“Cars 2” is not just a bad movie, it is dangerously bad. It is, by far, the worst movie Pixar has ever made, though “A Bug’s Life” may give it competition in that race. It is the most poorly written, the most poorly designed, voiced, and executed movie in Pixar’s otherwise stellar line-up. Heck, even the opening short was horrible, and those are usually the sweet cherry on the Pixar sundae.
I should have guessed the problem when the animated short came on. Instead of the usual, standalone vignette, the short featured the cast of Toy Story 3, including the new toy owner, little Bonnie. This might have been a set up for an upcoming Toy Story 4, as Tom Hanks recently hinted that work had begun on an unnecessary fourth film in the tiresome series. Instead of the sculpted, tightly constructed, and often wordless short that usually treats audiences before a Pixar film, the Toy Story short might as well have been a segment on a straight-to-DVD knock-off of the original movie. It was completely dull, serving only to remind you that these characters exist.
Actually, one of the sad facts about Pixar movies is how many of the great voice actors have passed away since their movies were made. In Toy Story’s case, I still miss Jim Varney, the original voice of slinky dog. In Cars, both George Carlin and Paul Newman have passed since the original was made. A sound-alike does a reasonable impersonation of Carlin’s voice for Filmore’s scant lines, but Newman’s Doc character was allowed to ride into the sunset. I’m not ruining a plot point here, because the revelation that Doc is gone is treated with absolutely no emotion or explanation. It’s more like: “Here’s a museum dedicated to Doc. Too bad he’s dead. Let’s go to Japan.”
Should I recount the plot of Cars 2? It almost seems a waste of space to bother. There is some racing, now in a more international setting, but the movie forgets about the racing just over half way through. Seriously, the plot literally takes a turn during one of the races, and never returns to the track. Instead, the movie follows a ridiculous spy caper. It’s similar to a James Bond movie, but not a good Bond movie. One of the later Pierce Brosnan Bond movies, where you find yourself thinking: “Why does Remington Steele suck so bad at this? And who would believe that Denise Richards could be a nuclear scientist?”
“Cars 2” hasn’t simply forgotten what it’s about, it has forgotten what “Cars” was really about, and what all Pixar films are about. Pixar movies are always about the characters. The characters, and their excellent development and scripting, are what make Pixar movies better than most of the Shrek. . . er, dreck that hits the market.
Take for example the most action packed Pixar movie thus far: The Incredibles. My favorite Pixar film. But it wasn’t just an animated version of the Fantastic Four. It was much more real than Marvel’s real-life adaptation could have hoped to be. It was about a real guy facing a mid-life crisis; a real mom trying to keep her family together; a real daughter dealing with coming-of-age issues; and that kid who could run real fast. It was about a real family, who also happened to have super powers. Even the villains were realistic, and you could understand and empathize with their motives, if not their deeds.
“Cars 2” forgets what the first “Cars” was about. With a 2.5-year old at home, I’ve seen “Cars” enough times to know it is not an action movie. The races take place at the very beginning and the very end, and they are both truncated. Owen Wilson’s character, Lightning McQueen, spends more time pulling a paving machine than he does on the race track.
No, the first “Cars” is about the tragedy of losing yourself in the name of progress. It’s about sportsmanship and fair play. It’s about facing your past instead of running from your fears. The first “Cars” worked, and just barely, because the relationships between the characters were not only interesting, they developed over the course of the movie. Forget about the obvious relationships, like the romance between Lightning and Sally, the Porsche. Even with the minor characters, Lightning develops nuanced interactions, and when they finally feel dismayed when he leaves the small town of Radiator Springs at the end, you understand why, and you believe it.
There is not a single relationship in “Cars 2” that develops over the course of the movie. Not one. Lightning is now a minor character, and you can’t understand why he lets that redneck tow truck follow him around everywhere. They don’t seem to enjoy each other. You only know that they are best friends because they tell you so.
Nobody learns anything. Nobody develops as a character. The villains are enigmatic. They are simply angry at being lousy cars. There is no motive, except perhaps power and financial gain. Like I said, a James Bond rip-off, and not even a good James Bond.
Worst of all, though, is Tow Mater. The rusty tow truck is voiced by Dan Whitney, also known as Larry the Cable Guy. Larry is a character that Dan performs in his comedy. So, we have a comedian playing a character voicing a character. Maybe that’s where the trouble starts.
It was a mistake giving Mater his own movie. Pixar should have learned the lesson from Shakespeare, with his classic comic relief character, Falstaff. In the two Henry IV plays, Falstaff is fun, and cheerful, and mostly minor. In the sequel, Henry V, when it is time to get serious and go to war, Falstaff is nowhere to be found. It’s not that Shakespeare hated Falstaff. He gets his own play, the Merry Wives of Windsor, and it isn’t Shakespeare’s best, but hey, it’s still Shakespeare.
Mater is dull. Mater is not funny. Worst of all, though, the lesson Mater learns is horrible, when you think about it. In the end, after traveling to Japan and Italy and England, Mater learns that he shouldn’t try to fit in to other peoples’ cultures and ways of acting, he should just be himself.
Wait, what?! What kind of a lesson is that? That’s what gives Americans a bad name throughout the world. That’s where the “ugly American” stereotype comes from. I’ve done a fair bit of traveling, to Europe and Asia, and I can tell you that the last thing you want to do is be yourself. It is far more interesting, far more enlightening, to learn the local culture and customs and try to adapt. Be yourself when you get home. Take what you’ve learned abroad and use your favorite parts. Integrate your cultural experience into your own personality. But don’t leak oil all over the floor and spit out your food at the dinner table when you’re traveling abroad. Don’t resign yourself to your own ignorance, thinking that the rest of the world just needs to adapt to you. That’s ignorant. That’s no lesson to teach.
I’ve watched the first “Cars” a dozen times, and I still get choked up at the end. When all of the other cars in the stadium at the final race are hushed and awed seeing the Hudson Hornet return to racing, it’s a real emotional moment. When Lightning stops short of winning so he can push a wrecked car across the finish line, it’s powerful. There is nothing similar in “Cars 2.” The movie is a failure on every level. It does not develop the characters, and it makes no connection with the audience. It’s a litany of toilet and ethnic humor jokes, translated into automobiles, with none of the surprises or magic of the first movie.