FILMEDGE - Tomorrow's Films Today

Disney-Pixar's CARS 2. ęDisney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Perfectly geared for this movie season, Disney/Pixar's CARS 2 revs up a lot of fun, four-wheeling action in this fast paced, family-friendly sequel that is pure light hearted summer entertainment.

Beautifully designed, richly hued scenery sprawling in the background of this World Grand Prix race once again melds animation and art in the capable hands of Pixar's creators, led by the keen eye of director John Lasseter and co-director Brad Lewis. Thankfully the Disney Digital 3D treatment enhances the speeding car characters and stylized environment rather than detracts from it, which is a huge advantage such CG-produced films have over the glut of live action fare which yields very uneven dimensional results on the big screen.

The voice talent fueling CARS 2 is high-octane quality to be sure, with Michael Caine standing out as British spy car Finn McMissile (James Bond's vintage Aston Martin, natch) joining forces for thrills and laughs with stars Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and rusting tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy).

CARS 2 is neither a perfect film nor Pixar's best, but it's a lively, speed-shifting upgrade over the original and crosses the finish line with a very good time.

While Pixar's original CARS was an enjoyable if small-scaled animated adventure, it was also one of Pixar's most abstract stories populated by very kid-friendly characters which many found difficult to identify with emotionally compared to Woody's toy buddies or the lovable creature crew from MONSTERS, INC.  Even the fish from FINDING NEMO didn't leave audiences cold. Somehow Pixar's magic for inspiring life and emotion into inanimate objects fizzled a bit when translated into the mechanical milieu of talking vehicles with windshields for eyes. The 2006 film's weakness may have been attempting to fuel-inject Pixar's very humanist storytelling formula into distinctly non-human characters which physically, emotionally and visually bear no resemblance to their audience — these weren't even toy cars, after all, but our own life-size family sedans, racing speedsters and working-class trucks jump started to life.  While CARS was a hit in theaters and a huge marketing success (when Cars once again returned to toy status), the film never quite raced ahead of the Pixar pack for sheer emotional linkage back to its larger audience.

British spy car Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine) starts off CARS 2 with a bang. ęDisney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.Five years later, story co-writers Lewis and Dan Fogelman may have learned a valuable lesson, joined by screenwriter Ben Queen to simplify CARS 2 and let these hot (and not-so-hot) rods do what they do best: ride the roads around the globe in a rollicking action-comedy adventure. This sequel celebrates what we humans find most cool about our cars, then gives life to those high-octane sportsters and their more functional friends to gear up an espionage tale across the Grand Prix courses of exotic world capitals. With the spy story of Finn opening the film in 007-style panache and bang-boom pyrotechnics on a mid-Atlantic field of oil rigs, CARS 2 also admits that this missile-blasting, cable-swinging Aston Martin is the coolest car-actor in the franchise. Throttling up such stunt action and shoot-em-up excitement is a mission neither Lightning nor Mater can complete themselves.  These two friends from humble Radiator Springs, in effect, get caught up in Finn's story rather than the other way around, and the British Bond-car easily, unavoidably steals the show. Lightning still delivers the racing hero heart, and Mater the goofy, gap-toothed laughs, but Finn takes the lead in this sequel and never surrenders it.

How individual viewers react to this shift in the CARS formula will likely determine how much they enjoy the film. As noted before, FilmEdge is a sucker for Pixar's animated visitations back to the style of 1960s films like THE INCREDIBLES, and clearly Pixarians like Lasseter and CARS 2 score composer Michael Giacchino share this cinematic soft spot.  Finn McMissile embodies the Bond superspy ethic and suave demeanor from grill to bumper, and voice talent Caine has his own wealth of experience playing in classic espionage thrillers to fill Finn's tank for two movies.  Likewise Giacchino's musical themes and action cues harken back to the best of John Barry's 007 scores, much like he paid similar homages in THE INCREDIBLES, while staying original and contemporary to give CARS 2 its own score identity. Within or without of Pixar's walls, Giacchino continues to prove he has an uncanny ear in composing for periods and styles, picking the perfect instruments to feature in his music which connect subconsciously, emotionally and thematically to a wealth of film classics as famous for their sounds as their sights. Visually the film mimics the thrilling cinematography of '60s-era racing films like GRAND PRIX and LE MANS, compressing the race cars into a death-defying pack of speeding machines as they whip around hairpin turns in a top-notch widescreen adventure.

The plot is a bit esoteric at times: Finn, accidentally enlisting Mater as his American spy counterpart, investigates a dangerous mystery surrounding the discovery of an alternative fuel by a Brit Range Rover, Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard), who wants to replace fossil fuels in this Cars universe. His synthetic renewable gas, Allinol, may well put Big Oil out of smog-making business if his effort to test the fuel in the World Grand Prix race succeeds. While Lightning McQueen races head-to-head against the Italian Formula One speedster Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), a pair of grumbling saboteurs Grem (Joe Mantegna) and Acer (Peter Jacobson) are in league with Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann) to destroy all the race cars running on Allinol and make the alternative fuel appear dangerously explosive. This convoluted "good gas/bad gas" concept has moments of just being superfluous to the fun or heavy-handed preaching about our human addiction to polluting Big Oil fuels; how distracting this theme becomes depends on how environmentally conscious or unconcerned viewers are, but it's a statement by Lasseter which can't be missed. Kids will care less about the implications while parents/adults will either nod approvingly at the sentiment, bristle at the moments of animated lecture, or become impatient when the topic removes us from the story, even for just a partial lap of the 114 minute running time.

