If ever a movie studio could be deemed a national treasure, then Pixar is it—the undeniable heir to Disney's halo of beloved pop-culture profiteering. Since introducing the digitally animated feature film in 1995 with Toy Story, John Lasseter and company have created some of the most memorable characters and stories in family cinema (or maybe just cinema), combining them with superlative design and lively animation. For such wonderful entertainment (and for re-energizing an entire industry), we can't help but root for the studio, hoping they'll continue their run of critical and commercial hits. They truly deserve every nickel off of every Buzz Lightyear action figure ever sold.
But, geez, Cars 2 is dull stuff.
It's the kind of sequel that a lesser studio (much lesser, in the case of DreamWorks) would stamp out to please its investors rather than its audience. Technically proficient with its highly detailed settings and carefully rendered characters, Cars 2 nevertheless lacks the storytelling prowess that has been Pixar's true ace in the hole—it's entirely lacking in the emotional resonance of its predecessors. Worse, it was directed (via iPad, no less) by the chief creative officer of Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Animation Studios, and Disney Toon Studios himself, Lasseter. How could this be?
Well, I don't think it's merely the result of outright greed, which is usually the case for massively hyped sequels. Granted, the original Cars has generated some $10 billion in retail sales since its 2006 release, and its sequel has already sent 300 different tie-in products to assembly lines, but Pixar and Lasseter have always aimed higher, making a good story their first goal. I believe the real problem here is one of hubris—they genuinely thought they were doing something great, because, well, that's what they always do. But Cars 2 is just a retread.
The warning signs come early enough. First, there's the improbable genre mashup, the first resort of hack screenwriters who don't know what to do next. Stymied by how to revisit the same ol' characters? Change the scenery. Put them in A.) a science-fiction story (spaceships!), B.) a horror story (haunted mansions!), or C.) a race (cars! oh, wait...). In this case, our cast of sentient automobiles has been injected into a James Bond-style spy caper. Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is lured into competing at the World Grand Prix in order to demonstrate the reliability of a new alternative fuel developed by former oil tycoon Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard). However, at their first stop in Tokyo, country bumpkin sidekick Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) is mistaken for an American secret agent by British spy car Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), who is trying to uncover a conspiracy involving evil scientist Professor Zündapp (Thomas Kretschmann). Let the hilarity commence!
Therein lie the second and third warning signs of scriptwriter desperation: A plot so improbable that you can't believe it and a story so convoluted that you can't follow it. So McMissile's an international spy so savvy that he's voiced by Caine, yet he staunchly believes the dorky Mater is a master of disguise, despite his constant protests of just being a tow truck from Radiator Springs? Really? And the central conspiracy is actually part of yet another, even bigger conspiracy that makes even less sense? Huh? By the end of Cars 2, much of its intended audience of children will be confused or bored. (Verified review by one 5-year-old boy immediately after seeing it: "Eh. I don't know.")
Finally, you must ask yourself: Can you stand Mater enough to watch an entire movie that's mostly about his doofiness? I'm sure Lasseter felt that in Mater he has an everyman we can all relate to, a hero who could express the reliable Pixar themes of overcoming adversity with the help of your friends. But the emotional underpinnings that Pixar is so good at designing into their stories seem retrofitted here. One can only imagine the script meeting: "Well, okay, we've made Mater an action-hero spy. How is that meaningful?" "I know! Let's have him be doubtful about his abilities as a spy!" "We can add a speech about how important it is to believe in yourself, even if you've never defeated a master villain before in your life..." "Done!"
Despite all that, Cars 2 still displays some classic Pixar smarts. Lasseter clearly loves cars, and the world he has fashioned for his car characters is resoundingly complete, from the bizarre Japanese car restroooms to the cargoyles crowning Notre Dame. Each car model used in the movie reflects its "character" as we know it in the real world. The fact that the evil minions of the movie's not-so-mysterious villain are composed mostly of AMC Pacers and Gremlins is a hoot. And the final tip-off to the villain's true identity at film's end is a clue that only a car fanatic can truly appreciate.
In the end, Cars 2 is still a few notches better than most of its competitors in the digital animation realm. But rival studios (yes, even DreamWorks) have finally been getting it right, with movies that are no longer just imitations of the Pixar formula, but great films in their own right: How to Train Your Dragon, Megamind, Despicable Me, and more recently Kung Fu Panda 2. With the news that Pixar is busy at work on a Monsters Inc. sequel, we can only hope they learned a few lessons from Cars 2.