Today marks a sad day for me, a long time Pixar fanboy, for it is the first time in the studio’s feature film history that I cannot give my ringing endorsement to their latest work. “Cars” has had the unfortunate reputation of being the weakest effort in the Pixar catalogue, and it is, but it still had enough humor and heart for me to enjoy it. Plus, the worst from the people who brought “Toy Story” into being could not be all that bad. But now, a new low has been achieved with “Cars 2,” a mildly amusing but largely disappointing animated endeavor.
I think maybe the big problem of Pixar’s first real slip-up is that it suffers from “Pirates 4” Syndrome. If you can remember back to the first “Cars,” the character we followed was Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and we spent the whole movie observing the dilemma through his eyes. In “Cars 2,” McQueen is hardly even existent and instead we are left with the significantly less-interesting supporting character: a dim but good-natured tow truck named Mater (Larry The Cable Guy). Just like Jack Sparrow, Mater works more effectually as a goofy comic sidekick. It seems like a big stretch to give him his own movie. Just twenty minutes in, one can plainly see that his country-folk antics are better suited in small doses.
Which brings me to my next problem: this sequel’s tone is not even consistent with the original. That one brought up memories of 1991’s “Doc Hollywood” what with the conceited hotshot who gets acquainted with the simple pleasures in life thanks to a rural community. “Cars 2” scraps that angle entirely and goes instead for the oft overdone James Bond parody, complete with gunfights, chase scenes and large-scale threats, including one inside Britain’s Big Ben(tly) tower. I might have preferred this notion as an original Pixar series with original characters that took shots at spy movie clichés, but why “Cars” of all things?
When an oil crisis is on the horizon for this world of talking cars, a world grand prix is being held to promote a safer, cleaner and more proficient source of fuel called Allinol. Naturally, McQueen enters himself in the competition and he takes Mater on his expedition around the globe. But on their stay in the city of Towkyo (ho ho!), Mater somehow gets mistaken for a hired American spy and becomes tangled in a convoluted espionage mission set forth by British agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer).
Along the way, we get some automotive gunplay and beautifully rendered landmarks, as well as learn that this Pixar universe is not limited to just talking cars; we also have boats, private jets, airplanes and battleships that talk it up. Of course, Pixar handles their action scenes with flair and plenty of zany fun, but what do they service if the rest of the material is flat? The spy movie outline is utterly expendable and the villains are as cookie-cutter as they come. But even all of this bad could have been counterbalanced had the film had supplied that uncanny level of humanity and real world sagacity found in other animated adventures. Sadly, no fuzzy dice.
I know that the director John Lasseter is a big car nut and that this franchise is kind of like his passion project, but the new car smell is gone and “Cars 2” is a step in the wrong direction. Especially after a nearly faultless streak of animated successes over the last few years with “Ratatouille,” “WALL-E,” “Up” and “Toy Story 3.” This sequel is derivative and tragically average. And ‘average’ is one of the words I would have never expected to associate with anything Pixar.