Don’t tell the kids, but Santa Claus isn’t real and Pixar is fallible.
The original 2006 “Cars” — though the least compelling of Pixar’s 11 previous features — is a Lamborghini compared to the Edsel that is “Cars 2.”
Even worse, Pixar didn’t seem to learn its lesson from the first film. Which is: Cars just don’t anthropomorphize as well as, say, toys (the “Toy Story” trilogy), monsters (“Monsters, Inc.”), insects (“A Bug’s Life”), fish (“Finding Nemo”) or even culinary-inclined rats (“Ratatouille”).
Automobiles are clunky. They’re metallic. They have four wheels and are low to the ground. Their faces (comprised of headlights, grills and fenders) are less than expressive.
“Cars 2” inherits that stumbling block and then compounds it by shifting the spotlight from Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), the shiny red race-car hero of the first film, to his dim bulb sidekick, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy, whose mother calls him Daniel Lawrence Whitney), a rusted-out, tomato red tow truck.
But there’s more. Pixar has opted to turn "Cars 2," a movie co-directed and co-written by chief creative officer John Lasseter, into an international espionage thriller on wheels.
Bad choice. The movie plays like a wannabe kiddie version cross between the “Fast and Furious” and James Bond franchises. It’s not just on tires, but tired.
The opening sequence, if it doesn’t have young viewers running from the theater in terror, will certainly leave them totally confused and poking parents to ask, “What’s happening?” It’s set on a deep-sea oil-drilling platform and murkily introduces Finn McMissle (Michael Caine), a British secret agent car. Under cover of night, he’s snooping around on the platform, only to be pounced upon and nearly destroyed in a hail of gunfire by a bunch of villainous vehicles.
From there, we go back to Radiator Springs, the small town setting of the first film, to find Lighting and Mater tooling around. Their hometown sojourn ends when Lightning enters the World Prix, an international race with segments in Tokyo, Italy and London, and he brings Mater along with him.
At which point, the plot kicks into high gear as Mater is mistaken in Tokyo by Finn and a fellow British agent, Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), for a friendly American spy. They are hoping that Mater can help them figure out who is trying to destroy Lightning and otherwise perpetrate an evil plot to sabotage a new alternative fuel.
It’s all more than a little confusing and only fitfully engaging. There’s toilet humor (literally, in an extended scene in a high-tech Japanese bathroom), automotive jokes and lots of spy jokes.
The single best joke: in Japan, Mater mistakes wasabi sauce for pistachio ice cream and gulps down an extra large serving. (Then again, how many small fry are going to get a wasabi joke?)
“Cars 2” strikes me as a trainer film meant to prepare kid viewers to become future consumers of all the vroom-vroom genre crap that Hollywood is going to feed them in coming years. After all, if you like gleaming, fast, cartoon cars as a 6-year old, you’re going to love shiny, loud, aggressive cars that turn into robots in “Transformers 55” when you’re a 16 year old, and you’re going to flip for whatever James Bond is driving in the umpteenth 007 flick when you’re 26, or 36, and beyond.
All that said, “Cars 2” is preceded by “Toy Story: Hawaiian Vacation,” a short that is a pure delight. In it, Barbie and Ken’s planned tropical vacation gets canceled, so Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the rest of their toy buddies create a fake Hawaii for the two right in the playroom.
This short has all the heart, humor, fun and sheer kick that’s missing from “Cars 2,” giving me hope that Pixar simply took a temporary detour off the right track with that clunking heap of metal.