Cars 2

Cars 2

I was curious to see this latest Pixar movie. It’s the worst-reviewed of any of their films, and the first one in a long time that KC and I didn’t see in the theater, knowing it would be available on home video soon enough. And here it is!

Cars 2 wasn’t what I expected, and I’m glad I saw it, but I recommend it only with caveats, so that viewers are aware how it differs from the usual Pixar film. The first thing to know is that very few of the characters from the first movie have a significant role in this sequel. Also, it’s Mater’s movie, so if you have a limited tolerance for his down-home country-boy voice and shenanigans, be warned.

Cars 2

It also, surprisingly, has a minimal character arc. Pixar movies are usually strong in both story and character development, but this one, instead of showing someone’s growth or lessons learned, just plays with the elements of a familiar genre, the globe-trotting spy caper. Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) serve as bridging characters to introduce this new story type and cast.

Not Your Typical Pixar Film

Michael Caine is the voice of Finn McMissile, a British sports car/secret agent. There’s a certain amount of comedy in seeing animated cars go through all the expected conventions of the espionage movie genre — the wireline entrance, the middle-of-the-night meeting to examine contraband crates, the speedboat chase (except they don’t need a separate boat). I imagine, to the kid audience, it’s all a bit fresher and doesn’t feel so cliched. Although kids might not appreciate details like how all the evil cars are lemons like Gremlins and Pacers.

Michael Caine as Finn McMissile

Michael Caine as Finn McMissile

Lightning is competing in the World Grand Prix, and with some trepidation, he’s taken Mater along, which causes comedy misunderstandings around the globe. After visiting Tokyo, they go to Paris, Italy, and London, all populated by nothing but cars. Billionaire Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard) has put the big race together to promote his new alternative fuel, which has also attracted the interest of bad guys.

While McQueen races (in what becomes a sub-plot), Mater plays with his spy friends and goofs things up. I think that broad character shouldn’t have been asked to carry the movie. He works best for me in limited doses, and reliance on Mater means the film has a more episodic, gag-based structure. This struck me as a classic case of over-promoting a great supporting character under the mistaken theory that more of a good thing is always better. However, I’m told he’s immensely popular with the kids — perhaps they see themselves in his goofy exaggerations? Plus, there isn’t enough with the pre-existing, familiar characters I’d like to spend more time with. They’re left behind in Radiator Springs.

Graphically Impressive

Cars in Tokyo

On the positive side, the movie is very colorful and visually stunning. The view of Tokyo as a kind of neon amusement park populated by cute mascots and vending machines has to be seen to be believed. There are also geisha cars and sumo cars. The segment plays like a music video, and that’s how this film was constructed — as a set of nifty ideas or spot gags. What would a car secret agent be? How would cars travel in planes? What if a world capital was populated by cars? What would happen when Mater tried wasabi, not knowing what it was? Clever ideas, some of them, but the underlying structure to hold it all together is lacking.

For us older viewers, there’s a LOT going on here, almost to the point of sensory overload. There’s so much happening with the imagery and backgrounds and bright lighting and colors and pervasive shininess that it’s a must for home video, because you’re never going to notice everything on just one viewing. It’s also well-suited for a TV set, where you keep pausing to get a snack or figure out who’s playing a particular car (Bruce Campbell! Emily Mortimer! John Turturro! Joe Mantegna!) or giggle over an obvious but goofy joke.

Suitable for Kids?

Some parents have expressed concern over the level of violence in this movie. They’re only cartoon cars, but they do carry guns, shoot at each other, and some are “killed”. Younger kids may also find the movie hard to follow, since they don’t have the genre references, and there’s no strong story through-line to carry the viewer. It’s at least two plots mashed together, which can be complicated.

We don’t learn anything new about these characters — there’s no journey, as in the first movie, where they learn to be better beings — instead, it’s pure comedy/adventure, with overwhelming visuals to paper over the story gaps. The message, such as it is, is that it’s always ok to be yourself, but that quickly falls apart if you think about it. It’s not ok for Mater to be that ignorant of other countries’ customs, culture, and laws, even if it is funny. (I will say he provided the biggest laugh of the picture, though, when he introduces one of his new British friends to his old buddies — “He’s a secret agent! Don’t tell no one!”)

