Lawrence Toppman, The Charlotte Observer
The logo for the title of “Cars 2” gets stamped out of a press, cold and impersonal and mechanically uninviting. Who’d have imagined the entire movie would follow suit?
For the first time in its 25-year history, Pixar has produced a picture that has no reason to exist – other than the obvious monetary one, of course, or maybe director John Lasseter’s desire to make a faux James Bond movie.
The sequel doesn’t develop the characters, interject any warmth into its frenetic story or take us anywhere we haven’t been. The “be yourself” message has been slapped on as casually (and gets lost as easily) as a shoulder decal on a NASCAR driver’s suit.
Cars blast each other with guns and smash into walls and shoot bursts of electricity and fly and turn into submarines and catch fire and explode. What they don’t do is what Pixar has done best, even in short films: take on human qualities that make us care what happens to them.
The predecessor had heart, as the aged Hudson (much-missed Paul Newman) taught cocky Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) about sportsmanship, consideration for others and the need to slow down and appreciate his life.
But the sequel begins with British superspy Finn McMissile, an Aston Martin, uncovering a conspiracy connected with the largest oil deposit in the world. (Bond’s car was an Aston-Martin; Michael Caine, who supplies Finn’s voice, was considered in the 1960s as a replacement for Sean Connery’s 007.) Finn and resourceful sidekick Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) learn that an American agent has a key photograph that may identify the main villain of the plot.
Through a series of idiotic coincidences, they decide their U.S. contact is goofy Mater (Larry the Cable Guy, now taking the film’s biggest role). He’s in Europe with the almost irrelevant McQueen; Lightning races in a series sponsored by Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard), who’s filling cars with an alternative fuel at these events to prove that we needn’t rely on gas any more.
The bad guy becomes as evident as Quasimodo’s hump, so there’s no suspense – just a series of chases and races so pointless we don’t care if McQueen wins. His preening competitor, Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), is so bland his comeuppance means little. (Is there a curse on this once-fine actor? Turturro’s last six English-language movies are this one, two “Transformers” sequels, “Miracle at St. Anna,” “Nutcracker 3-D” and “You Don’t Mess With the Zohan.”)
Mater was born to be a dim, amiable sidekick. He doesn’t hold center stage well, and the spit takes and potty humor demean the reputation Pixar has established for entertaining the family. Kids may be mindlessly diverted by the loud, colorful frenzy, but there’s nothing to retain adults’ attention.
Sadly, the brief cartoon preceding the feature sets the standard for mediocrity: Characters from “Toy Story” redecorate their owner’s playroom, so Ken and Barbie can feel as if they’re taking a Hawaiian vacation.
This is the kind of limp, unformed idea that would once have been offered at a Pixar staff meeting, kicked around for a bit and then thrown idly aside as a waste of time. “Cars 2” would also once have suffered that fate. But now that it doesn’t, can we be far from seeing “Lightning McQueen Meets the Pirates of the Caribbean?”