When audiences see Luxo Jr. hop across the screen at the beginning of Pixar movie, we expect pure magic every time out. That’s because the pioneering computer animation company has set the bar incredibly high, consistently making some of the best animated films ever. Talk about pressure. Cars 2 is the latest film to be held to that standard and it actually makes the grade. Just barely. The film forgoes the emotional complexity of Pixar’s previous work and distinguishes itself by going the other way. It’s their first mindless action film. Think Pixar does a James Bond sequel.

If Cars 2 was a live-action film with humans, it might be another studio’s best film of the year. But since it’s Pixar, it places near the bottom of their impressive list. Still, it’s my opinion that a slightly sub par Pixar movie is like a piece of perfection compared to everything else. Such is Cars 2.

Cars 2 picks up a few years after the first film with Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) coming home after another successful season on the Piston Cup Circuit. He’s hanging out with his tow-truck best friend Mater (Larry The Cable Guy) when they hear about a brand new series of international races, the World Grand Prix, which will help promote a new alternative fuel called Allinol. Concurrently, Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), a British spy, and his new associate Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) are investigating some sort of complex criminal activity centering on oil. Do the two stories cross paths? What do you think?

Unlike the first Cars, which was about McQueen becoming more grounded and straight Americana, Cars 2 is the rise of Mater and a love letter to the world. In that moment, Cars 2 hamstrings itself. Mater is the car version of Mr. Bean or Professor Clouseau, always haphazardly backing into situations without a clue of what’s going on. Making him the main character brings an uncharacteristic amount of low-brow humor to the world but, as the story progresses and Mater’s adventures get more expansive, Cars 2 eventually turns that fish-out-of-water personality and childish joking into the film’s “Be Yourself” message. All is forgiven.

That’s as deep as this movie gets though. There are very basic themes of friendship and a not-so-subtle pro-environmental message but, beyond that, Cars 2 is all gloss. An impeccable paint job with above average guts. The international settings are frequently gorgeous and laced with inside jokes. The action scenes, particularly the Grand Prix races, are exciting and surprising. All the new characters are clever, the connections to the first Cars are heartwarming and everything looks beautiful in 3D.

On the other hand, things do get a bit plotty. The film follows several of the obvious tropes of the spy movie genre – gadgets, villainous reveals, daring escapes and impossible physics – but it’s still novel to see gun fights and such in a Pixar movie. John Lasseter, back in the director’s chair, sprinkles in plenty of “Aw shucks” moments with his action, but never anything tear worthy. And that’s okay. Pixar doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel every single time out. If you go into Cars 2 hoping to cry like you did in Up or be moved like you were in Finding Nemo, that’s not going to happen. If you go in expecting a solid, big budget action movie and nothing more, you’re sure to find the film enjoyable.

Cars 2 carries the baggage of such amazing movies that living up to those expectations would be almost impossible. There are problems, to be sure, but go in with the proper expectations and McQueen, Mater and the gang will take you on a thrilling ride. It’s all in good fun.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10

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About the Author

Germain graduated NYU's Tisch School of the Arts Cinema Studies program in 2002 and won back to back First Place awards for film criticism from the New York State Associated Press in 2006 and 2007.

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