Tuesday, June 28, 2011

'Cars 2' Rules the Road

John Lasseter's wall of toys at Pixar
John Lasseter really likes to play with his toys.

You can see them in his office at Pixar. On the wall behind his desk and scattered throughout the room are toys, mostly from the Toy Story franchise, but plenty from Cars as well. It's an explosion of Woody and Buzz, McQueen and Mater, and it's a reminder not only of the power of Disney/Pixar merchandising, but also of the kid that still lives in Lasseter.

That kind of sums up how I feel about Cars 2, which was directed by Lasseter. It's going to sell a lot of merchandise, but it sure is fun when John shares his toys with us.

Tow Mater and Lightning McQueen on Pit Row
The critics have not been kind to Cars 2. After seeing a fairly dismal consensus on Rotten Tomatoes, I was having my doubts about the movie myself. Some reviews were pretty scathing. Was Pixar losing its touch?

Not the way I saw it. Cars 2 is an entertaining and fast-paced romp around the race track. Is it among Pixar's best? No, it isn't. It lacks the emotional depth of Up and Wall-E, but it still accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, and that's to rev up the action and be nothing more than a fun time at the movies. It won't tug on your heartstrings like Toy Story 3 or Monsters, Inc., but who says every Pixar film has to? The first Cars movie tried to be about something, evoking the nostalgia of Route 66 culture while reminding us how important it is to stop and smell the roses every now and then. Unfortunately, it put too much emphasis on the laid-back ways of Radiator Springs and slammed the brakes on the story. When it wasn't about Lightning McQueen ka-chowing around the oval, Cars dragged.

Cars 2 has no time for introspection, instead going pedal to the metal with a spy caper tale that puts Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) in a World Grand Prix racing competition while his slow-witted, tow truck buddy Mater gets caught up in a case of mistaken identity and international espionage. There's nothing about this premise that says subtlety or pathos, so if that's what you're expecting from Pixar this time around, you best move on down the road.

Secret agent cars Holly Shiftwell, Finn McMissile and...Mater?
What Cars 2 does offer is non-stop action and the same love of spy thrillers that The Incredibles had for super heroes. There's joy to be found in the details, from the clever guns and gadgets packed inside super spy car Finn McMissile (an insouciant Michael Caine, perfectly cast) to the extraordinary architectural elements found throughout Cars 2's auto-fied venues (London's Big Ben becomes Big Bentley, complete with grille work; the bottom arch of Paris's Eiffel Tower has wheel spokes). It's a feast for the eyes that makes you want to watch it again if only to see what other fleeting details you missed the first time.

It's pure entertainment, from flying cars to intentionally lame puns ("You da bomb!") to a bad guy who wears a monocle. You can see Lasseter and his creative crew gleefully letting their imaginations run wild ("We'll put magnets on Finn's tires so he can climb!" "Let's trick out Mater with spy weapons--won't that be cool?!"). Cars was held back when it kept its characters in the friendly confines of Carburetor County. Like with any fine vehicle, Cars 2 proves that it's way more fun when you let it run on the open road.

Thanks for sharing, John.

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