Screen Rant’s Ben Kendrick reviews Cars 2

It’s been five years since the original Cars film debuted in theaters – and now director John Lasseter is back (with help from co-director Brad Lewis) for a second lap with Cars 2. The original Cars film was a commercial success and an enormous franchise-building hit with younger audiences; however, reaction from non-parents was (for the most part) mixed – especially for a Pixar film. While the anthropomorphic Cars may have captivated children, in terms of story (and merchandising), the film was pretty limited – and featured some of the most one-note or least-likable Pixar characters to date.

Despite the mixed reaction from older moviegoers, there’s no doubt that Cars is one of the more popular Pixar brands when it comes to children, so it wasn’t surprising when Cars 2 was announced back in 2008. The film was slated with a summer 2012 release date – and then bumped forward without an explanation. To combat the criticisms of its predecessor, Lasseter and Lewis made sure that Cars 2 would offer-up a larger adventure – not to mention one that would appeal to a wider audience beyond children and racing fans.

Unfortunately, despite some decent additions to the cast and a slightly more interesting central plot, Cars 2 still leans on a number of problems established in the first film – specifically the series’ leading men, Lightning McQueen and Mater (Owen Wilson and Larry the Cable Guy, respectively). Sure, the film is designed for kids, but with a growing number of Pixar films that feature mature subject matter (the opening scene in UP) as well as sophisticated characters (Wall-E), the slapstick humor, shallow relationships, and flat-out bizarre thematic take-aways in Cars 2 seem like a significant step backward for Pixar. Though, given the unparalleled success of the studio, a step backward means that instead of a great film, Cars 2 is just a mediocre film.

If you’re unfamiliar with the basic premise of the Cars sequel, the story focuses on the continued odd-ball paring of “best friends” Lightning McQueen and Mater the tow truck, as McQueen enters the World Grand Prix (a series of races sponsored by the creator of a new alternative fuel). Following the events of the first film, McQueen has become the premiere racecar in the world, which has put stress on him and Mater’s relationship, since Mater isn’t as refined as many of McQueen’s friends in the industry. When Mater’s hijinks cause McQueen to lose an important race in Tokyo, the tow truck decides to return home to Radiator Springs. However, before he can board a flight back to the states, Mater is mistaken for a CIA agent in deep cover, and is subsequently swept-up in an international tale of espionage and mystery that not only threatens the immediate Grand Prix racers – but the fate of every single Car in existence.

Larry the Cable Guy takes center stage as Mater in 'Cars 2'

The Cars 2 story somewhat shifts protagonist duties to Mater this round – with Lightning McQueen serving in a supporting role and nearly every other returning Cars character sitting in the pits: i.e. Sally, Ramon, Flo, Mack, etc. Shoving all the prior characters aside leaves very little room for McQueen to do anything but react to Mater – despite the sense that the larger story arc of the film expects the two to be on equal footing. Cars 2 is partly about the evolving relationship between the central characters; unfortunately, the film does very little to make McQueen a particularly likable character (a problem that carries-over from the first installment) and is only compounded by a heavy thematic focus on the ups and downs of “best friendship” – even though McQueen seems to only tolerate Mater (not actually enjoy his company).

At the same time, it’s hard to fault McQueen: Mater is an obnoxious and out-of-control character ninety-percent of the time, making it difficult to reconcile the film’s other take away message: be yourself. Of course children, who are under constant pressure to fit-in, should be encouraged to embrace their passions and sense of self – regardless of how others might see them. However, it’s hard to connect this mantra with Mater, who spends most of his time acting out: tipping cows, disrupting other cars, and failing to listen to the instructions and/or needs of others. Admittedly, Mater’s slapstick hijinks will be a hit with kids; however, given Pixar’s ability to create films that also convey mature themes to older audience members, it’s hard to not be disappointed by the lack of evolution and depth in the main Cars characters.

Aside from a convoluted lesson about “Big Oil” (no matter which side of the issue you champion), Lasseter brings in a number of fresh grills and improved story ideas that make the film a bit more enjoyable for anyone who isn’t sold on the McQueen/Mater combo. John Turturro is great as McQueen’s World Grand Prix rival, Francesco Bernoulli, adding a little fun and heart to the less-engaging race storyline. While the relationship between Mater and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) is forced, even for a CGI cartoon, at least the character has more to offer the film than McQueen’s love interest, Sally, had in Cars (and subsequently Cars 2).

Michael Caine brings British class to Finn McMissile in Cars 2

Additionally, Michael Caine voices one of Pixar’s most enjoyable (albeit flat) creations to date – British secret agent, Finn McMissile. Not only does the character (and subsequent story) mix-up the Cars franchise formula, but watching McMissile, as well as the evil Professor Zündapp (Thomas Kretschmann) and his henchmen, in action provide the film’s best moments. Pixar still manages to surprise with some creative set-pieces that showcase how an anthropomorphic car could easily hang with some of Hollywood’s best human secret agents.

This is Pixar, so the technical aspects of the film are, as always, extremely well done. Cinephiles looking for great, albeit cartoony, visuals will definitely walk away with some memorable impressions – note: the ocean water in the opening scene is especially impressive. Since the film is entirely computer animated, the implementation of 3D is competent compared to most 3D offerings – however, unlike UP, audience members wouldn’t be missing much if they decided to pass on the ticket upgrade and see Cars 2 in 2D instead.

In general, Cars 2 is pulled down by the shortcomings of the prior installment – and, at times, seems like two films of differing quality interwoven together. Sequences that feature McMissile are somewhat compelling – with exciting action and clever references to a number of famous spy films, whereas the more traditional racing story arcs seem forced into Cars 2 simply to present a familiar experience to fans of the original. As mentioned, fans of the first film will likely enjoy both the World Grand Prix as well as the international car of mystery plotlines – however, older moviegoers who felt as if Cars may not have been one of Pixar’s finer hours will be equally unenthusiastic about Cars 2.

If you’re still on the fence about Cars 2, check out the trailer below:

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Follow me on Twitter @ benkendrick — and let us know what you thought of the film below.

Cars 2 is now playing in 2D and 3D theaters.

Our Rating:

2.5 out of 5
(Fairly Good)