Lightning, Mater on the road, again
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, June 24, 2011
“Cars 2” features a lot more of two things: Mater, the rusty, rednecky tow truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, and car racing.
On the surface, this sounds as though the appeal of the sequel to the animated “Cars” might be limited, somewhat, to the NASCAR demographic, or at least a whole lot more than the first film was. While there were a few racing scenes in the original 2006 film, most of that story centered on the distinctive “personalities” of its talking-car characters — hotshot stock car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), cranky vintage racer Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), sexy Porsche Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt) — and their relationships with one another.
As lovable as Mater is, let’s face it: A little bit of Larry the Cable Guy goes a long way.
Fortunately, “Cars 2” is a long, looong way from Talladega, not to mention from Radiator Springs, the remote Southwestern town where Mater lives, and where the first movie took place. Set in Tokyo, London and a picturesque Italian village during a three-part, international race to determine the fastest car in the world, “Cars 2” boasts eye-popping scenery of far-flung locales and thrilling race sequences. It’s a visually stunning film. Unfortunately, the sequel shortchanges the very relationships that gave the first movie its surprising heart.
The overly complicated plot of “Cars 2” centers on a mystery — specifically, a secret weapon that threatens Lightning and his fellow racers, and the identity of the shadowy figure who’s using it.
Two British secret agents are on the case: Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). McMissile, unsurprisingly, bears more than a passing resemblance to James Bond’s tricked-out Aston Martin, if designed by Inspector Gadget. It’s very cleverly done.
In general, so is the entire film. But cleverness is no substitute for emotion. The intrigue — in which Mater gets mixed up when he’s taken for an American spy — excites but does not engage. A subplot involving a rift in Mater and Lightning’s friendship feels perfunctory, like an attempt to tack a moral onto a thriller.
Many of the film’s best gags have to do with the comic culture shock Mater experiences abroad, as when he encounters a high-tech Japanese toilet during the leg of the race in Tokyo. Actually, it’s part toilet, part repair bay, complete with hydraulic lift and automatic parts washer. As in the first film, the car-centric world brought to vivid life by directors John Lasseter and Brad Lewis, writer Ben Queen and the Pixar animation team is beautifully imagined. The film is full of wry, automotive takes on human life, such as the quick, almost throwaway shot of cars moving through airport security — with their tires removed.
As he did with “The Incredibles” and numerous other film scores, chameleonic composer Michael Giacchino beautifully evokes the jazzy, jet-setting music that propelled old spy thrillers, and their subsequent spoofs. (Think Burt Bacharach in “Casino Royale.”)
But as smart-looking and as sharp-sounding as “Cars 2” mostly is, the central mystery about the identity of the villain — a car whose engine has been identified, but whose body is never shown, and whose voice has been electronically altered — just isn’t much of a mystery. At least not for anyone who has seen more than one or two “Scooby-Doo” cartoons.
That said, there’s enough to like about “Cars 2” to make for a pleasant ride. It may not be fully loaded, but there’s still enough gas in the tank to get you around the track one more time.
Contains nothing offensive.