Film review by: Witney Seibold
From what I understand, Pixar’s “Cars” (2006) earned the lowest box office numbers of any of their films. This is not to say that it was a failure, but it was a low point for the studio. Ask any critic, and they usually rate “Cars” as the worst of the Pixar canon, which, mind you, is still a compliment, as it has consistently put out quality product since day one. Why, then, did John Lasseter decide to direct a sequel to “Cars?” I hate to sound cynical, but I suspect it was for merchandising purposes. “Cars 2,” more than any other Pixar film, feels like a product. Like something that was calculated to sell toys to 5-year-old boys, despite however exciting it was, however well it was made, and however clever some of the jokes may have been. Pixar, as we all know, is backed by Disney, and “Cars 2” seems to come more from the ultra-marketed Disney side than the whimsical and touching Pixar side. It may work. To this day, you can go into a Baskin Robbins, and get a “cars” ice cream cake; in terms of merchandising, “Cars” is one of the biggest films of the decade.
My central criticism with “Cars” is also in tact for “Cars 2,” that is to say, I’m concerned and baffled by this universe’s complete lack of human beings. In all of Pixar’s other films, however fantastical the premise, we could kind of see how they would mechanically fit into our own recognizable universe. It’s easy to imagine our toys coming to life when we’re not looking. Or where the monsters in our closet really live. Or that there are superheroes hidden amongst us. In “Cars,” there is no secret. This is a strange alternate universe where cars have replaced humans in every regard. They talk, have relationships, and have to refuel themselves. While this can make ofr some cute jokes and humorous situations, I found myself increasingly unnerved by the world’s lack of car builders. It’s easy to make the cognitive leap that these cars, like Skynet before them, had become self-aware at some point in the past, gone through a dark genocide, and have long since taken over.
But I digress. Onto “Cars 2.”
“Cars 2” follows a tow truck named Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy, hanging onto his stage name for dear life) and his travels around the world with his racecar buddy Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), the main character from the last “Cars.” When a cocky Italian formula racer (John Turturro) challenges Lightning McQueen to a world-trekking series of races, McQueen accepts, and take Mater along to exotic places like Tokyo, Milan and London. The animation on the locales in breathtaking, and the 3-D I saw the film in manages to create depth in many instances, rather than just shoving stuff out at us (which it still does, but with a merciful infrequency). Lurking about the races are a pair of spy cars that look like what James Bond would drive. Finn McMissle and Holly Shiftwell (I love those names, and played by Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer) mistake Mater for an American agent (groan), and drag him into a spy plot involving the sabotage of a new form of alternative fuel perpetrated by an angry underground of dated lemons, led by the German auto Brent Mustangberger (Brent Musberger).
The spy plot was actually fun, and making a “Cars” film about James Bond’s Astin Martin is a clever conceit. Had the film followed just the British cars, “Cars 2” would have been much more enjoyable. As it stands, I think Lasseter assumed that there was more good will toward Tow Mater from the first film than there actually was, and decided to have the film revolve around an ignorant rusty hick who has to learn how to behave in public (Seriously, that’s the lesson of the film; behave yourself in public). This was, I think, kind of a miscalculation.
Or was it? I’ve seen the ice cream cakes. I’ve seen the party balloons. I’ve seen the video games and the underpants. “Cars” is more ubiquitous than we think, and I think 5-8-year-old boys will adore this film. It’s odd for Pixar to intentionally skew so young that they run the risk of alienating older viewers (despite the presence of mechanic jokes and references to car models that kiddies wouldn’t know about).
The best joke in the film involves a French car selling replacement eyeballs. The cars in “Cars” have their eyes over their windshields, as opposed to the obvious headlight locales. We do get to see, a car with headlight eyes, and it freaks out the other car characters. This made me giggle a lot.