It’s already become redundant to say that Pixar exhibits the gold standard in terms of animation. Over the past 25 years, the Emeryville-based studio has earned 26 Academy Awards, seven Golden Globes and the universal admiration of children and adults alike. They’ve managed to maintain a winning formula that combines the naivete of childhood innocence with deeper, more profound and political messages. However, lately, it seems Pixar has been a bit more dour than usual. Everyone knows what I’m talking about. That montage from “Up,” the melancholic parting of Andy and Woody in “Toy Story 3” — Tears have almost overshadowed the laughter in Pixar films as of late. But, with the release of “Cars 2”, the lighthearted adventure has returned, for better or worse.
In the same vein of the “Toy Story” sequels, “Cars 2” returns us to a familiar and nostalgic scene: the charmingly quaint Radiator Springs. The victorious protagonist Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has just returned off a series of winning races but, left behind, almost literally in the dust, is the endearing bumpkin Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). Ostensibly, the film is grounded in the tenuous friendship between this unlikely duo ― the prince (McQueen) and the pauper (Mater) — and follows its troubled trajectory as McQueen competes in the World Grand Prix. This international scale, ranging from the towering skyscrapers of Tokyo to the pub-lined streets of London, blows the small town bubble of the original “Cars” out of the water. Quite literally.
If the sweeping international vistas (in 3D no less!) and amusing antics of Mater weren’t enough to whet one’s palette, there’s a tertiary plot involving the enviably slick Finn McMissle (Michael Caine) as a British Intelligence officer sent to uncover the dirty secrets under the hood of a criminal car syndicate. With cutting-edge spy cameras and machine guns that jut out of fenders, the James Bond homage is undeniably the most effective element of the film. As with the nod to the prison-break classic, 1963’s “The Great Escape,” in “Toy Story 3,” it’s clear that Pixar is capable of not only crafting masterful films but, appropriating them flawlessly as well. The music is swift and aggressive. The henchmen are the perfect mix of grimy exterior and blind belligerence. But, as is evident from the adjectives, there’s something inherently violent about the spy movie that may not be suitable for the film’s target audience: children.
Within the first ten minutes, there’s enough explosive power in “Cars 2” to rival any Michael Bay picture. Coupled with the ubiquitous use of mechanized weaponry, the excessive use of brute violence is at once visually arresting, but perhaps too assaulting for the normally more placid Pixar. It’s a classic, style over substance dilemma. Instead of character depth, we get carburetors on fire. Instead of an emotionally-driven climax, we get a somewhat sloppily tacked on moment of self-doubt for Mater. Instead of catharsis, there’s only cars with fancy exteriors that try to hide a messy interior.
But, oh how fancy those cars are. Despite a significant lack of the usual Pixar pathos, the adrenaline ride that “Cars 2” provides is difficult to find fault with. It’s not the studio at its best, but even without all pistons firing, Pixar is guaranteed quality.