No... that title still belongs to the original CARS, a film that I actually liked very much when I first saw it on the big screen in 2006, but that failed to stick with me the way every other Pixar film has. In fact, when I re-watched it the other day to prepare for the sequel, it was the first time I’d watched it SINCE 2006. (Conversely, I’ve watched every other Pixar film at least several times -- and in some cases, worship them like gods.) So yeah, suffice to say, I am not a huge CARS fan -- but that being said, the worst Pixar film is still better than 99% of all non-Pixar animated films, and I can certainly see why it has become one of Disney’s most profitable merchandising juggernauts of all time, which of course made a sequel inevitable. Now, before I begin a brief rant that makes me sound like a curmudgeon, keep in mind that I love a good sequel. And Pixar has proven that they can whip up a damn good one (or two) when the story calls for it, as is the case with the TOY STORY trilogy. But... I dunno... a sequel to CARS just smacks of a pure moneymaking/marketing scheme, as if to remind a new legion of little boys that these characters exist, now that the last batch has moved on to other things. This seems very unlike what we’ve come to expect from Pixar, and is more reminiscent of Disney during the bad old days. I thought that when Disney bought Pixar and essentially handed the creative reigns over to our lord & savior, John Lasseter, we wouldn’t see this kind of unnecessary sequel-churning anymore. Perhaps that was naïve of me. Whatever the case, CARS 2 is upon us and it is going to be a gargantuan hit, both at the box office and especially at Toys R Us.
So, how is the movie? Well, I’m pleased (and relieved) to report that it’s not half bad. In fact, I think I may have even enjoyed it MORE than the original. It’s bigger, brighter, faster and, most importantly, more engaging. Whereas the first CARS was very clearly aimed directly at kids and only kids, the sequel is more Pixar-like in the sense that it is a kids’ movie on the surface but peppered with adult themes underneath. It’s actually first and foremost a spy flick, rife with James Bond references, which is funny since, y’know, they’re cars. It also moves away from the backwater town of Radiator Springs and spans the globe, taking super-cool race car Lightning McQueen and his hick-tastic best buddy Mater to Japan, France, Italy and England, where all sorts of fish-out-of-water hijinks ensue. Now, this kind of comedy is nothing new -- but somehow, with Pixar’s uncanny knack for zeroing in on the tiniest nuances and foibles of humanity, it feels fresh.
(Of course, in this case, humanity = cars, which raises the following question: What the hell happened on Earth that created this chilling, human-free future dystopia? What caused cars and other vehicles to become sentient, rise up and completely annihilate not only the human race, but all carbon-based life forms? Was it a misuse of technology like THE TERMINATOR? A science experiment gone wrong like PLANET OF THE APES? Are the cars actually humans who have undergone some kind of species-wide Kafka-esque transformation? As shiny and happy and fun as these films may be, at some point in the distant past, a horrific worldwide holocaust must have taken place. Perhaps they will cover this in CARS 3... or not... anyway, I digress.)
Probably goes without saying that the animation is as good as it gets. Pixar is still the reigning king in that department. The landscapes are eye-popping, with unbelievable attention to detail -- I am sure that the backgrounds are absolutely loaded with inside jokes and sight gags that will take many viewings to pick up on. All of the old gang is back, though this time, the film focuses far more on Mater’s (mis)adventures when he is mistaken for a spy and roped into a mission to uncover a sinister plot, as opposed to Lightning’s racing prowess. (An attempt by Disney to pander to middle America by focusing on one of their own? I mean, Larry the freakin’ Cable Guy gets top billing over Owen Wilson, for Christ’s sake. Nah, forget it... that’s TOO cynical.) The car races, though, are also very impressive and a billion times more entertaining than any real-life car race. Thrown into the mix are the great Michael Caine as British superspy Finn McMissile and Emily Mortimer as the comely Holley Shiftwell. The film is loaded with plot development and intersecting storylines and multiple villains (my favorite is John Turturro, channeling Jesus Quintana as Francesco Bernoulli, McQueen’s suave Italian rival) and double-crossing and all sorts of craziness -- in fact, the sprawling story may be TOO complex for younger kids, especially compared to the more-straightforward original film (though they will still love the visuals and the slapstick humor) -- but again, it helps makes things a bit more engaging for us kids-at-heart.
Also worth mentioning that I saw the movie in 3D and it added absolutely nothing to the experience, which is surprising since Pixar has utilized the technology very well in the past (namely, UP and especially TOY STORY 3... God, that incinerator scene seriously felt like we were going to accompany the toys to a fiery death). The visuals should be strong enough on their own, and in fact, the tint in the glasses just serves to dull the natural vibrancy. I recommend seeing it in 2D if you have a choice.
But you know what? Enough about CARS 2. The best part of seeing CARS 2 is not the movie at all -- it’s the stuff that precedes it. First, you get a trailer for the upcoming 3D re-release of THE LION KING... except it’s not really a trailer, so much as it’s the full opening “Circle of Life” sequence of the film in all its glory. Friends, say what you want about 3D (I’m tiring of it, myself), but it looks like this conversion has been done with tremendous care and looks amazing. (Besides, let’s face it, who wouldn’t salivate at any chance to see this classic on the big screen.) Next, we get a short teaser for Pixar’s next film -- their first original fairy tale called BRAVE. I actually made an audible gasp of awe when I saw how astonishing the visuals look for this one -- it’s going to be epic and awesome. Last but not least, we get... wait for it... AN ALL-NEW TOY STORY SHORT FILM! I have to admit, when I first heard about this a while back, I was hesitant, because on some level, I felt that TOY STORY 3 should have closed the book on these characters. But when I saw Woody, Buzz and the whole gang (with Hanks, Allen & Co. providing the voices) appear on the big screen again... well, I was overcome with emotion. In this adventure, the gang must help Ken & Barbie enjoy a Hawaiian vacation at home after their failed attempt to stow away with Bonnie & her family. It is basically five minutes of hilarious rapid-fire gags in which each character gets a moment to shine. It is perfection. I don’t know how often they plan on giving us new TOY STORY shorts, but I hope it’s very, very often.
In conclusion: HAIL PIXAR! Even their failures aren’t really failures -- they’re just lesser successes. CARS 2 is nowhere near a classic work of genius like WALL-E or THE INCREDIBLES, but it’s a fun ride, a visual feast, and will still likely rank as one of the better animated films of 2011 when all is said and done (though this will be the rare year in which Pixar is NOT the frontrunner for Oscar gold -- that checkmark still belongs to ILM’s RANGO on my ballot). Plus, the kiddies are gonna love it... so parents, get ready to take out a second mortgage to pay for all those new toys!