In Cars, Pixar used the standard big city boy gets trapped in a small town formula to create a loving, nostalgic homage to the good old days of Route 66 and the vanishing mystique of the American road. In Cars 2 Pixar basically just makes The Pink Panther with cars. At times it’s a lot of fun, but there’s nothing here that’ll stick with you, the way Pixar’s other films so often do.
What’s both good and bad about this film is its wider gaze. The previous movie was set primarily in one, small, remote town where Lightning McQueen encountered a handful of aging automobiles. That more limited setting allowed for greater detail and both the script and the animators who brought the script to life were able to spend time really thinking through the process of what a world inhabited only by cars would be like. The sequel leaves that small town setting and takes the Cars concept out into the big, wide world with Lightning McQueen and Mater traveling around the globe, zooming through posh parties, idling through crowded international city streets. This often turn into something pretty stunning, one of Pixar’s most impressive feats of animation so far, but in the process they’ve sacrificed some of that detail-oriented magic of the first film. There’s just too much going on to think through every little detail of this now suddenly massive world, and sometimes this results in less emphasis on imagining what a place truly inhabited only by living cars might be like, in the interests of just throwing a bunch of cars down on the ground in familiar international settings.
This necessarily more careless approach to building a fantasy works most of the time, but every now and then it results in something ridiculous. For instance, apparently cars now eat human food. In the first movie they pulled up to a filling station when they got hungry, but we’re now supposed to imagine this as a universe where for some reason cars sit around eating Sushi. It doesn’t make sense since if you’re a Porsche peanut butter can’t be good for your carburetor, but the script needed a joke and so they chose a funny scene in which Mater eats Wasabi over actually thinking of something that might fit the film’s premise. You kids won’t notice, but you will.
Your kids won’t mind any of these problems, but parents may be concerned by some of the messages the film has for them. Mater is dumber than ever, and his behavior throughout the film resembles that of a kid with ADD who’s just had too much sugar. That wouldn’t be a problem if the Cars 2 didn’t spend so much time going out of its way to laud that behavior. It’s easy to imagine parents going home after the film to discover their kid running around the house breaking things while shouting “I’m a tow truck!” Mater has morphed from being a loyal friend, into a self-centered, out of control buffoon. It’s fun, but as a role model for children, I can’t really think of anything worse.
This may be the first Pixar movie which doesn’t really work on an adult level. Part of their genius has always been the ability to craft complicated stories which work in many different ways, providing entertainment for people of all ages, all at once. Cars 2 only really works on fourth grade level, and while it does that level very well, it’s limited. Adults will still have fun with it, you’ll find more than a few genuine laughs here and though the movie’s a little long, you’ll be wholly entertained by both the quality of visual flair on display. It’s even better in 3D, this may be the first Pixar movie to actually get 3D right. Yet there’s no heart, no soul, none of the Pixar magic we’ve come to expect from these movies. Cars 2 narrowly avoids becoming Pixar’s first truly bad feature, but graded on their curve it’s definitely the studio’s worst movie. That this should happen on a film helmed by Pixar mastermind John Lasseter, makes this mess even more disappointing. Something’s missing and if they don’t get it back, their winning streak could finally end right here.
For an in-depth look at whether Cars 2's 3D is worth your money, read To 3D Or Not To 3D.
If you're a parent trying to decide of Cars 2 is right for your children, Parents Beware: Cars 2 May Be Bad For Your Kids.