With "Cars 2," Pixar goes somewhere new: the ditch.
Reprising its least-inspired effort (albeit one that has spawned a $2 billion aftermarket in toys, T-shirts and lunchboxes), the studio has rolled out an inferior encore. "Cars 2" is one "Cars" too many.
Is it awful? No, just humdrum. Does it look astonishing? Yes, but so do "Transformers" movies. Will children like it? Yes; they are children. Is it up to Pixar's standards? It is so-so by DreamWorks' standards.
Saddled with a hectic story, flat-lining character arcs and action sequences apparently conceived as levels for a video game, "Cars 2" is all motion and no emotion.
The film was directed by John Lasseter, who oversees the entire animated output for both Pixar and Walt Disney Studios. Lasseter's usually resonant approach of strong storytelling and memorable characters is sidelined here; maybe he's stretched thin. An aura of creative fatigue hangs over the film like diesel fumes.
As we recall from his 2006 debut, Lightning McQueen, the speedy red racer voiced by Owen Wilson, was once a stuck-up sophisticate. When fate trapped him in the sleepy desert town of Radiator Springs, he lamented, "I'm in hillbilly hell. My IQ is dropping by the minute. I'm becoming one of them!" By the end of "Cars," the hotshot had learned to take life at a slower pace, enjoying the homey burg and its amiable hicks.
For their second outing, Lightning takes a world tour with sidekick Tow Mater (a rusty salvage truck voiced by Danny Whitney, aka Larry the Cable Guy). They pack plenty of clamor and shtick but scarcely any soul.
With his lowbrow pal in tow to provide dumb jokes, Lightning enters a globe-hopping Formula 1 race sponsored by an alternative-fuel magnate. With its elaborate international settings, the film feels more bloated than big. At every stop, Mater embarrasses Lightning with comments like, "Is the Popemobile Catholic?" and mishaps with the toilets in Japan (there are numerous potty gags here, besmirching Pixar's reputation). In a second plot strand, superspy Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and his aide Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) use their spy gear and firepower to bring down a cabal of clunkers scheming to sabotage the race.
The first film was a gentle satire of salt-of-the-earth Americans -- and by extension the audience -- that was executed with aw-shucks charm. The sequel piles on scenes of Mater's inappropriate idiocy as he becomes the lead character and Lightning recedes to the background. The country bumpkin is pulled into the spy thriller subplot through -- sigh -- mistaken identity, and there we all are, trapped in hillbilly hell, our IQs eroding by the second. After brilliant films like "The Incredibles" and "Ratatouille" celebrated excellence and sophistication, it stings to see a Pixar release champion a narrow, ignorant worldview.
We expect more than perfunctory time-wasters from the wizards who brought us "Up," the "Toy Story" series and "Wall-E." Heck, we expect more than entertainment. We view their films to experience enchantment. This time we get disenchantment.
The good news is that Pixar hasn't lost its touch. Before "Cars 2" begins, there's "Toy Story Hawaiian Vacation," a playful short about the toys turning Bonnie's room into a tropical paradise when Barbie and Ken's plan to hitch a ride to Waikiki in Bonnie's backpack goes awry. In under 6 minutes, it delivers more laughs, heart and art than the two-hour film that follows.