Pals Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) test their metal in CARS 2. ęDisney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.Environmental message aside, this muscle-car plot about espionage, secret identity paint jobs and double-dealing vehicles tends to overshadow Lightning and Mater with all its animated action. This is actually a good thing for CARS 2, as there seemed to be little room on the road for our heroes to evolve in this sequel, even when they stretch their suspensions beyond cozy Radiator Springs and tour the globe. Lightning McQueen remains stalwart, true and valiant in his racing duel with Bernoulli, but the story must split the Grand Prix into four international legs (Japan, Monaco, France and England) just to delay McQueen's inevitable test: will he win or lose against the pompous, free-wheeling Bernoulli?  Meanwhile, Mater's improbable but hilarious misidentification as an American spy truck (supposedly disguised by his cover as a bumbling, bucktoothed fool) launches him into increasingly preposterous but dazzling danger on Finn's top secret mission. Important to note that such preposterous incidents — including his bewilderment in how to operate a Japanese public restroom — often yield the film's biggest belly laughs you'll chuckle about on the ride home. Their ridiculous factor is only relevant if one analyzes the plot's logic instead of going along for the action-comedy ride. Overall, this spy car spin on CARS remains kinetic, occasionally kooky fun, and a wise turn playing to their four-wheeled strengths as objects of motion, since they just aren't well equipped to pluck heartstrings and induce tears from audiences as TOY STORY 3 did so eloquently last summer.

What has most definitely evolved is Pixar's cutting-edge engineering of its animated films, and their fusion of brilliant layout designs barely containing the action and the sumptuous scenery unfolding in the Grand Prix are eye-pleasing vistas not to be missed. The clever new character designs of Bernoulli, Finn and his fellow spy Holley Shiftwell (delightful Emily Mortimer), Professor Z and his gang stay true to the real-world car conceit: these latest models look quite advanced compared to the original film's makes. Mater gets the best upgrades, at least for comic effect, in his ridiculous assortment of spy alternate identities ranging from a burly Russian wrecker to a "monster" truck and a taco catering wagon. The fantastic reimaginings of Tokyo, Porto Corsa, Paris and London truly show off the artists' creativity capturing the widely varying moods of each Grand Prix city in dizzying (and laugh-inducing) detail.  The racing streets of Tokyo are awash in the towering neon jungle of architecture and advertisement flashing and sparkling across the cityscape. The Monaco leg of the race simmers in the warm summer tones of the Mediterranean as Porto Corsa expands in a sprawling network of arched bridges, adding splendor to the speedway course. Paris abounds in famous buildings including Notre Dame cathedral and the Eiffel Tower, which bear striking automotive elements per their car creators as wheel rim spokes and radiator grilles appear on the stone and steel facades.  How or why do cars build such cathedrals and tourist towers high above the city?  We're not meant to ask or care as such luxuriant details are all part of the fun and make nice Easter Eggs to discover watching a second time. More importantly, this World Grand Prix plot point opens up the horizons and action potential of the CARS world, as needed to make this sequel a worthwhile effort. These views are enhanced by Disney Digital 3D since Lasseter et al have total control over every pixel on-screen to maximize the dimensional impact while minimizing 3D's often annoying side effects. Odds are you'll enjoy the film just as much in 2D, but the 3D format does offer added thrills in the close-quarters racing scenes and panoramic locations throughout.

Right: Mater (voice by Larry the Cable Guy) gets sidetracked in Paris, which Pixar has redesigned to suit the automobile aesthetics of CARS 2. ęDisney/Pixar.  All Rights Reserved.

CARS 2 grinds its gears in the third act while attempting to reconcile all the very diverse plots into one cohesive finale: Mater tries to repair his strained friendship with McQueen, who was embarrassed by the tow truck's low-brow antics in Tokyo; Finn and Holley struggle to save Queen (Vanessa Redgrave) and country from a catastrophe at Buckingham Palace; and the ultimate villain behind the evil anti-Allinol plot is exposed in a rather unsatisfying rush to the finish line. The weakest strands of each plot thread entangle here rather than tie it all up in unison, which stands out rather sharply from other Disney/Pixar animated triumphs that usually end in a crescendo not convolution. This fault costs CARS 2 a full star in our FilmEdge rating. Mater's antics throughout will either be the main attraction or the repetitive distraction in the film, but since he's become the fan-favorite star of the franchise, it follows that more of him is required if not actually better.  A definite improvement over the 2006 starter model, CARS 2 packs in plenty of laughs and animated thrills on the winding roads of this visually stunning sequel which makes for an enjoyable summer stay-cation in your local cineplex.

The Toys are back in Pixar's animated short HAWAIIAN VACATION playing with CARS 2.Also, expect to see the new Pixar animated short HAWAIIAN VACATION featuring the TOY STORY characters who find their new owner Bonnie going away to the islands for a winter holiday.

When Ken and Barbie fail to hitch a ride in Bonnie's luggage and are left behind with Woody, Buzz and friends, the toys band together to recreate the tropical mood and save Ken's romantic getaway with Barbie. Toy-riffic hilarity and sight gags ensue as Bonnie's bedroom is hastily transformed into a replica of Hawaiian beaches and luxury resorts for the too-cute couple, with Mr. Potato Head's poker antics and Ken's paddlewheel swimming technique providing true laugh out loud moments. This additional treat is also in 3D if you're going the extra mile to see CARS 2 in the dimensional format.

CARS 2 races into theaters June 24, 2011