Saturday, June 25, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: Cars 2

CARS 2-- 4 STARS

Official Website
Internet Movie Database

Last year on this blog, a sumptuous review was posted on Toy Story 3 outlining the definition of "perfection" and how rare the examples are in movies and in life.  The chief example discussed was the perfect track record of Pixar Animation Studios.  Over the past 15 years, they've been unbeatable for eleven movies and, after last summer's Toy Story 3, are coming off their first billion dollar worldwide hit.  Their two lowest grossing movies (the first Toy Story and A Bug's Life) still made north of $360 million each.  Ten of their eleven films have scored over 90% approval on Rotten Tomatoes (two of which with 100%, one at 99%, and another at 98%).  Even their worst reviewed movie before this week, the first Cars in 2006, is still "Certified Fresh" at 74% on Rotten Tomatoes and made over $460 million (and don't forget the $10 billion in inescapable Cars-related merchandise sold since then) at the box office.

As hinted, that was before this weekend.  Cars 2 is getting killed by critics, scoring a dismal 36% so far on Rotten Tomatoes.  That's a far cry from Pixar's 90%+ track record and even the original's 74%.  Has Pixar's run of perfection been broken?  Yes and no.  While Cars 2 is nowhere close to the Oscar-winning near-masterpieces of the last four years (Toy Story 3, Up, Wall-E, and Ratatouille), it is still a fun and entertaining family fun with plenty of laugh and cheer.  Unlike those last four Pixar movies, Cars 2 is not trying to be taken seriously and shouldn't be put on that pedestal. 

Cars 2 introduces us (in a snappy opening action scene) to Britsh spy car Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) infiltrating a suspicious oil platfrom where the devious Professor Zundap (Thomas Kretschmann) is up to something regarding a fuel cover-up involving regular oil and a new alternative fuel, Allinol.  The renewable fuel comes from former oil tycoon Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard), who's promoting and sponsoring the first ever World Grand Prix.  The racing exhibition has drawn the top race cars in the world, including the dashing and conceited Italian open-wheel racer Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro, doing what he does best).

The competition draws in America's own Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), now four-time Piston Cup champion.  He's between seasons in his Radiator Springs home while schmoozing with Sally Carerra (Bonnie Hunt) and catching up with rusty BFF Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy).  While in Tokyo for the first race of the World Grand Prix, Mater accidentally meets Finn's spy partner, Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), and gets mistaken as an American agent while thinking he's just gotten a date with her.

This meeting causes a chain reaction of espionage movie cliches, battles, rescues, and hijinks.  The embarrassing fish-out-of-water Mater is now roped into Finn and Holly's mission to uncover what's really going on with a gang of lemon cars (Professor Zundap and his Pacer, Gremlin, and other crappy model cohorts) and their sabotaging of the World Grand Prix races.  From here, Cars 2 really becomes more about Mater than superstar Lightning McQueen.  If you like Mater's redneck persona and Larry the Cable Guy's "I tell you what, that's funny right there" routine, you'll enjoy the mischief he keeps getting into across Paris, Italy, and London.  If you don't like Mater and Larry, Cars 2 has the chance to really get old for you. 

Cars 2 gives us a fun James Bond-style brainless plot that flat out entertains.  Could it have continued the nostalgic Rt. 66 route of the original?  Sure, but where's fun in more NASCAR scenarios?  Besides, any plot stateside would need Doc Hudson, but you can't replace the late Paul Newman.  It's bad enough that we have to watch the also-departed George Carlin get replaced for hippie VW van Fillmore.

Just as in any Pixar movie and continuing from the automobile-everything design of the original, the technical and animated detail in Cars 2 is astounding.  Director and Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter is an unabashed "gearhead" and it shows. The reflective shine, metallic sheen, and engine roars are all improved from the first movie.  From the "cargoyles" of Notre Dame and London to little "pigeon" prop planes that scatter in Italian piazzas and the ever-present hood-and-fender physical geography, there are so many visual treats to catch in Cars 2.  To no surprise, every Pixar movie looks great.

Can't a movie like Cars 2 just be fun?  We watch and love all kinds of brainless action movies (last week's Green Lantern qualifies and just about any 80s action movie) and cheesy animated movies (you parents that actually paid money to see two Alvin and the Chipmunks movies, Yogi Bear, and Gnomeo and Juliet among dozens of others), right?  Why can't the beloved Pixar take a year off from making Best Picture-worthy nominees and make one for fun too?  Go ahead.  To this critic, they've earned a pass (yet, they might need two because Monsters University an uneasy sounding prequel to Monsters, Inc. is coming Summer 2013) as long as the movie is fun.

LESSON #1: WHOEVER FINDS A FRIEND FINDS A TREASURE-- This is a charming quote of advice given to Mater in the film.  Like many Pixar and Disney movies, Cars 2 continues the tradition of making sure the children in the audience value friendship and make good ones when they leave the movie.  In a world of Facebook and social media, reminding kids how valuable a personal and real metal-and-chrome... err... flesh-and-blood friend is just fine.

LESSON #2: BE YOURSELF--  The character-building lesson of the first Cars, thanks to a great Brad Paisley song (he's got two more in this movie) was to "find yourself," speaking to Lightning McQueen learning that winning isn't everything.  In the sequel, it's be yourself.  Mater is a redneck of the most extreme kind of fool about a lot of things.  He's going to be a fish out of water when he goes overseas, but that's why we love him.

LESSON #3: DON'T ASK PEOPLE TO CHANGE-- To go right along with Lesson #2, Mater's uncouth ways are embarrassing to Lightning McQueen on the big racing stage.  He mistakenly wishes Mater could either clean up his act in public or leave him alone.  We all can relate to having that one friend who's a little out of place when out of their element, dresses funny, or acts stupid too often around us.  Don't ask friends like that to change.  We are friends with them for who they are and things wouldn't be the same if they became different.  Those quirks and flaws are likely why we grew to love and like them in the first place.