I had fun watching "Cars 2." And yes, in case you were wondering, I liked it better than the first one. Quite a bit more, to tell you the truth.
I felt that the 2006 original was a beauty to look at, but felt oddly cold and distant. Even with its paean to life in small-town America, I never felt anything more than that I was watching a feature-length demonstration of Pixar's technical expertise. For me, the spy movie-spoofing "Cars 2" actually pushed the buttons that the first "Cars" film had missed.
This is not to say that the new film from Disney/Pixar is the equal of "Toy Story 3." Or "Wall-E." Or "Up." Or "Ratatouille," or "The Incredibles," or "Monsters, Inc," for that matter. (Heck, it's not even the equal of "Hawaiian Vacation," a delightful six-minute "Toy Story Toon" short film that played before the feature at the screening I attended.)
But -- and I say this with all sincerity -- "Cars 2" was significantly better than I had expected it to be. I was surprised that I found the film, which whisks stock car superstar Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) and tow truck pal Mater (Larry the Cable Guy, a/k/a son of Nebraska Dan Whitney) away from the comfort of Radiator Springs and into international intrigue, to be a genuinely entertaining experience.
I will say that the story failed to fire on all cylinders for me; it felt like it was running on two distinct tracks -- between McQueen's participation in a trio of international grand prix races and Mater being pulled into an alternative fuels scheme -- that only crossed when they absolutely had to, and there were some talky scenes involving British spy cars Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) that could have used a tune-up. (All puns not intended. Okay, maybe the last one was.) But overall, there were a lot of laughs, there were a number of terrific action sequences and (no surprise here) Pixar's talented team produced another wondrous feast for the eyes.
Many big-name national critics have been tough on this one. Some have lamented that this film signals the end of Pixar's extraordinary run of great, emotionally-rich films; a handful of those missives even seem to plunge into a deeper well of despair -- this is no mere disappointment or hiccup or detour, but an abject, soul-crushing failure that indicates the gory, gasping death of the last reliable dream factory.
Sure, the saddest and/or most-crushed critics lashed out at Disney and their ostensibly evil corporate desire to continue to profit from merchandise ($10 billion worth over the last 5 years -- with much more on the horizon), or they picked at Pixar's vaunted story department for electing to produce a sequel to a title that wasn't among the critical favorites to start.
But those targets are tangential to these viewers; there's an even greater threat at the heart of this travesty.
So, whose face do they see at the center of their misery? At whose feet do they lay the blame for the debacle? Whose presence hath wrought such terrible tragedy?
Larry the Cable Guy.
I'll just come right out and say it -- I'm not a fan of Dan Whitney's creation. It's not that I can't understand why the character would have become successful, or even that I can't appreciate (or even admire) how Whitney himself has cultivated a broad and essentially one-note character into a cottage industry. The man's not untalented or lacking in charm or charisma, and no one can become successful in any industry -- perhaps especially show business -- without a solid work ethic and drive. My disinterest (and that's really what it is, I think) in Whitney's character ultimately comes down to the whole "comedy is subjective" thing; that is to say, what I find funny isn't necessarily what you find funny and vice versa.
And while I'd agree that a little of Whitney's "soft-hearted doofus" schtick does go a long way (and sometimes even longer than that), I didn't find it as obtrusive here as I did in the first "Cars." Frankly, I think he's a lot better in this movie than in that one, possibly thanks to the fact that the story isn't demanding a deeply emotional performance from him, but just wants to let him have fun playing an innocent abroad who gets caught inside a web of intrigue he doesn't understand, but somehow untangles anyway.
That his adventure actually turned out to be fun for me as well is why I'm recommending "Cars 2." Admittedly, it isn't first-tier Pixar, but it certainly isn't a crime against humanity (or movies) either. Three stars (out of four).