Cars 2 (**)

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“…nothing more than a lemon, sitting amongst a fleet of luxury vehicles, hoping someone will take it home.”

In the can’t miss history of Pixar Animation, one film has never quite resonated with me like its counterparts. That film, 2006′s “Cars”, was entertaining and enjoyable and skillfully rendered on screen, and although I liked it and would give it a recommendation of a rating, in full disclosure it is the Pixar film I have watched the least. Now, five years have gone by and as I settled in to see this long-awaited sequel, I pondered why “Cars” is always overlooked by my kids when they pick a DVD to watch at home. In comparison to other Pixar films on heavy rotation at our house, the “Toy Story” trilogy has earned repeated spins, as have “Wall-E”, “Up”, “Monsters, Inc.”, “Finding Nemo”, and “The Incredibles” amongst others; but seldom, if ever, “Cars”.

Perhaps, I need not worry about whether the “Cars” franchise will click in my household anymore with the arrival of this sequel. “Cars 2″ is Pixar’s first misfire, an entertaining and majestically imaged animated film, but a misfire nonetheless. Anchored down heavily by a convoluted screenplay, “Cars 2″ accelerates towards cliche and away from originality. Sadly, much of the film’s humor, action, and attempts at sincerity fall flat when compared to other Pixar features, including this film’s 2006 predecessor.

Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) has become the preeminent racecar in the world after winning multiple championships, including the coveted Piston Cup, and he is headed back to Radiator Springs for a homecoming of sorts. He is anticipating seeing all of his old friends, but really looking to reconnect and spend some down time with the love of his life, Sally Carrera (B0nnie Hunt). McQueen’s return has made no one more happy though than good ol’ Mater (Larry The Cable Guy), the loyal and trustworthy 1950′s-style tow truck who considers McQueen his best friend. Mater helps everyone in Radiator Springs, running a towing company and offering assistance wherever he can. With McQueen back, Mater envisions the two spending all their time together and cannot fathom a situation where McQueen may not want the same.

As McQueen is having a date night with Sally, a rambunctious sports talk show pipes through on local television and McQueen is called out by Italian champion driver Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro) and denigrated as being an average racer at best. Bernoulli issues a challenge to McQueen to face him and the best of the world in a series of three races, comprising the first annual World Grand Prix. Consisting of races in Japan, Italy, and England, McQueen initially dismisses the idea and wants no part of it. However, Mater overhears Bernoulli’s boasts and when the announcer opens the phone lines to take calls on the subject, Mater gets through and starts defending McQueen. When McQueen finds Mater placing the call, he is perturbed at Mater’s behavior, but Bernoulli’s boasts and Mater’s impassioned defense of his friend essentially ends McQueen’s vacation and he accepts the challenge.

Concurrently, a team of British spies, Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) are working undercover and attempting to break up a secret underground illegal oil trade conglomerate. To add one other layer to these proceedings, an inventor and innovator in the racing community, Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard), has emerged as the creator of a new alternative fuel source dubbed Allinol. The product is so effective and the results so stellar that Allinol will be the official fuel used during the World Grand Prix. Without revealing too much here, eventually all of these characters and subplots come together in various ways, but by the time they do…you may have reached your proverbial E.

“Cars 2″ is a frustrating film to analyze because on the one hand…it looks fantastic. I am no expert on Japan, Italy, and/or the English settings for Grand Prix races, but from all accounts, great efforts have been made to capture the essence of each community the cars visit. The colors are bold and strong, the movement and racing sequences look flawless, and in certain scenes the 3D presentation is top notch and truly effective. In this regard, we have come to expect the very best in animation from Pixar and they deliver exemplary work once again.

But then you get to that story and it is as flooded as old cars get when you try and start them over and over and over again. Lasseter and his writing team, rumored to be much larger than what is actually credited on screen, stall out time and time again. The decision was made somewhere along the way to steer the narrative through Mater, a decision that feels commercial and merchandise-driven, almost disingenuous. I am sure a lot of kids have Lightning McQueen cars and toys and whatnot, but Mater is the character everyone seemingly remembers with fondness from the 2006 film. So, I cannot say that I am all that surprised that he is front and center here.

Rapidly and rather startlingly, the limitations of Mater and Larry The Cable Guy really drag this film down to the dregs. Mater is endearing yes, but also selfish and overbearing to the point where you almost defend McQueen being mean to him and not including him along the way. When McQueen tries to explain to Mater that he needs a break and wants to spend some time with Sally, Mater flat out does not get it. We do. He doesn’t, but McQueen is the mean guy? Hmmm…

And yet, McQueen takes Mater on an all expenses paid trip around the world. So obviously Lasseter’s team expects us to laugh out loud at the Southern-simple tow truck traveling the world spouting off his witticisms and catch phrases. Alas, a little bit of Mater goes a really long way I am afraid in this installment and for stretches of time, I wanted Mater to idle down and go away for awhile.

In an animation world where Pixar routinely dominate all the major awards when it comes to animated films and have contributed 2 of the only 3 animated films to ever be nominated for Best Picture of the Year (2009′s “Up” and 2010′s “Toy Story 3″), I can safely tell fans of “Rio”, “Rango”, “Kung Fu Panda 2″, and all the other major animated features yet to arrive in 2011, the race is wide open this year. “Cars 2″ simply doesn’t have the horsepower to compete this year.

This was bound to happen. Pixar could not possibly keep up this track record of having every film they produce serve as groundbreaking, leaving profound impressions on everyone who sees their work. So as watchable as “Cars 2″ is, this is the clunker. Lasseter’s team are to be heralded for producing a dazzling film to watch and I acknowledge that in that sense, the visuals will likely be enough to make the kids happy, fans of the first film accepting, and those appeasing their children, nieces, nephews, or grandchildren satisfied.

Yet for me to push this into a recommended rating, (and I strongly considered nudging this up another half-a-star), I just need more. I need more than a simple “It looks great!” tagline to justify encouraging people to rush out to the theater or purchase the DVD/Blu-Ray in the fall of 2011.

“Cars 2″ just is not cohesively good enough to recommend it, despite your kids likely enjoying most of it. The film has too much going on and is perpetually in neutral with uninteresting plot contrivances and characters who come off as annoying, unlikable, or just lacking any substance. It pains me to say this, but “Cars 2″ is nothing more than a lemon, sitting amongst a fleet of luxury vehicles, hoping someone will take it home.

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My love of film began at the age of 7 when my parents not only gave me a television, but HBO to boot. My first theatrical experience was "E.T." My first movie cry came with "Old Yeller". "The Usual Suspects" made me decide to make movies and film writing a priority in life, even knowing the twist beforehand. My passion for film, music, and pop culture in general can be isolated to my youth. My love for film took root in high school. Above all else, movies and art, in any form, exist to entertain and I remain much more interested in how art affects others, more than with myself. But I love the conversation and to have a chance to share my thoughts and be a part of the community here is a unique and enriching experience.