McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) is still an internationally famous race car, but he now calls Radiator Springs his home base, returning after his races to see girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt) and his rusty and rustic but sweet friend Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). Mater is eager to have his best friend home but also a proud Lightning McQueen fan. So when British truck Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard) hosts a race to promote his new biofuel, Mater urges McQueen to take part and race against such global hot shots as Italian Formula One car Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro).
This requires McQueen and his pit crew to go back on the road, joined, at Sally’s suggestion, by an excited Mater. At the first leg of the race in Tokyo, Mater has a run-in with an American spy (Bruce Campbell) and is mistakenly thrust into a James Bondian caper. Aston Martin Finn McMissle (Michael Caine) and, er, girl car Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) are tracking a group of lemons — junkers from all corners of the car world — who are doing something nefarious out in an off-shore oil field and who always seem to be around as the cars participating in Axelrod’s race experience malfunctions. They believe Mater is the American agent who is supposed to help them while Mater thinks Holley is just a pretty car looking for a date. And while Finn thinks Mater’s buffoonery is a wise cover, McQueen — ignorant of all the spy-vs.-spy action — simply finds his country friend embarrassing and hurts his buddy’s feelings by telling him so.
Thus we have the two big struggles of this movie: (1) The fight between good and evil cars who are causing trouble surrounding Axelrod’s race and (2) The question of Mater’s goofy personality and is it what makes him loveable or something he has to change. Both of these plots seem beyond the interest and attention span of the kind of kids who would be drawn to this G-rated movie. (And when some cars meet a gruesome demise, I wondered just how G-rated the movie felt so some of those younger fans.) Sure, wackiness, pratfalls and potty jokes festoon every scene but I didn’t hear a lot of laughter in the theater — more from the adults at references like Brent Mustangburger, a sportscasting car voiced by Brent Musbuger, and at sight gags like the strange anime-style cartoon that explains how to use the toilet in Tokyo.
This isn’t one of those, for lack of a better descriptor, Dreamworks cartoons where it’s all pop culture rat-a-tat with the occasional potty joke. But Cars 2 doesn’t rise to the usual level of Pixar quality either. Cars might have been a wildly successful endeavor when it comes to marketing, but as a film it was one of my least favorite of the Pixar offerings. This movie feels like an even less impressive version of that original movie. Here, we don’t have the wonder of seeing the car world for the first time and the central story doesn’t have nearly the heft. The movie puts Mater, not Lightning McQueen, at the center, which is probably a smart choice — for all that the Larry the Cable Guy shtick can get old fast, his Mater is a more likeable character than Wilson’s whiny McQueen. But this has the feel of a direct-to-video side-story more than a new adventure in this world. Most of the characters from the last movie appear only as cameos, and we aren’t as emotionally connected to these new characters.
Sequels aren’t easy, but Pixar found a way to mix familiar characters and fresh new stories in its Toy Story sequels, particularly Toy Story 3. Even “Hawaiian Vacation,” the Toy Story short that appears before this movie, does a better job at getting the balance right — there’s some new stuff, some old stuff, some fresh jokes and some sweetness. Cars 2 feels more like a clunky amusement park ride than it does a new adventure.
Having said all that, Cars 2 is still better than some of the recent animation duds — Rango, Mars Needs Moms and the like. It just isn’t up to that sterling Pixar standard. C+
Rated G. Directed by John Lasseter and Brad Lewis and written by Ben Queen, John Lasseter, Brad Lewis and Dan Fogelman, Cars 2 is an hour and 46 minutes long and is distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.