Friday, June 24, 2011

Cars 2: Quite road-worthy

Cars 2 (2011) • View trailer for Cars 2
Four stars. Rating: G, and suitable for all ages
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.24.11

I never cared that much for 2006’s Cars, which lacked the Pixar spark (plugs) present in the animation studio’s other big-screen features.
With a bevy of bad cars in hot pursuit, our vehicular heroes — foreground, from
left, Lightning McQueen, Mater and Finn McMissile — race to save London
from a nefarious villain who is determined to prove that alternative fuels
are no alternative at all.

I simply couldn’t identify emotionally with the vehicular characters: a rather ironic confession, coming from somebody who had no trouble falling in love with bickering children’s toys, culinary rats and lonely robots. It felt like Pixar guru John Lasseter was letting his own boyhood fixation with cars — his father was a parts manager at a Chevy dealership in the late 1960s and early ’70s — interfere with his guiding mantra regarding the importance of a good story.

Besides, the characters in Cars looked and behaved far too much like the claymation creations Aardman (Wallace and Gromit) had developed for a highly successful series of TV commercials for Chevron: a campaign that had begun a decade earlier. For once, Lasseter was imitating an established archetype, rather than creating fresh ones.

Advance reports regarding the impending arrival of Cars 2 also weren’t encouraging, with suggestions that this sequel was greenlighted because the merchandising tail was wagging the artistic dog: Cars, among all Pixar films, had generated one of the most financially successful toy lines. Again, not a happy possibility for those of us who’ve appreciated Pixar’s customary narrative magic.

I should have had more faith.

While still not among Pixar’s best efforts, Cars 2 is miles ahead of its predecessor: better character development, a more engaging premise and a vastly superior storyline. The “vehicular community” gags, no matter how whimsical, seemed stifled in the enclosed environment of Radiator Springs; this time out, writers Ben Queen, Brad Lewis, Dan Fogelman and Lasseter have broadened their tapestry to span the globe.

And, ingeniously, to send up spy movies.

A lengthy prologue involves veteran British operative Finn McMissile’s (voiced, with secret agent savoir faire, by Michael Caine) clandestine effort to find out what happened to an undercover colleague who had infiltrated a gang of nefarious cars up to no good at a collection of deep-ocean oil-drilling platforms. Sporting an increasingly ingenious series of gadgets even wackier than what Derek Flint had concealed in his all-purpose cigarette lighter, Finn only just manages to escape ... but the mystery remains.

What were those bad-guy cars doing there? And what do their plans have to do with Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard), a former oil baron who sold off his fortune, converted himself to an electric vehicle and devoted his career to perfecting Allinol, a renewable, clean-burning energy source of the future?

As a means of demonstrating Allinol’s value as an alternative fuel source, Axelrod has staged the World Grand Prix, a three-country race designed to attract all top contenders. Normally, this list would include Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), but he’s hoping for some quiet quality time in Radiator Springs with Sally (Bonnie Hunt), the baby blue Porsche 911 Carrera who caught his fancy in the first film.

This smacks of cowardice to Italian race champion Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro, quite a stitch), who issues a challenge that McQueen can’t ignore. Our laid-back hero therefore hops a flight to Tokyo, site of the race’s first leg, accompanied by his faithful pit crew: Luigi (Tony Shalhoub), the gregarious and excitable Italian Fiat 500; Guido (Guido Quaroni), the impatient little Italian forklift; Fillmore (Lloyd Sherr, stepping in for the absent George Carlin), the easy-going 1960s Volkswagen van; and — against McQueen’s better judgment — Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), the rusty old tow truck who runs Tow Mater Towing and Salvage.

And the race, as they say, is on.

But not before McQueen has ample cause to rue Mater’s presence. It seems that Mater’s every move merely exposes his hick sensibilities, much to McQueen’s rising embarrassment; he does, after all, have an image to maintain.

Which sets the stage for this film’s underlying moral: that we need to accept and cherish our friends for who they are — which, after all, is what attracted us to them in the first place — rather than who we think they should be.

With his gift for landing in hot oil, Mater is mistaken for a fellow secret agent by Finn and his junior associate, Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), a British desk agent turned rookie field spy. Finn naturally assumes that Mater’s dim-bulb personality is a cover ... and a mighty impressive one, at that.

