In my review of Iron Man 2 last year, I commented on the tendency for sequels to up the ante by adding more explosions, more villains, more action, etc. In general, sequels add more of what worked in the first film. However, “worked” means different things to different people. To Disney, “worked” means “what was most marketable/financially successful”. What that word should really mean is “what most improved the film”. In that sense, Larry the Cable Guy did not “work” for Pixar’s Cars in 2006. Essentially, he was playing a cartoon version of himself, and since Larry the Cable Guy is annoying and unfunny, so was the character. Unfortunately, young children didn’t see him that way. Young children love fart jokes and silly accents, so they loved Mater. And they because of that, they bought millions of dollars of Cars merchandise. A sequel seemed inevitable, if it wasn’t for one thing: Pixar. Pixar seemed like an incorruptible studio, an organization that would always spring for quality before thinking about the box office. Cars was a film that did not need a sequel, so why make one? The obvious reason is money, and it’s okay to make a film as a cash grab as long as you actually make an attempt to make the film good. So I’m sorry to say that I no longer have the innate trust in Pixar that I once did. Because no matter what genius films they make in the future, they will always be the people that made the abomination that is Cars 2.
I walked into the theater with optimism. “It’s Pixar,” I thought, “It can’t possibly be that bad.” It was that bad. And then some. This was not only the worst film I’ve seen all year. This was the worst animated film that I’ve seen in a long, long time. And it makes me so sad to say that about a Pixar film, but it’s true. This is an atrocious film, meant only to entertain very young children. The only good thing I can say about it (besides the stellar animation) is that the five-year-olds in the theater kept quiet throughout the film. There was no shushing to be had.
Now, as you’ve probably gathered from the various advertisements, this film revolves around Mater getting tangled up with some spies who are on a secret mission. Now, at first, I didn’t have a problem with the whole “spy” angle. The opening scene of the film is actually a lot of fun. It feels a lot like the opening of a James Bond film, just with cars. This brings me to one of the biggest problems with the film. Why did this story have to take place in the Cars universe? If Pixar had just decided to make a spy movie, I’d be down for that. Heck, The Incredibles was pretty much a spy movie, and that’s one of my favorite films of all time. But there was no reason to make a spy movie as a sequel to Cars, or, for that matter, to make a sequel to Cars as a spy movie. The two entities are totally and completely different, they have nothing to do with each other. And while mixing them together ended up just barely holding together, it still felt really awkward and forced.
Anyway, after the cold open, we return to Radiator Springs, now a bustling tourist attraction thanks to Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson, barely in this movie). McQueen is just returning from some big race, which he won, and is going to take some time off back at his adopted home off of Route 66. The wide cast of colorful characters which populated this town get almost no screen time at all, a major misstep, mostly because this means that we have to spend that much more time with Mater. Mater sees an Italian racecar (John Tuturro, hysterical) bashing McQueen on TV, and through character actions so painfully underdeveloped that it hurts, McQueen decides to take part in the World Grand Prix, a globe-spanning tournament put on by an entrepreneur trying to advertise his new alternative fuel. (Spoiler alert: In a stupidly predictable twist, he turns out to be the villain, subtly sending the message that alternative fuel is bad. Don’t believe me? The plot of the film involves using some sort of raygun to blow up and destroy cars running on it. And it was specially developed to work this way. But I digress…) So McQueen and his team head off to the tournament, bringing Mater along because McQueen feels bad that he never sees him anymore (even though Mater’s idea of fun is putting the two of them in mortal peril multiple times, as we see in a montage early on). At a reception the night before the first race, Mater proceeds to make a complete fool of himself, and embarrasses McQueen in the process. This all ties in to the main theme of the movie, which ends up being that you should always be yourself, even if you are an annoying jerk for whom “being yourself” involves ruining your best friend’s reputation in front of his peers. I’ll get back to that later.
