The first CARS film told kids to stop and smell the roses once in a while. In CARS 2 those roses are just a blur in the rearview mirror. CARS 2 is a different animal altogether from the first film - while that film wasn't afraid to take its time, CARS 2 moves like the spy movies that it emulates.
I'm a Pixar enthusiast, but I always felt that CARS was the weakest film in their catalog. For one thing, the world doesn't make any logical sense. I realize that these films aren't made for me, but still, I don't understand the concept of the world. I can only perceive the film on the level that my friend Jeremy describes - CARS is a sequel to MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, and the machines won. It's years later, and everyone's just so gosh-darn happy about all the humans being dead. Taken from that aspect, sure, the world makes sense. When I visited Pixar earlier this year, I asked one of the set designers, who was describing the influence of the vehicular world on the architecture, how a world without people in it functions the way the CARS world does. "We tend to just not go there," he said, and I left it at that. But the world bugs the crap out of me. I ranted to the family on the way home that the world makes no sense, and the wife sighed and let me spout off. But if the first film doesn't address how the world works, CARS 2 does things that defy even that film's world-building. If you're wanting CARS 2 to explain the universe it inhabits, you may as well wish for a pony while you're at it.
That said, I admired CARS quite a bit. It's a beautiful film, sweet in nature, and yeah, I dig the message for the kids. CARS 2 isn't CARS. It's an action film through and through, homaging all the great spy films from James Bond, to THE IPCRESS FILES, to the Bourne films, and when it's sticking to the espionage angle, the film is actually quite riveting. That's mostly due to the efforts of Michael Caine as Finn McMissile, who is easily the most interesting and entertaining character and I would have loved a full-length feature on him alone. Emily Mortimer as Holley Shiftwell is also a terrific new character, an agent on her first real mission, and kids will love the gadgets and the action that come with both Finn and Holley. Parents will too.
Unfortunately, they have to give up much of their screen time to Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and Mater (Larry The Cable Guy), and their story isn't nearly as interesting. McQueen is invited to race at the World Grand Prix in Tokyo, Porto Corsa, and London, and he takes Mater along. Mater gets caught up in the espionage as he is mistaken for a master spy with vital information that McMissile needs to bring down a villainous group of lemon cars, led by a mysterious benefactor, and evil Doctor Z (Thomas Kretschmann). They have plans for the World Grand Prix, involving a new type of fuel and a new weapon. Mater must help Finn McMissile and Holley Shiftwell find the villains and stop them before their nefarious plot ends up killing his best friend Lightning McQueen.
I find it extremely difficult to enjoy Larry the Cable Guy's Mater. He is a character that has never been and will never be written for my sensibilities. You never grow used to him, you only learn to tolerate him. I don't totally hate the character - he's very much an audience surrogate for the crazy happenings in the film, but if he's a surrogate for the audience, what does that say about the audience? Mater is pretty much the main character of the film, with Wilson's McQueen offscreen for a good portion of the film's running time. Kids love Mater, and grownups grit their teeth and bear him. The first third of CARS 2 is a kind of endurance test when it comes to Mater, but Finn McMissile's character is so interesting to watch that he almost makes up for it. It's when the story gets flowing, and you see the machinations of the villain's plan in the second half, that CARS 2 finds its pace and voice, and then it becomes more enjoyable. I like the imagery of the film, especially the races. Pixar has always been great at delivering the goods when it comes to fantastic visuals, and CARS 2 does the same. The 3D works fine - 3D is usually at its best for animated films anyway - and really works in the action sequences in particular.
And again, those nagging questions arise... why would cars eat? How could Mater mistake wasabi for pistachio ice cream? How can there be ice cream in this world? THERE ARE NO COWS! If they take fuel, what do cars drink? Why are there handles on the car doors if there are no people? This is the part where the wife smacks me on the back of the head. I should just accept it, right? I'm sucking all the fun out of it.
I recommend CARS 2, for the most part. Much of it is fun, fast-paced, and exciting. But I still have extreme reservations about the Mater character, and I think the film would have worked better if it had put Mater more in the background and concentrated on the espionage and Finn McMissile. In the Pixar roster of films, it's probably below CARS on the bottom, but I still found enough to enjoy in the film that I can recommend it for families this weekend. The kids at the screening adored the film, and if nothing else, the TOY STORY short in front is as charming as the original trilogy, and well worth seeing. Plus, you get the BRAVE teaser and "Circle Of Life" from THE LION KING in 3D, which really was quite lovely. CARS 2 has issues, but if your kids loved the first one, they'll likely love this. The rest of us are counting the days until BRAVE.