Cars 2, the 12th feature-length Pixar film, is directed by John Lasseter and Brad Lewis. In fact it’s the first film directed by Lasseter since the original Cars and the series obviously holds a great deal of importance for him.
Opening with the introduction of Finn, a James Bond-like sleek British sports car, Cars 2 shifts from the small town setting of Radiator Springs in favor of international locations and espionage. Finn is a spy investigating the control of oil (a timely subject, to be sure) and its plot eventually ties into Lighting McQueen’s more traditional racing story.
In addition to the secret spy mission, the movie also focuses on Lightning McQueen’s acceptance of a car racing challenge (from cocky Italian racecar, Francesco Bernoulli), the World Grand Prix. Despite the race’s pivotal point in the movie, Cars 2 is more about Mater than Lighting McQueen. As Lasseter explains in the commentary, their intention was to do something original and not “retread the same emotional story”.
While the overall plot centers on the spy mission and the international car race, the heart of the story is the friendship between Lightning McQueen and his best friend, Mater. Mater is the stereotypical country, redneck character that’s been used countless times in movies, and much of the humor in the movie comes from his dim-witted observations. Although he’s not very bright or worldly, he is genuine and loyal to a fault. His hero worship of Lighting McQueen also hasn’t lessened much from the first movie, despite their friendship, setting up Mater’s constant need to prove himself.
Mater’s country bumpkin routine is fine in Radiator Springs, among those who have known him all his life, but as he becomes part of Lightning McQueen’s touring crew, he repeatedly embarrasses his friend. As Mater is drawn further into the spy storyline, his relationship with Lightning McQueen is tested through a series of classic misunderstandings and quick judgments.
Lightning McQueen and Mater’s problems may not be anything especially original, their fighting and too harsh words are par for the course, but this part of the movie is also the most engaging. Their separation during the big race gives Mater some time to form new relationships with Finn and fellow spy, Holley Shiftwell. Though they are under the impression that Mater is playing a role, they eventually discover his strengths as a brave and loyal friend are just as valuable as those of a trained spy, cementing the qualities most often associated with Pixar’s protagonists .
Worth noting is that many of the supporting characters from Cars are given short shrift in favor of newer ones such as Finn, Holley, and Francesco. They appear in a handful of scenes, but for the most part are absent from the main story. To the movie’s credit the new characters are fun and charming on their own, and add a new dimension to Mater.
Throughout, the animation is as beautifully rendered as the previous Pixar releases. The international locations, particularly in flashy, modern Japan and old world Italy, are a wonderful showcase for the animators’ talents. The film has no shortage of clever appropriations of human culture into its world of animated transportation. Finn’s front grates are drawn to resemble a skinny moustache, while Mater’s dirty and rusted windshield is often a perfect representation of his dim expressions.
Cars 2 had the misfortune of following Toy Story 3, the previous Pixar film. Where that film excelled in story, humor, and emotion, Cars 2 is unable to live up to the same standard. The movie is fun and entertaining, and it certainly has its moments – after all even the least successful Pixar movie is still an impressive achievement – but like the first Cars movie, it doesn’t deliver the caliber of storytelling that has become synonymous with classic Pixar films like the Toy Story trilogy, The Incredibles or Wall-E. Regardless of its place within the Pixar franchise, Cars 2 still manages to successfully tell a new story with established characters, as well as continue to improve upon their excellent animation.
The DVD includes a director commentary with the always enthusiastic Lasseter and Lewis; and two great new shorts, Air Mater, about Mater trying to learn to fly, and Hawaiian Vacation, a Toy Story short about the toys creating their own vacation.