By Linc Leifeste | June 23, 2011
Director: John Lasseter, Brad Lewis (Co-director)
Writers: Ben Queen (screenplay), John Lasseter, Brad Lewis, Dan Fogelman (story)
Starring: (voice) Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Jason Issacs, Thomas Kretschmann
Sequels are always a tricky business. No matter how brilliant, original or entertaining a first film was you’ve lost the element of surprise the second time around. You can’t just trot out the same old dog and pony show and expect audiences to have the same reaction they did the first time around (well, I guess you can if you’re the Hangover II but that’s another review). It seems director John Lasseter may have taken to heart the common opinion that Cars was the least dazzling and engaging of all of Pixar’s roster of films because he’s pulled out the laid back nostalgic Americana heart of that film and replaced it with an international tachycardiac blend of two of his loves, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and the Bourne Trilogy, producing a much faster and louder beast, an escapist thriller with a syrupy-sweet heart of gold owing nearly as much to Fast Five as to Cars.
The film opens unexpectedly amidst a cluster of ocean-bound oil rigs with a thrilling spy/chase sequence, involving British spy Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) trying to escape the clutches of the diabolical monocle-wearing German scientist Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann)and his henchmen. Reminiscent of James Bond and his amazing gadgets, the sequence keeps topping itself as Finn’s automotive body keeps morphing to escape disaster one more time. As with any well done adrenaline-charged action film opening sequence, I was immediately drawn in.
From there the film moves to more familiar territory with a quick stop-over in Radiator Springs,where we see the triumphant racecar hero Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) return home for some down time with his countrified tow-truck buddy Rusty Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and other local pals, only to have his R&R cut short by Italian Formula 1 champion Francesco Bernoulli’s (John Turturro) challenge to race in the brand new World Grand Prix. A series of international races put together by wealthy Land Rover entrepeneur Sir Miles Axelrod, the Grand Prix is a high-profile way to prove the viability of his new alternative fuel, Allinol, as an alternative to gasoline. A sense of guilt prompts Lightning to bring Mater along, setting up the country-bumpkin abroad in sophisticated Europe theme that dominates much of the film. And with that the die is set,with the two seemingly seperate plot lines eventually melding into one.
Soon Lightning and Mater are off to Tokyo for the first leg of the race. Then on to Paris. Italy. London. The scenery may change but the story quickly settles in a rut, a frenetic rut but a rut nonetheless and there it stays. There are races, chases, more races and more chases and as the action becomes ever more frantic the generally predictable plot plays out. Mater, mistaken for an American spy by Finn McMissile and his fellow Brit spy Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), stumbles and bumbles his way into helping bust a clandestine organized crime syndicate that is intent on destroying the reputation of Allinol in order to guarantee the continued use of good old fashioned oil. And a la Scooby Doo, the mysterious leader of the crime syndicate is eventually revealed to be none other than…okay, I won’t spoil it but I doubt most viewers will have much trouble figuring it out on their own.
In a surprise move, Lasseter and crew decided to give Mater top billing this time around, pushing Lightning into more of a supporting role. Although I can appreciate the sentiment behind the message of accepting people for who they are and showing loyalty to your friends even when they’re an uncultured embarrasment, I found Mater’s over the top Southern-fried Get Smart routine quickly tiring (OK, I’ll admit I’m not a fan of Larry the Cable Guy).
While the animation is a joy to behold (with the film packed with so many visual and vocal gags that it’s impossible not to miss some of them) and the voice talent assembled is top notch, I found the film’s pleasures to diminish in direct proportion to the ever-increasing overload of action. For the most part, the throttle is down for the whole ride and it’s just a matter of whether the viewer finds that to be more exhilarating or exhausting. For me it was the latter and it wasn’t long before sensory overload set in. I will say that my interest lasted longer than that of my three year old son, who started to beg of me to take him home about 45 minutes in. I came away feeling that this is a movie geared primarily towards a pre-teen male audience, say between the ages of 7-12, for whom more is generally better.
A pleasant surprise was the absolutely charming new Toy Story short , Toy Story: Hawaiian Vacation, that ran before the film. After Ken and Barbie’s plans to stow away in Bonnie’s backpack to clandestinely attend the family vacation in Hawaii fail, Woody hilariously leads the crew in transforming Bonnie’s bedroom into Hawaii-lite in a valiant effort to put together the next best thing for the two love-birds.