Mater and his spy friends

Mater and his spy friends

Summing Up

I don’t mind an animated film that emphasizes the pretty pictures and new techniques, because that’s one of the medium’s strengths. If this didn’t have the Pixar brand on it, it would have been just fine as a summer kids’ movie. However, because hopes are so high for the quality of productions under that name, it seems disappointing compared to their other releases. Cars 2 lacks the essential quality of “heart” that makes the best Pixar films so outstanding. It got lost in trying to feature too many characters and have too much going on.

At least it ends on a high note — I liked the end song, “Collision of Worlds”, by Brad Paisley and Robbie Williams, and the way they compare US and UK words and items.

Special Features

I was late converting to Blu-ray, so I spent a while feeling left out when I heard about exclusive special features available only on that format. I should have known, now that I’m watching Blu-rays, they’d come up with yet another level of bonus. I have the regular Blu-ray edition (since there’s no reason to go 3-D for home viewing — the technology isn’t sufficient yet), and that means I didn’t get any of the featurettes or behind-the-scenes material, which is only available on the super-deluxe 3-D editions: the five-disc combo pack (including a 3-D version, Blu-ray, DVD, and digital copy) or the even bigger 11-disc collector’s edition (which adds to that package the first Cars on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital copy, plus the same for Cars Toon: Mater’s Tall Tales).

This seems like yet another big-studio attempt to raise the standard home video price, since 3-D Blu-ray list prices start at $50, instead of the $40 “regular” disc Blu-ray package. I resent the 3-D edition now being the one to have all the special features, since most customers have rejected the need for that “upgrade”. It shouldn’t surprise me, though, that they’re trying to drive buyers to that format.

The standard Blu-ray combo pack and the single-disc DVD both have two new cartoons (see below) and director John Lasseter’s commentary. The expensive packages add:

  • (According to PR): An interactive “World Tour” map that takes viewers through nine different locations, including those featured in the film and more. A global thrill ride, it allows viewers to go behind-the-scenes with the Pixar artists and filmmakers as they circle the globe finding inspiration for the most international of all Pixar films to date. 
  • Sneak Peek: The Nuts and Bolts of Cars Land. I’m assuming this is promo for the new rides featuring the characters they’re building at Disney California Adventure to open in 2012.
  • Deleted scenes

Additional Cartoons

All of the disc versions include two more short cartoons.

“Toy Story Toon: Hawaiian Vacation” screened in theaters with the Cars 2 movie. It’s almost six minutes of the favorite toy characters trying to give Barbie and Ken the Hawaiian Vacation of the title while stuck in the toy room.

I loved it. True to the characters, it also features all the right voice cast. I was pleasantly surprised at how many of the toys they could fit into the short running time. My only caveat was that it maintains some of the problematic gender characterizations of the original films, such as Mrs. Potato Head as a shrill fun-spoiler, or how most of the active toys are male, with the female toys there for decoration.

The new cartoon is “Cars Toon: Air Mater” (5:22), an installment of “Mater’s Tall Tales”. Unsurprisingly, it promotes Planes, the direct-to-video Cars spinoff coming Spring 2013. Yes, it’s a commercial for the next movie, disguised as an extra in which Mater goes to a nearby airport. It’s weird seeing Mater in goggles and strapped-on wings swooping around.

There’s also a sneak peek trailer of Planes, promoted as “from above the world of Cars“, included in the package.

Sneak Peeks

I find it enlightening to see what Disney considers the next big things to push. Here, the before-movie ads included the Lady and the Tramp Diamond Edition, a Blu-ray release coming in February 2012. I was sad that, instead of using any of the classic Peggy Lee music in the trailer, they scored it to the chorus of Ingrid Michaelson’s “Everybody“.

Also promoted was a teaser for Disney Studio All Access, which sounds like their version of UltraViolet, a digital locker to access content from multiple devices. (The studio provided a review copy.)


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