My short thoughts on Cars 2: it is gorgeous - as gorgeous as any animated movie is likely to be in all of 2011 - and it commits itself to world-building with such an incredibly minute (anal-retentive?) focus on even the teeny-weeniest details that it's hard not to bow in its direction even though the world it builds is kind of completely insane, and it has a completely awful story and script.

I spent a lot of time unsure of what I should do with this. As far as eye candy goes, Cars 2 is simply exquisite, and I find that the more that mainstream movies, especially ones that aim to make a lot of money, are content to look exactly like every other mainstream movie, the more that eye candy for the sake of eye candy appeals to me. I also find that every single start I made to spin that into an actual positive review kept feeling like a desperate Hail Mary attempt to avoid writing a negative review of a Pixar Animation Studios feature, and that being the case, I probably did not, in point of fact, like the movie. So there it is: the Right-Aligned Poster of Dismissal. Don't think that I'm not choking on it.

The real fucker of it, is that Cars 2 is only a single, solitary change at the most basic script level from being absolutely fine - still perhaps the most disposable Pixar feature, and certainly the most emotionally unsophisticated, but absolutely fine for a bright and hectic children's adventure movie that grown-ups won't mind watching. And let us not forget that that is exactly what Pixar used to make: A Bug's Life and Monsters, Inc. and even, really, the first Toy Story are all kids' movies. Good kids's movies. Great kid's movies. The best kids' movies. But kids' movies all the same. The first Cars got dinged by a lot of people for being just a kids' movie (also for the creepy unreality of a world populated by sentient cars and no animal life whatsoever, and the weird character design that, five years later, doesn't seem very weird anymore - there's even a joke about it in Cars 2), yet it was, as of 2006, a shitload better than any movie their competition was able to crank out.

Cars 2 is clearly not that: it's nowhere near as pleasant to watch as Kung Fu Panda 2 and it isn't a pimple on the ass of Rango. And all because of Fucking Larry the Fucking Cable Guy. No, that is not fair. It's not just Mr. the Cable Guy that's to blame, it's Mater, the character he plays who sucks so much wind, and it is director John Lasseter and co-director Brad Lewis and screenwriter Ben Queen (along with co-scenarists Lasseter and Dan Fogelman) who collectively made the choice to keep Matering up the new movie, and just when it seemed like it couldn't get any more Matery, they find a way to cram on one more thick, juicy slab of Mater.

Mater, you may or may not recall, was the dimwitted tow-truck who befriended hotshot asshole race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) back in Cars, as part of Lightning's progression in that film from above-it-all dickface to friendly, humble, decent member of society. In that film, Mater was but a seasoning, the kind that like cumin or cilantro becomes unbearable if you use even a tiny wee bit too much; the main thrust of the film was unmistakably Lightning's arc, as facilitated by all the members of the tiny southwest town Radiator Springs. For Cars 2, the filmmakers seemed to have decided to give up seasoning, and just eat the cumin straight from the bottle with a spoon: though the end credits have the half-assed decency to give Wilson first billing, this is the Mater Show from start to finish (and it's just as irritating as the actual Mater show). In the most ham-fisted, clumsy way possible.

The plot: Lightning has just been invited to take place in an international Grand Prix hosted by industrialist George Axelrod (Eddy Izzard) to showcase his amazing new biofuel, Allinol. Most of the crew from Radiator Springs comes along with, and in a contrivance tolerable enough for a broad comedy, Mater is mistaken for an intelligence operative by two MI6 agents, Finn McMissile (Michael Caine, being absolutely delightful) and Holley Shiftwell* (Emily Mortimer), and in no time at all he finds himself at the heart of an investigation into a cabal of evil cars trying to discredit Allinol and make a killing in oil.

I don't have it in me to go into more detail than that: suffice it to say that from time to time the movie will focus on the Grand Prix, and on Lightning's competition with braggart Italian race car Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro, running away with every one of the few scenes he occupies), and then for huge chunks at a time it will return to Mater and McMissile and a rather shocking number of gun battles for a movie aimed so squarely at children. Shocking also, now that I think of it, for a movie about cars, but that ends up being one of the things that I, at least, found woozily appealing about Cars 2: it absolutely does not give a shit about making sense. This was one of the complaints leveled frequently against the first one, that it took place in a world that made precious little sense - How do they build, given their lack of hands? Why is their entire society so much like our own, despite the fact that cars can't really need both restaurants and gas stations, just as a single example? For what conceivable reason are there different genders of cars? You don't want me to believe that there is car fucking going on in this universe, just off camera? Christ, Lasseter, you sick sonofabitch. - and the Pixar people have dealt with this by amping up everything, making a world absolutely jam-packed with details in every frame, from in-jokes (an add for Lasse Tyres) to all the little signs and such that would, one must concede, be entirely necessary in a world like this, to conceptual notions that don't even make sense but surely do prove the filmmakers' commitment to their concept: I am as repelled and fascinated by the car toilet sequence as though it were a setpiece in a David Cronenberg feature.

It's a crazy-looking film, then, a completely broken mise en scène, but in some kind of warped kiddie-surrealism way, it's impossible to take your eyes off of it; and it helps matters considerably that Pixar is still in command of the most technically audacious animation known to the world, for all of that crazed "what the fuck is going on?" world-building looks absolutely beautiful: it's hard to say if, visually, Cars 2 raises the bar any higher than it's already been raised (I persist in feeling that WALL·E may have been an "end of history" moment, as far as Pixar animation is concerned), but there's still a beautiful tourist's-eye view of Europe, and the too-zany, neon-saturated vision of Tokyo's nightlife trounces the beautiful neon-lit cruising scene in the first Cars.

Personally, I'm not even opposed to a James Bond parody with talking cars, as such. The opening bit, with McMissile infiltrating an enemy oil rig in the middle of the ocean is enough of a proof of concept for me, and if this were a spy parody in the Cars universe, it might have been exactly the right kind of trivial fun. As a sequel, it's on thinner ice: nearly all the pleasures of the first movie had to do with slowing down, watching the landscape, stepping back from the go! go! pace of modern life, and a parody-heavy action movie is self-evidently not a step in the same direction.

Plus, if it weren't a sequel, there'd be no Mater; and Mater really is the point where the movie breaks. He's a criminally anti-funny collection of the most obnoxious stereotypes of rednecks whom we're meant to laugh at right up until the movie does an about face and turns into a hectoring treatise on how friendship means sticking by your friends even when they're complete disasters of personality and comportment. Well, Mater isn't my damn friend; he was my least favorite element of Cars and it's all but impossible to endure Cars 2 because of how much this dipshit screaming moron has been favored and promoted as the bestest and bravest and most sweet and lovable character ever introduced: he is, in short, John Lasseter's very own Wesley (warning: link goes to TV Tropes, don't click unless you have three hours to spare), and fuck you very much, Mr. Lasseter for forcing that much of a shrill, tedious character down my throat for almost two hours (we're back to Pixar films breaking the 110-minute mark with this one). There is much in Cars 2 that is clever and fun and funny, but all of it gets suffocated under a thick blanket of miserable slapstick involving a character who has absolutely no appealing characteristics.

But, you know, Brave looks like it's going to be completely amazing. So there's that.

Reviews in this series
Cars (Lasseter with Ranft, 2006)
Cars 2 (Lasseter with Lewis, 2011)
Cars 3 (Fee, 2017)

*This is, absent anything else, a brilliant parody name.