Saturday, January 28, 2012

Cars 2 Movie Review

The rational person in me who understands business and money-making enterprises can grasp why Pixar decided that a sequel to Cars was necessary. But the movie critic, or more aptly, the fan of cinema in me wishes that studios wouldn’t continue to make sequels to undeserving films. The first was very high-grossing, but the worst reviewed of all their films, most of which rank among the best in Hollywood cinema (animated or not) of the last 15 years. Cars is the only Pixar film with under 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and it’s the lowest scoring on Metacritic. But it grossed nearly $250 million domestic.

Thankfully, Pixar has very strict standards when it comes to their sequels. They will only produce one if they feel they have an excellent story to support it. We can contrast this with Disney, a studio with a habit of producing cheap sequels to beloved animated classics and releasing them direct-to-video in an obviously cynical money grab. However, I was not crazy about the first Cars, and its sequel Cars 2 just doesn’t measure up to the high standards I’ve come to expect from their feature films.

In an obvious attempt to spruce up the story of a race car that races around in circles, Cars 2 opens with a James Bond style sequence involving characters that are new to the franchise. A spy car infiltrates a field of oil wells in the middle of the ocean, taking photos of various ‘lemons’ being led by Professor Z, a German-accented, monocle-wearing scientist voiced by Thomas Kretschmann. It wouldn’t be a proper spy film without some British accents, so Michael Caine voices Finn McMissile, the spy who came in from the past to spruce up the story a little. Later his spy partner Holly Shiftwell will be voiced by the British Emily Mortimer and Eddie Izzard will give life to Sir Miles Axelrod, the innovator behind a newer, cleaner, greener form of fuel for cars.

The star of the show is the cool and confident Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson, reprising voice role), showing a little more humility this time around. Another 90 minutes spent in Radiator Springs would be a little too much, so the story by Pixar guru John Lasseter – among a cadre of others – takes him there for the briefest of glimpses, just long enough for the requisite appearances of the characters from the first film. Bonnie Hunt is back as Lightning’s girl Sally, as are Tony Shalhoub, Paul Dooley, Cheech Marin and Jenifer Lewis to continue their stereotyped voice work. In honor of Paul Newman, however, his character Doc Hudson has been relegated to memorial status. Larry the Cable Guy is also back as the beloved Mater, Lightning’s slow-witted best friend.

A challenge by the Formula 1 racer Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro, relishing a thick Italian accent), gets Lightning and Mater out of Radiator Springs and into the world for a fish-out-of-water adventure story. As Mater visits far-flung places like Tokyo, Italy and London we’re treated to the usual display of goofy faux pas when confronted with cultural differences. The plot, which is really just an excuse to send Mater around the world and to generate some half-clever spy movie spoofs, involves a plot to make oil the dominant fuel source for cars for the foreseeable future. Oil tycoons as villains is neither original nor particularly interesting.

John Lasseter’s direction keeps the pace of the engine revved way up giving Cars 2 distinctly higher energy than its predecessor, but it’s all a lot of rumbling. The most notable thing about Cars was the incredibly rich detail in the landscape rendering. This film looks great, but it loses that lush beauty by transferring the setting to various cities with angular buildings and facades without character.

There’s plenty here to keep the kids transfixed and lots of little jokes that adults will appreciate (like the first film, Cars 2 is replete with automobile puns), but probably not laugh out loud as much as with Pixar’s previous work. Like the gang of villains central to the plot, this is an unfortunate lemon staining the studio’s excellent history.

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