Humans love anthropomorphism. Ever since Walt Disney first made a mouse whistle and walk on two legs in Steamboat Willie, we haven’t been able to get enough of animals, insects and inanimate objects that act like us. Children are especially prone to this obsession, so it follows that nearly every animated feature produced these days revolves around a cast of non-human characters who sing, dance and spout knowing witticisms that many flesh-and-blood actors could not convincingly pull off.
As animation’s reigning heavyweight, Pixar is especially deft at creating movies that appeal as much to parents as to their progeny. So it’s somewhat disappointing that Cars 2, the sequel to the studio’s anthropomorphic auto adventure that hit theaters in 2006, seems to be running on empty.
The problem, I think, is that there aren’t enough characters to really sustain a second outing (unlike, say, Toy Story). When we last left Radiator Springs, the dusty Southwestern town that served as Cars’s primary backdrop, flashy race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) was settling down with his girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt) and hayseed best friend Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) to help resuscitate the floundering community. The late Paul Newman voiced McQueen’s mentor, Doc Hudson, but for obvious reasons he hasn’t returned for the sequel. Which leaves us with three cars in a town that time forgot—not exactly the stuff multi-million dollar pitches are made of. To fix this problem, the team behind Cars 2 decided to follow in the footsteps of such classics as An American Tail: Fievel Goes West and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, and have changed the scenery entirely.
We know we’re a long way from Route 66 from the movie’s opening moments, a James Bond homage that follows a tricked-out British spy car, Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), as he collects top-secret intel on a remote oil rig. A brief couple of scenes back in Radiator Springs explain that a Richard Branson-esque eco-conscious millionaire, Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard), has organized a World Grand Prix taking place across Asia and Europe; after some mild ribbing from champion Italian race car Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), Lightning McQueen agrees to cut short his rest period and join the competition. At Sally’s urging, he brings Tow Mater along.
Worlds collide once the cars land in Tokyo: while McQueen and Mater sense nothing amiss, Finn McMissile and his gal Friday, Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) are hot on the heels of a group of nefarious Hugos, Gremlins and other “lemons” who seem to be plotting some sort of coup against Sir Axlerod and his new clean fuel, Allinoil. A case of mistaken identity leads Holley to identify Mater as her American liaison, and the majority of the plot revolves around his unwitting participation in international espionage while McQueen is off racing Bernoulli. Mater is all buck teeth and Southern twang, prone to exclamations like “Dadgum!” and “That’s funny right there.” He eats a plate full of wasabi thinking it’s ice cream, and gets trapped in an automated Japanese restroom. Kids love Mater—and all but the most hard-hearted of adults will at least crack a smile at his idiotic antics—but a little bit goes a long way, and in Cars 2, there’s a lot more than a little bit of him.
Perhaps if Pixar’s other recent features—Up, Toy Story 3—hadn’t been so moving and funny and wonderful, I wouldn’t judge Cars 2 so harshly. But compared to the rest of the studio’s work, this franchise falls flat after only two installments. The complicated, action-packed plot (which, by the way, has a lot of shooting, explosions and violence—albeit cartoon-y violence—for a G-rated film, and really is not suitable for kids under 7) at times seems like a Band-Aid for not very memorable characters. Is it a harmless way to entertain your children and restore your sanity on a hot summer day? Sure. But from Pixar, I expected more.