Monday, June 27, 2011

Cars 2 / ***½ (G)

Featuring the voices of:

Mater: Larry the Cable Guy
Lightning McQueen: Owen Wilson
Finn McMissile: Michael Caine
Holly Shiftwell: Emily Mortimer
Sir Miles Axelrod: Eddie Izzard
Francesco Bernoulli: John Turturro
Professor Z: Thomas Kretschmann
Brent Mustangburger: Brent Musburger
Sally: Bonnie Hunt

Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios present a film directed by John Lasseter. Co-directed by Brad Lewis. Written by Ben Queen and John Lasseter & Brad Lewis & Dan Fogelman. Running time: 112 min. Rated G.

Last week I complained in my weekly Penny Thoughts feature that sometimes critics could be sticks in the mud about certain types of movies. Pixar Animation Studio has been producing grand animations that deal with the full scope of humanity for so long that it seems critics have become conditioned to think that these are the only movies acceptable for the world’s best animation studio to produce. God forbid that the great minds at Pixar should stoop to make a film that is thrilling and entertaining without being about something much deeper. Forget that it’s still the best-looking CGI animation in the business and is crafted at a master level of filmmaking. How dare they?!

I’ve also read complaints that the star of the film is the bumbling rusty tow truck Mater (voiced by comedian Larry the Cable Guy) instead of Lightning McQueen. This particular complaint boggles my mind. It’s called “Cars 2”, not “Lightning McQueen 2”. Not to mention the fact that Mater is the most interesting character of the franchise. He deserves the spotlight.

But, enough about other people’s complaints. “Cars 2” is an exciting adventure set in a world populated by cars and imitating a spy thriller in the vein of James Bond. Instead of James Bond, however, our hero is not exactly the spy everyone thinks he is. “Cars 2” takes the fish out of water storyline of the first film and reverses it. Last time is was Lightning McQueen who had to slow down and learn the pleasures of living life off the fast track. This time it’s Mater who finds himself in a world he doesn’t understand. He’s mixed up in a sinister plot that will affect the whole world and it remains to be seen whether a simple rusty tow truck can play with the big guns.  ‘Big guns’ is intended quite literally.

Mater gets McQueen (Owen Wilson returning for a second turn as the flashy race car) into a new World Grand Prix sponsored by Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard, “Igor”), who has discovered a fuel alternative to oil. Someone is trying to sabotage the race in which all the participants are using Axelrod’s new fuel. The Cars universe widens its horizons by placing the three segments of the race in three different international cities—Tokyo, a fictional Italian city, and London. McQueen’s major competition comes from a Formula One racing car, Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro, “Transformers”).

In Tokyo, Mater is mistaken for an American agent by British spies Finn McMissile (Michael Caine, “The Dark Knight”) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer, “The Pink Panther”). They think Mater’s rusty exterior and bumbling nature are part of his cover. Along with Mater, McMissile and Shiftwell set out to discover who is behind the plot to sabotage Axelrod’s race. Their investigations lead them to Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann, “King Kong”), but it appears he is only the engineer, not the puppet master pulling the strings.

The brilliance of the Cars universe is the way in which it imagines a world where cars can function as the dominant species based on the one we’re familiar with. Restrooms operate like automated gas stations. Pranks consist of sneaking up on giant service vehicles and scaring them into tipping over. Mountains form naturally into car monuments. The heroes of this world are the car athletes that make up the world’s greatest auto racing machines. A rusty dump truck doesn’t really have a chance of being something great. Or does he?

The filmmakers have a lot of fun with the notion of creating an espionage side to this universe. McMissile is modeled after the many cars of James Bond. He’s equipped with Bond-style gadgets to aid in his spy work, like image enhancing cameras in his headlights, oil slick jets out his tail pipes, bumper installed grappling hooks, machine guns in his fenders, an even speedboat manifolds for those quick aquatic escapes. Apparently the younger agents like Shiftwell have even more impressive upgrades.

As in the first film, there are also many celebrity cameos from the auto racing and sports commentating fields, like Brent Mustangburger, Darrell Cartrip, David Hobbscap, Jeff Gordette, and Lewis Hamilton. Much of the original cast from Radiator Springs also return this time, although in truncated roles.

Probably most impressive in this outing, though, is the movie’s production design, which has great fun in detailing the different locations visited by our heroes. Tokyo, with its brightly colored neon nightscape, seems a city destined to be explored by Pixar’s animated creativity and Disney’s top notch 3D processing. The town they create for the Italian race sequence—again something right out of a James Bond movie—is exquisitely beautiful with its seaside cliffs. And, London provides some familiar travelogue fare to convert to Cars specs. An elaborate death trap constructed by the villains in the clockworks of Big Ben seems a justified inevitability.

Co-directors John Lasseter and Brad Lewis do manage to throw an environmental message and corporate warning into the plot of the film, but they are not heavy handed with it, so anything that might go over the kids’ heads doesn’t really matter. What does matter is the visual feast of the Cars world and the thrilling action adventure of a good espionage flick. The action will satisfy the children and the spy works will entertain the adults. Even though there isn’t as much meat on this movie’s bones as most Pixar fare, it still serves up the all ages entertainment that Pixar set the bar for and has been the master of for more than 15 years.

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