Imagine that after “Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace” George Lucas ditched the whole Anakin/Vader storyline and turned “Attack of the Clones” over to Jar Jar Binks.
If you can imagine that without crawling into a mental fetal position, then you can imagine “Cars 2.” In this animated sequel from Disney’s Pixar studio, Owen Wilson’s neurotic race car Lightning McQueen turns over the keys to the two-ton four-wheeled village idiot Mater, the buck-toothed tow truck. Jar Jar, it’s your big chance!
Usually, keys get turned over after a few drinks; we can’t rule that out here. Effectively, they took the film away from a genuine comic talent in Wilson and gave it to Larry, The Cable Guy.
Perhaps they went fishing for a fresher tone. Or perhaps Larry’s schedule was surprisingly open. For whatever reason, the change inserts one-note comic relief into the role of the main character. While it has its cute moments, the hit-over-the-head-by-comedy feeling hurts like a five-car pileup on the far turn.
The plot itself is a bit of a two-car pileup of a pair of wildly different storylines. Lightning McQueen enters a worldwide racing series against an Italian rival. The races are part of a campaign to promote a new all-natural alternative fuel, made out of things that a bear would wipe his bottom with.
This is backdrop for the real plot, an espionage spoof in which Mater accidentally falls into international intrigue after being mistaken for a spy. The James Bond of British sedans admires his doggedness – somehow Mater never breaks his cover story of being a simpleton. This plotline begs the question, why would you make a film filled with James Bond allusions when the humor here wouldn’t be funny to anyone over six years old?
When it comes to animated films, and especially Pixar films, I usually shoot a little lower than everyone else. It’s best to judge relatively to other Pixar films, and I think “Cars” really is the weakest of the Pixar franchises. While the Pixar technical sheen is present (the movement of the animated race cars is slick and life-like), the project feels obligatory. After a few summers of celebrated animated features, you wonder if “Cars 2” felt like a letdown to its creators. This summer’s two major animated movies (“Cars 2” and “Kung Fu Panda 2”) are tricked-out 3-D sequels that have no reason for existing other than the fact that the first one made a ton of money.