Mater thus gets sucked into Finn’s mission to determine the purpose of a mysterious ray gun-style machine, and the identity of the mastermind behind the plot: a clandestine vehicle thus far unphotographed ... with the exception of a close-up of its engine block.

Needless to say, the bad guys — most visibly represented by the German Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann) and his two henchmen, Grem (Joe Mantegna) and Acer (Peter Jacobson) — aren’t willing to sit still during such interference. Poor Mater gets chased and harassed at every corner in a series of hilarious and wonderfully inventive action sequences. To make matters worse, nobody believes his increasingly improbable stories about villains and deadly gadgets.

Although the script’s tone echoes the often arch live-action secret agent epics of the 1960s, Lasseter & Co. once again work in the environmentally laced subtext that brought additional gravitas to WALL-E and Up. Alternative fuel sources are an obvious real-world issue, but the story avoids becoming preachy by making the enemy a consortium of notoriously infamous “failed cars” that remain icons of public ridicule: Gremlins, Pacers, Yugos — one of which is named Victor, of course — and others. In a sense, then, we’re tempted to sympathize with their desire for self-respect, since Mater wants the same thing.

With locations that include Tokyo, Paris, London and the fictitious Italian seaside city of Porto Corsa, the filmmakers have ample opportunity to cleverly “car-ify” every setting. The resulting sight gags and incidental bits of business often zip past in a flurry, making this another Pixar film that will yield additional delights upon repeat viewings.

London’s Big Ben becomes “Big Bentley”; the Eiffel Tower is topped by a 1930s European spark plug; Notre Dame Cathedral is dominated by “car-goyles” and flying buttresses in the shape of exhaust pipes; the Porto Corsa casino is built on a rocky outcropping shaped like a 1948 Fiat 500 Topolino, and of course the craps table employs fuzzy dice. It just goes on and on and on; no opportunity for a cute touch is missed.

But never to the detriment of character development. Given the limitations of their “features” — two-dimensional eyeballs in their windshields, articulate mouths in the grillwork, and that’s it — considerable pressure is put on the off-camera voice talent. Everybody rises to the challenge, with Caine, Mortimer and Larry the Cable Guy particularly adept at suggesting a wide range of emotions.

Sharp-eared viewers also may recognize John Ratzenberger (as Mack the truck), Cheech Marin (Ramone), Bruce Campbell (agent Rod “Torque” Redline), racing champ Jeff Gordon (Jeff Gorvette) and even Lasseter himself (as John Lassetire, Gorvette’s pit crew chief).

The story also acknowledges the absence of another iconic character from the first film: Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson. The coveted Piston Cup trophy has been renamed the Hudson Hornet Memorial Piston Cup, and McQueen keeps his in Doc’s old office, which has been converted into the Hudson Hornet Racing Museum. It’s a poignant reminder of how much Newman brought to the first film, and how much he continues to be missed.

Happily, Cars 2 was designed for its 3D format, which adds greatly to the many racing and chasing sequences. And since this isn’t a 3D retrofit, the film’s colors remain vibrant, and brightness (or the absence thereof) isn’t an issue. Indeed, the filmmakers employ all sorts of subtle techniques for their differing color palettes, depending on a given scene; the Parisian sequences have a softness fans will recognize from Ratatouille, while Tokyo has a vivid glossiness wholly at odds with the dusky, Colorado-style earth tones used for Radiator Springs.

Bottom line: Cars 2 roars out of the starting line-up and maintains a revved-up pace throughout, while never sacrificing the characters at the heart of its engaging storyline. Looks like Pixar has another hit on its hands.

Be advised: Assuming Disney sends out identical prints, this film is preceded by a lengthy clip from The Lion King, which is designed to promote that classic’s impending 3D re-release later this summer. But the clip — actually the entire opening sequence, with “The Circle of Life” playing behind it — begins without introduction or warning, and more than a few viewers at last weekend’s preview began to wonder if somebody had mistakenly slipped us the wrong movie. You will be in the right place, with Cars 2 on the menu; you simply need to be patient.

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