There are times in my movie going experience where I go into the theater with great excitement and still others where I go in not sure what to expect and am pleasantly surprised. In the case of Cars 2, I went in with great trepidation. The first film was a uniquely American film, and celebrated parts of our popular culture that I cherish – the road trip,California crazy architecture, Route 66 and nostalgia for the 1950s and 60s.
Cars 2, on the other hand, was sold to us as a fun film with less focus on the story of the film and more on a thrill-a-minute ride. Our heroes from the first film, Lightning McQueen and Mater, are taken out of their home in Radiator Springs and thrust onto the worldwide stage for different reasons.
Where the first film focused tightly on the meaning of life in a fast paced world and the development of the character of McQueen, this film is a scattershot of ideas forced together into a cohesive plot, designed to bring a broader appeal to the world of Cars. There is no doubt that this is a film that was made to keep the merchandise franchise of Cars going, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if the film is good.
Unfortunately, it falls far short of taking a good idea and making it a great film. This is what we expect from Pixar, after all. In Ratatouille, for example, we find the simple high concept of a rat who can cook transformed into a fable about the need to drop our preconceptions and look at the output of a person’s work and the character of their heart. In Cars 2, we never get past the first stage of a good idea (Mater as a spy), and therefore the film falls flat.
A big reason for this is the focus on Mater as the main character. Lightning McQueen’s story was settled in the first film, so it makes sense that he is not the feature here. Mater, meanwhile, did not have an arc in the first film, so I can understand the filmmakers’ intent in focusing this film on his character. The problem is that his character development plays a back seat to the spy story framework.
The plot develops with Mater joining the spies in a worldwide chase, that ends up coming off like a Scooby Doo TV movie in the end. The twists and turns are numerous, and the Mater jokes are predictable so it doesn’t connect with the viewer in any meaningful way. If this were a Dreamworks film, it would be one of the best. As a Pixar film, though, it falls short because it never takes the next step into revealing something about the characters that the audience can relate to themselves.