In 2006, Cars introduced us to the quaint (and fictional) town of Radiator Springs, an all but forgotten stop off of Route 66. There we met Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), Doc Hudson (the late Paul Newman), and hotshot race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), who found himself in the middle of nowhere by accident. In Cars 2, we see that McQueen has kept his promise to help put Radiator Springs back on the map, and the area is bustling. A quick tribute is paid to Doc and we get a few minutes with most of the other characters from the first film, but then the attention shifts to a Bond-like plot involving some sort of Big Oil/alt-energy conspiracy that’s wrapped up in the World Grand Prix. Bye-bye American Southwest, hello England, France, Japan, Italy, and Germany!
Yep, all of those locations (and I think even a few more, I lost count) are visited in the film as the international race — which Lightning participates in thanks to a public announcement unintentionally made by Mater — moves from country to country. While Lightning is trying to concentrate on winning — and keeping his #1 rival, F1 hotshot Francesco Bernouli (John Turturro), at bay — Mater wanders right into the middle of a spy operation. British agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) mistake Mater for an American agent who’s supposed to be working with them on the oil case, and the happy-go-lucky tow truck unknowingly plays along. See, Mater comes off as such an impossibly goofy hick to Finn and Holly that they assume his whole shtick must be an act. And, um, by the way… if you find Mater’s whole “redneck hillbilly” thing grating, then you might want to avoid this film.
Mater’s golly-gee personality and his yuck-yuck voice are inescapable in Cars 2, and that’s really too bad. Most of the weak laughs are built around the truck doing things like mistaking wasabi for ice cream or freaking out in a high-tech Japanese bathroom. So much attention is paid to Mater and the haphazard ways he ends up helping the spycars that at times I totally forgot about Lightning and the big race. Everything felt disjointed or rushed, and there were no scenes that went straight to my heart or activated my tear ducts. Nothing in Cars 2 is memorable.
But it is still a Pixar film, and while it might have missed the mark tonally, visually it’s as stunning as we’ve come to expect from the animation studio that’s currently celebrating its 25th anniversary. There were a few downhill racing scenes from the cars’ point-of-view that were spectacular, and seeing famous landmarks from around the world get the Pixar treatment was pretty cool as well — especially when they were given slight but fitting adjustments, like Big Ben becoming Big Bentley.
It wouldn’t be a Disney production without some sort of moral to the story, albeit in this case it’s a pretty weak one: Lightning learns that he just needs to accept Mater for who he is and not be embarrassed of his friend or try to change him. Hmm, I’m not even sure I agree with that lesson, considering Mater’s totally ignorant behavior overseas. But I digress.
Kids of all ages will enjoy Cars 2, but any adult who’s seen the other Pixar movies will inevitably hold the sequel to a higher standard and likely walk away a little disappointed. I know I did. However, the reality is that Cars 2, even with all of its action at the expense of plot and sentiment, is a better film than most soulless and thoughtless by-the-numbers options currently in theaters. This rare misstep by Pixar is still superior to most everything else coming out of Hollywood, although I do think I’ve now reached my lifetime Mater Tolerance limit. If there’s ever a third Cars film, I hope he takes a back seat. (Pun intended.)