I will not ask why Cars 2 exists because I've seen the merchandising figures from the first film. Nevertheless, it's a question I couldn't force out of my mind while watching this two-hour bore. After a string of ambitious, beautiful films that established Pixar as one of the most respected studios on Earth, they finally sink to the sad state of their bosses at Disney. This isn't a film, it's a preview of coming attractions at a theme park. I didn't stay through all the credits, but I nearly did just to see if it ended with an advertisement to come check out Cars Land next year at Disney California Adventure.
Underlining the sheer cynicism of this film's conception is the near-total lack of characterization. John Lasseter, whose erstwhile evocation of the young, winsomely childlike George Lucas here brings out the mercenary side of the Star Wars creator, transparently structures the film to avoid personal connection in favor of selling toys. Forgettable as the first Cars was, it at least spent time with its characters; Cars 2 throttles past the drama between Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and his loving but tiresome best friend Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), preferring instead to get in as many new vehicles as possible to make sure Disney's merchandise wing ends this year in the black.
For whatever reason, Cars 2 plays out both as a world-spanning Grand Prix and a spy movie, forcing incessant cuts between McQueen's unimportant exhibition match and an insultingly simplistic spy mystery that even a child could guess within the span of about 10 minutes. The two threads converge over a new alternative fuel pushed by a reformed oil tycoon (Eddie Izzard), the race sponsored by Axelrod to test and promote his new product and the spy stuff uncovering a plot by Big Oil to protect its interests. You thought the environmental message in Wall•E was on the nose? At least that was part of a beautiful and beautifully told story; here, Lasseter just ladles on some social commentary in the midst of his choppily edited action sequences.
There's something profoundly disturbing about the perception of this film as Pixar's most kid-friendly movie, considering the casual gun violence sprinkled throughout. Other Pixar movies contain danger and more ambitious ideas, but that doesn't exclude them from children. This film, on the other hand, is insipid and shiny and hollow, Pixar's first great capitulation to ADD. Because it makes no effort to get the audience to care about any character, Cars 2 can have fun with its explosions and gunfire without worrying about a child getting upset. Compare the banal "suspense" scenes of contrived danger here to the wrenching near-death of Wall•E: if Lightning McQueen suddenly contracted HIV (CIV?) I still wouldn't care about him.
Admittedly, Cars 2 has the decency to sport some of Pixar's strongest animation. Like its predecessor, the film offers the animators a chance to particularly hone their lighting work, and Cars 2 at times outstrips the look of anything the studio has done. The belched flames of oil refineries look even more real than the swirling inferno of Toy Story 3's incinerator, and the animated Tokyo might be even more dazzling than the real thing. But nothing ever wows in this movie. Whatever magic Tokyo might have held is instantly dispelled by the stereotypical humor used for cheap laughs (hahaha Japanese toilets are confusing!), while the nature of the Cars universe continues to be so vexing I can never connect with it.
Why do the cars eat when they seem to fill up like real automobiles? Who built any of this world without hands? Are the vehicles born or manufactured? (I think the answer to this one is both, depending on the setup.) And why are there shitting metal detectors in an airport? I know it's a cartoon, but that only means this childish response is all the more appropriate: I don't like this world. I don't like its meaningless, undeveloped characters. I don't like its villains all cheap models like Gremlins and Pacers, an unfunny joke period and certainly one that won't work on children. I don't like its environment, meticulously animated solely for visual and spoken puns and never given flavor and personality the way Ratatouille's Paris, Wall•E's trash-ridden Earth or the various playpens of the Toy Story movies are. And I don't like its puerile, inconsistent humor, none of which connects because the characters are so undefined they provide no anchor for the comedy.
Cars 2 wants to tread in the same waters as the first film, stressing the importance of friendship, but Pixar already developed this theme with far greater resonance in the Toy Story pictures. And with Mater jet-setting around with British spies Finn McMissile (Michael Caine, the only person even trying to give his character some flavor) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), Lasseter never even bothers to flesh out Mater's insecurity and hurt feelings save for clumsily inserted scenes of reflection. And don't even get me started on the rivalry between McQueen and Italian F1 racer Francesco (John Turturro), a mutual dislike so dull that the filmmakers can only hope that we care about who wins based on past familiarity with the American car.
Cars 2 will make its money, perhaps even faring a bit better overseas now that it adds more European and Asian models, but if every Pixar film sets out to prove some artistic or moral point, Cars 2's message seems to be open, cynical confirmation that the studio truly can make not merely a weak film but a dismal, greedy one. Be sure to bring a copy of your disappointment with you to California next year, everyone; you'll get a Fastpass for half price.