Review: ‘Cars 2’ skews young, adds action, embraces the absurd

At some point, you just have to let things go.

That’s the decision I made after a scene in “Cars 2” where they’re discussing the need for alternative fuels since they are starting to run low on fossil fuels.  Someone is explaining about how there are only so many dead dinosaurs and now they’re running out of oil and they have to find new ways to power cars, and Mater, listening to this, turns to someone and says, “The dinosaurs did what, now?”

They have dinosaurs in the world of “Cars”?  Really?  If I start thinking about the implications of that, my head will explode.  Instead, I just surrendered myself to the notion that logic is not the strong suit of this particular franchise, and it helped me enjoy the film more.  Pixar is one of the strongest studios in town when it comes to story and character, and I think they’ve been very good at worldbuilding in general.  The bottom line with these movies is that John Lasseter, the grand poobah of all things Pixar, loves cars.  And because of that, they make movies about a world of cars.  And that’s really all the logic that matters.

What’s interesting to me as a viewer is just how different the first film is from this sequel.  I know the first film takes a beating from some people, and in particular, I’ve heard people repeatedly try to call the film a remake of “Doc Hollywood.”  I don’t think that’s fair.  I think the original “Cars” trades on a nostalgia for a car culture and a way of life that doesn’t really exist anymore, a longing for the days when Route 66 was an American tradition, a major part of our country’s circulatory system.  Lasseter comes by his longing honestly, and I think the film deals with themes that most kids can’t possibly identify with, but featuring characters that almost instantly imprinted on every kid as soon as they laid eyes on them.  When you look at the two films side-by-side, “Cars” is positively sedate by comparison, which makes sense based on that film’s message about the joys of being lost on back roads and the pleasures of slowing down to take things in.  I can see real value in the message of “Cars,” and over repeat viewings with my own kids, I’ve come to enjoy lots of what that film does and says.  It’s a film of very gentle and subtle charms for the most part.

“Cars 2” is something completely different.  Frantic, loud, colorful, like a bowlful of the sugariest sugar cereal ever made, “Cars 2” is like Red Bull for Babies, pure unfiltered stimulation without any of the thematic weight of the original.  What it loses in gentle observations about the value of small town life, it more than makes up for in explosions, spy movie conventions bent to comic effect, and more explosions.  “Cars 2” is Mater’s movie every bit as much as “Cars” was Lightning McQueen’s movie, and it’ll be interesting to see if that shift in perspective bothers children or if they even notice.  My guess is they’ll be so busy trying to untangle the film’s narrative that they won’t notice anything else.

There are really two films here, and there’s almost a Rosencrantz & Gildenstern thing going on where it feels like we’re watching the background story while the “real” story is playing out just off-screen at times.  The “A” story is the three-part race between Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro) to demonstrate the superior nature of the alternative fuel Allinol that’s been created by former-oil-magnate-turned-electric-car Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard).  They go to Towkyo (sic), Porto Corsa, and London, three radically different tracks, and they play out three totally different race dynamics, building to the big finish.  It’s an energetic action movie with a funny dynamic playing out between Wilson and Turturro, who couldn’t possibly go further over the top.  I think he is one of the great freaks in modern movies, and with just his voice as a tool here, Turturro creates a playfully deranged formula racer who passionately enjoys the taunting and the ball-busting and the head games of a three-race series.  It’s a really funny performance overall.

And if that was “Cars 2,” just the story of the three races as Lightning McQueen takes his buddy Mater (Larry The Cable Guy) along and has to adjust to what other people think of his small-town hick of a friend, that would probably be enough.  It would be a thematic inversion of the first film, which is a pretty natural instinct for a sequel, and I could see that as Pixar’s way in.  Instead, they then moved the entire focus of the film to a whole new set of characters whose story intersects with Mater, spinning him off into this whole alternate movie that’s happening.  And it’s so separate from story A that when Lightning McQueen finally does learn what’s happening, his reaction of total bewilderment serves to not only point out just how outrageous the Mater subplot is, but to also restate our own surprise at the mere existence of it.  The movie really tells the story of Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), a British secret service agent, who uncovers part of a plot without understanding exactly what it is he’s stumbled into.  The opening of the film is gorgeous, just as animation, a huge action sequence that feels like the opening of any classic James Bond movie.  

