(by Dustin Putman
"To crush one's hopes, you first must raise their expectations very, very high," says a character late in "Cars 2." He's not kidding. 2006's "Cars" is the kind of sumptuously designed, lovingly written feature that top computer animation studio Pixar is known for, and it only improves and deepens in wisdom with each successive viewing. It also stands as director John Lasseter's most personal project, a cross-country road trip with his own family sparking the clever ideas and heartfelt messages that went into the picture's conception. Indeed, the light, joke-filled story of hot-shot race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) transformed into a poignant exploration of the value in appreciating the little things in life when, on his way to a race in California, he found himself stranded in the dusty country town of Radiator Springs. A once-bustling stop along Route 66, it had since become a relic of a different time, forgotten by travelers once the faster, more convenient Interstate was built nearby. Through Lightning's interactions and ultimate friendships with the residents of Radiator Springs, he experienced an epiphany that would forever change his way of thinking about the world and people (read: cars) around him. One of Pixar's most accomplished and arguably underrated achievements, "Cars" beautifully opined that it is not the destination, but the journey, that is most important. Article continues below
What a difference five years and an unnecessary sequel can make. In creating "Cars 2," returning director John Lasseter (with co-director Brad Lewis) has driven down a nearly unforgivable road he never should have considered taking. Here is a film—easily Pixar's worst, so junky it seems to have been made by an imposter studio—that ruthlessly betrays every last thing the first "Cars" so passionately stood for. Making no more than a cameo in the opening and closing scenes, the quaint, untradable charms of Radiator Springs and most of the lovable characters who reside there have been promptly traded in for a moronic, soulless, globe-trotting spy story. Heart has been replaced by surface-level chaos and greed. The beauty of one's natural surroundings is an afterthought as shootouts involving missiles and machine guns take over. A car is strapped with a ticking bomb about to detonate, while at least a few others meet violent, fiery deaths. As lacking in emotion as chilly, no-nonsense spy Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine), "Cars 2" spits directly in the face of every child and adult who loved and appreciated the first "Cars" for what it was, and what it had to say about life in the fast lane not always being what it's cracked up to be. This cruel continuation hasn't time for the journey at all, and its destination is straight into a black hole. Lasseter should be ashamed of what he's done.
Professional race car Lightning McQueen still regularly competes around the country (he's a four-time winner of the Piston Cup), but he always returns to Radiator Springs, the place he now happily calls home. When Lightning is invited to race in the World Grand Prix hosted by Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard), CEO of an alternate clean fuel named Allinol intended to replace regular gasoline, he can't help but jump at the opportunity. With the competition taking place in a trio of exotic locales—Japan, Italy and England—Lightning bids farewell to girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt) and sets off overseas with good-humored friend Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) in tow. When a falling-out between Lightning and Mater following the first stop in Tokyo sends the latter packing, Mater's return home is postponed when he is approached by British Intelligence agent Finn McMissile and novice spy Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) to help with infiltrating a gang of Euro cars intent on discrediting the new fuel source so that oil will remain in high demand. Espionage and down-low dirty dealings follow, culminating with a final leg of the race in London that unveils who the real bad-guy mastermind is while placing both Lightning's and Mater's lives in immediate danger.
"This seems like a dead end," states Finn McMissile in one scene in "Cars 2." He could just as easily be talking about the misbegotten cinematic abortion he's found himself in, as frantic, impersonal and irritating as the first "Cars" is warm, funny and thoughtful. Making a spy actioner out of the "Cars" brand stands in substantial opposition to the morality found in its sweet-natured predecessor, but the notion is made all the more grievous by just how inane, tedious and inconsequential it is even within this new genre. The plot is uninteresting and needlessly convoluted to the point where most young viewers won't be able to follow it, or care to. All thematic relevance of the original is washed clean, in its place just a series of beyond-lame, unfunny spoofs of past secret agent movie conventions. The car races through the streets of its foreign settings are carelessly squandered, sinking into the background and cut away from so often that no momentum is built, no thrills or suspense are accumulated, and nary a minute is dedicated to soaking up the splendor of the would-be sumptuous places Lightning travels to. Director John Lasseter and screenwriter Ben Queen are so preoccupied with jumping to the next wearisome scene of faux-intrigue with giant, personality-deficient bores Finn and Holley that they forget to take time to smell the roses, so to speak. It's almost as if the film was made by people who hated the first "Cars" and wanted nothing more than to dispel every earnest message it affectionately and reverently made.
Also verging on cataclysmic is the poor decision to upgrade tow truck Mater to lead-role status. With protagonist Lightning McQueen becoming a supporting player in what should have been his story, love interest Sally (Bonnie Hunt) barely appearing at all, and the rest of the Radiator Springs gang afforded just a line or two apiece, the movie largely sticks to focusing on excitable, well-meaning bumpkin Mater, a guy who worked effectively and likably in small doses but is rendered all but intolerable as the focal point of the story here. By the halfway point, his interminable schtick and Larry the Cable Guy's one-note vocal work have become tantamount to fingernails and silverware scraping simultaneously across a chalkboard. New characters, like Finn, Holley, Axelrod and Lightning's pretentious main racing opponent Francesco (John Turturro), are universally uninspired and forgettable.
By the time Finn, Holley and Mater are tied up in the Big Ben tower, their bodies threatening to be crushed within the gears of the clock, "Cars 2" has long since stopped remotely resembling what the series started as. Later, as cars high-powered with artillery whizz down the street shooting at each other in a frenetic orgy of violence and weaponry porn, the film has ceased holding a single valid thought in its puny little head. Strictly from a technical perspective, "Cars 2" reaches the standards of Pixar's finest, its computer animation gleaming with detail and color. In all other respects, it is as appalling as any motion picture released so far in 2011, an unfeeling, uncaring, purely irrelevant product of massive corporate avarice, in existence for no decipherable reasons beside taking advantage of an established franchise, increasing toy sales, and swindling audiences by charging them inflated ticket prices for the useless, throwaway theatrical 3D presentation. A direct-to-video-level piece of twaddle that shouldn't even be considered canon, "Cars 2" deserves to be sent straight to the scrap heap. John Lasseter has some serious explaining to do.