'Cars 2': A Breezy Summer Drive
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
Sometimes it's a relief when a film doesn't swing for the emotional fences, when it's just content with being a lively, pleasurable, colorful diversion. 2006's "Cars" is considered by a lot of critics and animation aficionados to be the least of the excellent efforts concocted by the computer animation wizards of Pixar, because it was the loudest, flashiest, and most simple and breezy of the outfit's pictures. The characters were even more archetypal archetypes than usual. The truths it proffered to its audiences about hard work and friendship were pretty standard ones, lacking the complexity offered in knottier, more involving fare concerning family ties and growing up and growing old, such as the "Toy Story" films and "Up." And so on. So some people are disappointed that this summer's Pixar offering is a sequel to "Cars." Lack of ambition and all that, you know.
But like I said: I'm relieved. Don't get me wrong, I adored "Toy Story 3," but the damn thing absolutely traumatized me (and my poor wife, who unlike myself does not deserve to be traumatized). So what I want right about now is a Pixar movie that IS NOT going to make me cringe and cry like a 3-year-old who's convinced that Mommy just isn't coming back. And "Cars 2" is that movie.
Kicking off with a very amiable short subject featuring the "Toy Story" characters in much less dire circumstances than their last feature found them in, "Cars 2" proper starts as ... well, a spy movie, with a very sleek silver sports car in a Bondian mode, Finn McMissile, on a mission at sea uncovering some nefarious bad-car activity of obscure aim. What this opening scene really emphasizes, for one thing, is the inherent absurdity of trying to concoct multivalent action scenes for characters that not only don't have opposable thumbs, but don't have any actual limbs, either. Director John Lasseter and his merry, inventive creative crew take the ridiculousness of this task as a challenge and serve up an action sequence that's not just a great sendup of a contemporary Bond pre-credit action set piece, but also a potential example for the Bond filmmakers: real state-of-the-art stuff.
And I don't intend an insult by saying that much of the rest of the film can be seen, at least from a more detached perspective, as a series of technical exercises. The plot integrates the spy story into a new tale of hotshot-but-humbled race car Lightning McQueen, lured into cutting short his summer sojourn in his new hometown of Radiator Springs by an international multi-race challenge. This time he brings along his best pal, the goofy but good-hearted tow truck Mater. Mater doesn't know how to behave in the, um, fast company of racing cars, and it's funny and awkward, and there's a potential estrangement, and then Mater is mistaken by the spy cars (Finn and his female cohort Holley Shiftwell) for one of their own. Hilarity of course ensues ... because Mater really is kind of dumb, but also kind of brilliant in the auto-knowledge department, which provides the key to finding who's behind the plot to sabotage the races and their alternative-fuel-pushing promoter.
The trouble between McQueen and Mater never gets all that intense, but does provide the pretext for a lot of frenetic (and truth to tell, pretty damn loud) but coherent 3-D action and great sight gags (Mater's uncomprehending sojourn in a Japanese restroom for autos is a jam-packed instant-classic laugh riot). The voice cast is redoubtable, with Owen Wilson better than amiable as McQueen, Larry the Cable Guy -- in a stark break from his live-action films -- more than tolerable as Mater, and Michael Caine in particularly fine form looking back to the Harry Palmer days in his role as Finn. (No, he never gets to say "She was only 16 years old," and that was a silly thing to ask anyway, you weirdo.) It all goes by very briskly, and brings frequent smiles, one or two not-unpleasant tugs-to-the-heart, but no overt tragedy or potential tragedy. A light summer feast for the senses that will have the whole family vrooming, for sure.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.