What’s bizarre is the way that great opening sequence sets up this whole story that hinges on Mater using the toilet at the wrong moment, and I’m not exaggerating.  The entire plot of what happens with Mater hinges on a pee joke, an extended slapstick sequence in a high-tech toilet, and then a close-quarters hand-to-hand fight that feels like it was influenced by the raw brutality of the “Bourne” series.  All one sequence.  And everything, right down to the final exposure of the mysterious bad guy, depends on that sequence.  Mater has the real adventure here, and every now and then, his story crosses paths with Lightning McQueen, then veers apart again.  And how you feel about the film will depend largely on how you feel about watching Mater’s story in favor of Lighning McQueen’s, and how you feel about a big silly spy movie versus a race movie.

My car was divided on the way home tonight.  Toshi wanted more of the Lightning McQueen race, and Allen was thrilled by the spy stuff and would have wanted more.  In the interest of full disclosure, we attended the world premiere of the film tonight at the El Capitan in Hollywood, and we went to the party afterward, where they let all the guests play at the World Grand Prix Attraction by Kodak.  It’s a giant playground that’s been built behind the El Cap that will be open as part of the premium ticket prices for families who go see the film at the El Capitan while it runs.  It is, I must say, impressive, and for my sons, it was preposterous sensory overload.  We surprised them with it tonight, driving them to Hollywood without telling them why, and when they realized they were seeing the movie, they lost their damn fool minds.  It was a huge pleasure to be able to share it with them this way, and I appreciate the invite from Disney.

I do have a few hesitations.  The film plays awfully rough for a Pixar movie, killing a lot of cars onscreen.  A lot.  There’s also a lot of gunplay.  I think it will surprise many parents.  It’s obviously not “graphic,” but there’s a lot of it, and the film manages to suggest real peril for the various characters.  I think Pixar might even be surprised by the way some parents react to it, because there’s no way parents won’t be seeing this film this summer.  There are a lot of bathroom jokes, too.  Easy laughs aren’t really what I think of when I think of Pixar. 

And I know… I know I said I’d let it go… but I really do think the logic issues that baffled me in the first film are even more pronounced this time, to the point where my wife was asking me logic questions about the world as we were driving home, and it’s almost like they’re just doing it to make people who are wired like me itch while they watch the film.  Watch the scene at the airport, and you’ll see planes that are parked and ready for boarding, and they’ve got staircases wheeled up to the plane doors.  I’ll repeat that.  Staircases.  It’s a design we all take for granted because it’s part of our world, but stairs for who?

You think I’m kidding, but when Mater eats a big giant bowl of wasabi in one bite, mistaking it for pistachio ice cream, I am just as confused by his desire to eat ice cream as I am by the accidental ingestion of wasabi.  Why do they have food at all?  They run on fuel.  They run on gas and oil and water.  And at times, they refer to oil treatments and things as “food.”  SO WHY IS THERE REAL FOOD?  WHY ARE THEY EATING IT? WHO IS IT FOR?!

It does not matter who, of course.  No one will care or question it.  The 3D in the film is breathtaking, and the film’s amazing palette is cranked up super-bright to make it stand out.  Pixar’s come so far as a company in terms of what they can do technically, and in scene after scene, there is something that impresses, whether it’s the almost hallucinatory beauty of the early scenes on a mysterious oil rig in the middle of nowhere or the trip the film takes to Paris, complete with a glimpse of “Gastow’s” restaurant, or the actual racing itself along with those crazy courses.  “Cars 2” is as state-of-the-art as anything out there right now, and looking at the teaser trailer for “Brave” that played before the movie, they’re pushing it even further next year.  Michael Giacchino’s score isn’t quite as instantly memorable as the work he did on “The Incredibles,” but it’s fun and effective and just as insistent as the film.  The entire cast here does great work, and if you listen closely, you’ll have fun “spotting” guest appearances like Bruce Campbell, Franco Nero, and Vanessa Redgrave.  I particularly enjoyed Caine and Mortimer, and would imagine they’ll be part of the movies moving forward.  I also thought the way they paid tribute to Paul Newman was quite moving and simple, and just right in terms of a nod to real-life within this silly colorful world.

And speaking of the trailer we saw tonight, we also saw Gary Rydstrom’s new short film “Hawaiian Vacation,” a “Toy Story Toon,” as the opening card announced.  Hilarious.  Michael Keaton’s Ken is my new favorite character in the “Toy Story” world.  Watch his reaction to some bad news here.  It’s also nice to see the toys living comfortably now in the world of Bonnie, the little girl from the end of “Toy Story 3.”  It’s a nice kick-off to the film, and overall, it’s a package that I recommend. I’m still a little surprised at how much the film serves as an inversion of the original, and I’m hard-pressed to think of any other sequel that so completely reverses direction from the first film.

“Cars 2” opens everywhere June 24, 2011.