By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Entertainment Editor
There’s a touching sequence in the 2006 film “Cars,” in which the inhabitants of a Route 66 town are crestfallen after the newly-built interstate bypasses them and results in local business all but drying up completely. While you know it’ll all somehow be resolved and you’ll feel good by the end of the story, it nevertheless tugs at your heartstrings.
“Cars 2” is an entirely different movie.
The latest Disney-Pixar release trades in the small-town nostalgia for a global stage, and supplants its emotional weight with an action-packed spy thriller. Anyone hoping to see how racer Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) has evolved since the first film–or fans of auto racing in general–will be caught off guard by the fast-paced storyline that seems tailored to tie together one chase sequence after another.
Not that “Cars 2” is a bad film; not at all. Its action is taught and exciting, the scenes are all beautifully staged and it’s full of clever jokes and puns that parents–who will inevitably be pulled into the cinemas by their kids–will greatly appreciate. The 3-D technology is perhaps the best I’ve ever experienced; I had forgotten I was wearing the glasses until reached up to rub my nose at one point.
The story follows McQueen as he leaves his adopted home of Radiator Springs–which has been put back on the map by his presence–to compete in the inaugural World Grand Prix. The events consists of races in Japan, England and Italy, to showcase a new, environmentally-friendly fuel, created by British entrepreneur Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard.)
McQueen has brought his tow truck pal Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy, reprising his role) along, and here’s where the plot gets its start. Mater is mistaken for an American spy by Brit secret agent Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and the intrigue is underway.
So central to the plot is Mater that McQueen actually becomes the sidekick, relegated almost exclusively to racing and little else. Mater is the star here, and that in itself is quite entertaining, as the spies battle a group of cars known for being the biggest lemons in history–AMC’s Pacer and Gremlin, the Yugo and Germany’s Zundapp Janus, among other clunkers.
The movie makes wonderful use of its locales, especially Japan. A Pixar creative team made several trips to research locations and their passion is unmistakable, most notably in Tokyo, where Mater encounters a high-tech Japanese toilet in a delightful scene certain to bring more than a few chuckles.
In fact, the idea that the new “Cars” would be set in Japan was a major point of excitement for my 5-year-old son, who attended the screening of “Cars 2” with me. He had been squawking about it incessantly since learning of it more than a year ago.
To a certain extent, the problems with the movie may rest within the expectations of the audience. The “Cars” franchise has been an undeniable juggernaut in its merchandising and prominence, most notable for young boys, who snap up the toys regardless of whether they’d seem the first film. My son is among the legions of devotees and plays with his cars daily.
The issue is that “Cars 2” is too intense for the age group that is most effectively targeted by its merchandising. There is a great deal of gun play, things blowing up and orders to kill – yes, kill – several characters, including Lightning McQueen. One boy in the audience, maybe age 4 or so, was covering his eyes during a couple of scenes.
Given the nature of the content, it’s a bit surprising that “Cars 2” is rated G–general audiences–the same evaluation given to softer fare such as “Bambi” or “My Neighbor Totoro.” Copious machine gun fire and explosions make this far better suited to older kids or adults.
There is racing, of course, which includes some good-natured gamesmanship between McQueen and Italian formula 1 racer Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), but their rivalry is upstaged by the violent nastiness of the main plot.
Known for the emotional impact its films can generate, Pixar manages to slip a lesson into “Cars 2,” just not for long. The first film–of which I have become quite fond–satisfyingly drove home the idea that sometimes you need to get lost in order to find yourself. This latest episode reminds us that everyone has something valuable to give, no matter what others think of you, blah, blah, blah – okay, back to the action – Blam! Ka-pow!
So fast-paced is “Cars 2” that a lot gets lost in the mayhem, stuff you’ll need to pause the DVD to catch. There’s a nice tribute to late screen legend Paul Newman, who voiced the character of Doc, the Hudson Hornet, in the first film, but that sentimentality is summarily pushed aside as the movie zips along. Much was made of a song by the Japanese pop group Perfume being used in the soundtrack, but you’ll miss it if you’re not looking for it.
I wasn’t expecting too much from “Cars 2” but I’ll admit I was still left somewhat disappointed. In a nutshell, it lacks the heart and warmth that has been a Pixar hallmark (I cried at the end of “Toy Story 3”), and the convoluted, competing plot lines are simply not up to snuff for this fantastically talented group of filmmakers. The jokes arising from Mater as the country bumpkin unwittingly thrust into international espionage get stale by the end of the story, which resolves itself in a fashion not too unlike an episode of “Scooby Doo.” If not for those meddling kids…
Ultimately, the frantic gallop of it all might hold the razor-thin attention span of your average 12-year-old, but its appeal to a wider range of ages may prove to be the most limited of all of Pixar’s films.
Perhaps the most telling comment came from my son, whom after the film said, “I liked the racing, but there was too much fire and exploding.”
And it was hot-shot race car Lightning McQueen himself, realizing in the first “Cars” movie: “It’s kind of nice to slow down every once in a while.”
I couldn’t agree more.
“Cars 2” starts Friday everywhere. Rated G, 113 minutes.