NPR logo 'Cars 2': Unfortunately, It's Just About Cars


'Cars 2': Unfortunately, It's Just About Cars

Grem (Joe Mantegna), Acer (Peter Jacobson), Siddeley (Jason Isaacs), Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), Finn McMissile (Sir Michael Caine). Disney/Pixar Studios hide caption

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Disney/Pixar Studios

Grem (Joe Mantegna), Acer (Peter Jacobson), Siddeley (Jason Isaacs), Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), Finn McMissile (Sir Michael Caine).

Disney/Pixar Studios

Cars 2

  • Directors: John Lasseter, Brad Lewis
  • Genre: Animation
  • Running Time: 113 minutes

Rated G

With: Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard

Good news first: The best thing about Cars 2 is that Pixar is still Pixar. This is still a beautiful film (even in 3D, the format in which I unfortunately screened it), imaginatively and lovingly animated, and I certainly think the kids I saw it with enjoyed it well enough.

Contrary to what I'm guessing you're going to hear from some corners, Cars 2 isn't bad. It's just ... ordinary. And that's one of the risks of the tremendous run that Pixar has had: ordinary seems deeply disappointing.

The other recent Pixar movies, while they're surely not perfect, combine all that great-looking animation with moments that are genuinely special from a story perspective – ones that speak to enduring characters and to real feelings. While Cars 2 has a few nice nods at the idea of faithful friends, they're pretty by-the-numbers compared to the wallop of those opening and closing moments of Up, or the first third of WALL-E, or the furnace sequence in Toy Story 3.

Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) Disney/Pixar hide caption

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Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer)


What's happening in Cars 2 is, for one thing, taking place on two parallel and not entirely compatible tracks. On one, there's a story about Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) going to participate in an international race (which, on the good side, gives Pixar a great chance to draw some of the world's great cities) while his buddy Tow Mater (voice of Larry The Cable Guy) tags along and their friendship is tested by Mater's self-esteem issues. On the other, there's another story about a car that's actually a British spy (voice of Michael Caine) with a pretty associate (voice of Emily Mortimer), and they're involved in a whole intrigue plot that involves sustainable fuels and beaters and a Richard-Branson-like magnate. You may find that your interest flags a little. Mine did. With Lightning and Mater away from most of their friends in Radiator Springs for most of the movie, they're asking the spy story to carry even more of the screen time, and there's just not enough meat on it.

There are those who believe that Cars is already a weak spot on the Pixar roster, and while I tend to agree, I think I know more kids who are or were obsessed with it than I do with any of the other films. My guess is that those folks will like this sequel even less. But in fairness, I think what's most glaringly absent from Cars 2 isn't the stuff about Pixar that kids like, but the story sophistication and substance that's disproportionately important to the adult Pixar audience.

The difference between this and the other Pixar movies, fundamentally, is that this one is pretty much about the thing it appears to be about. Up is really about grief. WALL-E is really about loneliness. Toy Story 3 is really about letting go and dealing with life changes. Cars 2, on the other hand, really is mostly about cars. Cute cars, lovable cars, beautifully rendered cars. But cars nevertheless.