Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Second Look - Cars 2

Note: This review contains spoilers for Cars 2.

I will admit that when I first saw Cars 2 in a theater, my expectations weren’t that high because of how generally underwhelming I found the original Cars film in comparison to Pixar’s output at the time, however I didn’t expect to walk away feeling disappointed at the time for what felt like a poorly-executed storyline for Pixar. This even led me to outright skip the original theatrical run of Cars 3 due to my reaction to Cars 2, though in the years since then I decided to give Cars 2 another chance after watching Cars 3 on Disney+ and finding it surprisingly good. Unfortunately, however, I still wasn’t that impressed by Cars 2, though now I have a better understanding as to why.

Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) investigates an oil rig, spying on a group of lemon cars led by Professor Zündapp (Thomas Kretschmann). While gathering intel on an EMP emitter disguised as a camera, Finn is spotted and manages to make a getaway before he can gather further information. Meanwhile, after Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) assists a lemon car on the side of the road, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) returns to Radiator Springs after winning his fourth Piston Cup so he can relax. At the same time, the World Racing Grand Prix is being set up to promote an alternative fuel source known as Allinoll, with Italian racer Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro) trash talking Lighting McQueen on TV during its promotion. Mater doesn’t take kindly to this and calls to defends Lighting, though Lighting accepts the challenge and is convinced to bring Mater along.

Perhaps the biggest weakness with Cars 2 is its unfocused story. While it starts off as a spy story, it soon after wants to be a racing story and it can’t seem to decide which one it wants to be as it gets epically sidetracked by the spy narrative. Not helping things is that, while Mater is fine in small doses in the other Cars films, his character gets a bit grating when he is given the spotlight for the bulk of the runtime as part of said spy narrative.

Mater (Larry the Cable Guy, left) is the main character for some reason.

After watching the movie a second time, I could tell what the emotional core of the story is supposed to be, however the execution feels a bit half-baked. During the first race of the World Grand Prix, after Mater had gotten wrapped up in the spy plot, a miscommunication results in him accidentally costing Lightning the race, causing Lighting to snap at him. After Mater leaves to get out of his way, Lightning suddenly wants Mater back in his pit crew despite having every justification to be mad at him, causing Lightning’s character arc in the movie to come off a little out of character. While it is understandable that Lightning would want to apologize to Mater, wanting him to come back under the current circumstances feels less so.

I will admit I’m not too knowledgeable on foreign cultures, nor will I pretend to speak for them, however their depictions in the movie seemed a little exaggerated, such as the British scenes featuring what seemed like all of the jokes. In the nearly 10 years since I last watched Cars 2, I have gotten somewhat more familiar with Japanese culture and so much of its depiction in the movie didn’t seem too far off to me, such as the general depiction of Japanese television and how seriously Japanese culture takes cuteness. I can’t say for certain how much public toilets in Japan differ from those in America, however an extended joke about how complicated they apparently are seemed unnecessary and more like an exaggeration for the sake of comedy.

I think what may have helped the story is if it were split into two movies: One theatrically-released film about racing and one possibly DTV spin-off about the spy stuff. Finn McMissile seems like the protagonist of a whole other story entirely, so giving him his own movie would probably have allowed the spy storyline to be done better justice without having to be part of a Cars movie. Additionally, I could see the idea with the subplot about Lightning McQueen learning to accept Mater for who he is outside the context of Radiator Springs, however I feel it was ultimately mishandled and that it might've been a stronger story if that was the main focus in addition to the racing storyline without being buried underneath the spy elements. The idea of Lightning McQueen being affected by Doc Hudson heavily implied to have passed away, which was a circumstance of the late Paul Newman's own passing, was also a great idea to explore, however this would not be fully realized until the events of Cars 3 and as a result has next to no impact on the events of Cars 2.

The animation is generally on-par with Pixar’s other output around the same time and holds up even now. The environments have a great amount of detail and care is taken to give different types of cars and other vehicles different textures to make them stand out from one another, such as Lightning McQueen and other race cars having a shinier finish and Mater having an appropriately rusty look. One thing that hasn’t aged well, however, is the fire effects in the opening oil rig sequence, looking cheap and unfinished in contrast with the other visual effects in the film.

Some of the fire effects in the opening sequence look cheap.
Pictured: Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) 

The voice acting is generally good, with returning voice actors continuing to give good performances with what they were given to work with. Given Mater’s increased screen time, Larry the Cable Guy is able to display more emotional range in some scenes to give the character some depth, however Mater’s personality undermines this more often than not. The music is of a generally good quality as well, though I did observe that the background music of the spy sequences takes a lot of cues from those found in the James Bond film series, making the inspiration for said sequences a lot more obvious.

While Pixar has put out some arguably weaker movies since the release of Cars 2, such as Brave, The Good Dinosaur and Incredibles 2, it still stands as easily the weakest film in Pixar’s entire filmography so far. The storytelling especially suffers from being unfocused and indecisive with multiple plotlines going on at once that ultimately feel underdeveloped, not to mention the questionable decision to center it around a character who cannot carry a feature-length story on his own. I would only really recommend this film to those who want the full Pixar or Cars experience, otherwise you can safely skip this one and go straight into Cars 3 without missing anything.

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