere presence no longer impresses anybody, Pixar still manages to wield it expertly, having created enormous, detailed replicas of Tokyo, Paris, an Italian village, and London, with plenty of subtle references to automobiles, but also plenty of resemblance to their real-world counterparts. Through these lush environments cavort the cars, sporting, and very often utilizing, an abundance of gizmos and firepower. The film utilizes a lot of action clichés, but it's impressive to see just how they work when performed by talking cars, and towards the end there's an increasing amount of thinking outside the box. Such thinking works perfectly to establish a fast-moving action climax, initially a staple of Pixar films, but becoming less of one from Finding Nemo onward, but that fine tradition is back in full force here, and I'm overjoyed.
Again, many will be quick to scream "toy commercial" at all this, and again, I don't care. I don't care because there's a REASON that some things make successful toys--because they're AWESOME! I'm usually a fan of eloquence, but let's not beat around the bush about this point. I don't care if I come across as a big, dumb ugly-American for saying this, especially to people enraged that Pixar made a film starring Larry the Cable Guy: Cars souped-up with machine guns, missiles, rocket boosters and other gizmos are crazy-awesome, especially the part about the guns. I can't stress how sick I've been getting of children's media replacing realistic weapons with dorky-looking rainbow-colored lasers fired from blasters that look like plastic toys. I loved that they restored real guns to Rango despite its target audience, and now I love that they did it here.
Besides, even dismissed as a toy commercial, things could be a lot worse. Cars 2 is many orders of magnitude better than Transformers 2, and that seems pretty impressive. How can you strap a bunch of tacky gadgets onto ordinary civilian automobiles, and use them to make a far better high-explosive action movie than Michael Bay was able to accomplish using robots built from the ground-up to do battle? Beats me, but they sure did.
Maybe Pixar should know better. Maybe making a big, dumb summer action flick is beneath them. In doing so, however, they have raised that flick far above what it would have been otherwise. I appreciate that Cars 2 manages to slip an admirable amount of character development into a premise that didn’t even demand it, and that’s now the icing on an already solid cake; a cake made of awesome, tricked-out cars. I don’t care how juvenile this praise is—some things are just cool.