Pixar has built up such a stellar track record since the release of Toy Story in 1995 that it’s hard to believe the Disney-owned animation studio could ever produce a bad movie. Cars 2 comes dangerously close, though, even if it’s not bad so much as mediocre and uninspired. The sequel to Pixar’s previous ho-hum low point, 2006’s Cars, Cars 2 takes a couple of characters from the original movie and inserts them into an entirely new genre, and the result is a bland pastiche that recalls generic non-Pixar animated fare like Despicable Me or Rio rather than the heights of The Incredibles and Finding Nemo.
In Cars, hotshot racecar Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) found himself stranded in the sleepy small town of Radiator Springs and learned to appreciate the simple things in life. Now that Lightning is fully integrated into the Radiator Springs community (but still out in the world winning races), there isn’t a whole lot left to explore with him, so director John Lasseter and screenwriter Ben Queen take Lightning and his tow-truck sidekick Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) on an international adventure, putting them right in the middle of a spy caper headed by two British secret-agent cars (Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer).
The plot relies on a basic wrong-man scenario in which Mater is mistaken for an American spy, and the twists are complicated enough to bore small children while obvious enough to bore their parents. The movie is also uncharacteristically violent for its G rating, and the villains’ evil plot to discredit alternative fuels is not particularly coherent. In the original Cars, Mater was one of many colorful residents of Radiator Springs, but here he’s essentially the main character, with more scenes than Lightning himself, and Larry’s dumb-hick shtick gets old really quickly. With an annoying, gimmicky lead and a cluttered, uninvolving plot, Cars 2 succeeds mainly in its lovely visual style and cute background jokes, including automotive-based plays on the cultures of Japan, Italy and the U.K. That’s fine as a mild diversion, but up against Pixar’s high standards, it’s a definite disappointment.