It’s at this point that Mater is mistaken for a secret agent. I’m not sure exactly how it happened, because at this point I briefly left the theater to stare into the bathroom mirror, reconsider the choices I’ve made, and cry.
I wandered around the lobby for a little while, wondering if I should even go back in. I walked in and out of a few other screens, honestly considering just staying and watching the last half of Green Lantern. I decided not to, and to give Cars 2 every possible opportunity not to suck before I totally gave up on it. Also, Green Lantern looked absolutely abysmal, and I really didn’t feel like watching it, even if it was for free.
When I came back, McQueen was getting ready to race. For some reason, he gave Mater a headset to communicate with him, knowing full well the awful things that could ensue. During the race, Mater gets picked up by the spies, who are played by Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer. Both of them are great voice actors, but their characters are shallow caricatures, and again, they feel completely out of place in this universe.
After all, the first Cars was about simple machines who convince a city boy to slow down and enjoy life. Because of the spy angle, Cars 2 completely reverses this. It’s fast-paced and full of explosions. The spy cars are outfitted with tons of guns and gadgets, but the original film gives no indication that this is possible. The first film was just about “What if people were cars?” This was successful because the film never stretched the boundaries of what the cars were. The film was very grounded in this regard. This film seems to be more about “What if people were cars that were also magic?” I’m okay with a film where cars can talk. But when those cars can now do things that even real cars can’t do, you’ve got a problem. Just because a car can talk doesn’t mean that it can swim or fly or shoot rockets out of its hubcaps, but the cars in this movie do all of those things.
So Mater continues to lie to the spies. Hey, that’s another great message for kids, as there are absolutely no repercussions to his lies! In fact, he turns out to be a better spy than the other two, and there is constant dialogue along the lines of, “Thank you, Mater, I never would have noticed that!” Oh, you never would have noticed the painfully obvious detail that apparently only the great, wise mystic known as Mater could have picked out? Why are you such a world-renowned spy if you are so bad at being a spy? The whole “mistaken identity” thing is such a classic trope that I’m willing to give it to them that this scenario is at all plausible, but Mater’s stupidity crosses the line very quickly, and it all becomes even less believable for it.
And it all comes to a climax in which I honestly had no idea what was going on, or why anyone was doing any of the things that they were doing. Just before this, we had a big scene where the apparent villains revealed who they were and why they were doing what they were doing. At this point, we didn’t know who the big bad guy was…well, okay, anyone with half a brain did, but more importantly we didn’t know why he was doing all of these evil deeds. So after this scene, we thought we had our answer. However, it all turns out to be a giant head-fake, and when the true villain is revealed, we are expected to forget the scene that we just had twenty minutes ago that completely contradicts all of this new information. I generally expect Pixar to treat its audiences with at least some intelligence, but this was just insulting.
So Mater gets knighted by the Queen (huh?) for his bravery, and for figuring out who the villain was when spies who had trained for years to do exactly that apparently couldn’t. The plot holes in this movie aren’t just Fridge Logic, they’re something much worse. They are the kind of idiotic mistakes reserved for kids movies, where it is thought to be okay to write a terribly flawed story, because the target audience will be too stupid to notice anyway. Pixar seems to have forgotten that they make movies for people of all ages, and that anyone over the age of eight will realize just how dumb the movie is.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that watching this movie felt exactly like a bad dream. The colorful visuals, the vomit-inducing jokes (Mater sings the State Farm insurance jingle, in one particularly painful moment), the fast-paced plot, the fact that scenes didn’t flow together at all, it felt just like dreams I’ve had where I’m watching a terrible movie (No, I’m not joking. Make fun in the comments). It hurt me so badly to watch this movie, because of what it ultimately represents. It’s possible that this was Pixar trying on crass commercialism to see how it fit. (If so, it’s lucky that the movie did so poorly at the box office.) This is sad. Yes, that’s the best word to describe it. This is just plain sad. And like a bad dream, I hope that it fades from my memory quickly, never to be thought on again.