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'Cars 2' doesn't live up to Pixar potential

Posted: June 29, 2011 - 6:16pm

I went into “Cars 2” blind, having never seen the first one. One thing I was curious about, besides who built these talking cars if the world is nothing but talking cars, was if I could start here and still get into the franchise. After all, that’s how I did it with “Rocky.” The answer here is yes…and not really.

“Yes” because I was able to figure out the “Cars” world right off the bat. It’s a world populated by cars, plus a few other varieties of vehicles, that are alive and don’t need humans around to drive them. They’d probably just get in the way.

And it’s a cute world, no doubt about that. Plus, even though I started with the sequel, it was no problem picking up who each character is and what their world is all about. For example, one loves racing, another seemingly loves being a redneck. When I was a reporter in Talladega, Ala., I met their human counterparts, only often without the charm.

There are a few references to the original that might help. Most notably, I knew that the first “Cars” was the final work of the legendary Paul Newman, who gets a nice little nod here. However, when I looked up the cast from that first movie, I noticed the late George Carlin on there. He doesn’t get the same treatment; he’s simply replaced, much like Pixar did with Jim Varney’s slinky dog in “Toy Story 3.” But hey, the show must go on.

Speaking of going on, here’s the story. The leading car, a tow truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, is helping his buddy, racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), on a world racing tour. Lightning has a personal stake in proving his carhood against an obnoxious rival sporting a French accent set on cheese mode.

In fact, I think everyone else had an accent. But at least the others are natural. A fuel tycoon (Eddie Izzard) has developed the new “safe” alternative to replace all other fuels, except cars using them keep blowing up. The British super car spy patrol springs into action when ‘Mater the redneck tow truck is mistaken for a top American spy car by none other than Michael Caine.

Cue the stereotypical James Bond-style chase scenes. They aren’t much for other action; they’re cars. But chase after chase gets repetitious. It brings to mind a metaphor for actual NASCAR races doing the same loop again and again.

The movie’s saving grace is the laughs, but they’re too few. The bulk of them belongs to Larry, who has the market cornered on the whole good ol’ boy persona. He’s having a blast with it, just taking it down to a G-rated level.

In fact, no one else has too much of anything to say. It’s good that he’s so funny but a few others need to be too. And I know it sounds pedantic with this being a cartoon and all, but it would be nice if some of those other cars were a little more fleshed out.

The action itself is outstanding and just about every background is beyond impressive. Pixar animators have always had a gift for incredibly rich detail that lands you smack in another world. However, when there’s nothing but chase after chase to use this it, this world loses appeal even when looking great.

The biggest problem is that “Cars” is carrying the Pixar pedigree. Even with sequels, these animators have proven with almost every step over the last few decades that they have an almost unmatchable imagination. Almost everything they produce is unique, and there’s no denying the special flare or magic while this feels like a standard cookie cutter sequel. Nothing to stand out.

“Cars 2” also just feels like they were playing it safe with a garden variety sequel, and this is a company that’s fully embraced risky takes for family films and pulled them off, most notably “Wall-E” and “Up.” These went pretty out-of-range from what family characters had been so they really had to have the masters behind these ideas to work. And they did. This one doesn’t belong in the same category.

Not to say it isn’t funny. The jokes aren’t bad, just mostly single-sourced. But even with the regular laughs from Larry and breathtaking imagery, this doesn’t feel special, and it’s certainly nothing memorable. It’s just a way to get some quick summer fare out there for the families.

Like I said, it can be funny. Kids will love the cars themselves. I have to say I was impressed that even with a plot involving the alternative fuel idea, it stays away from getting preachy. One thing that is special is the preceding animated short that makes really fun use of a better Pixar franchise.

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