Latest Pixar flick a dud

By Drew Hunt

As the summer sequel machine barrels forward, yet another franchise has been born with “Cars 2,” the latest offering from Disney and Pixar Animation Studios. Though the original “Cars” is widely considered to be one of the less alluring additions to the Pixar canon, John Lasseter, chief creative at Pixar and one of its founding members, has decided to return to the director’s chair for another go.

Picking up where the last film left off, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is settled into Radiator Springs, a small town where his best friend Mater (Larry The Cable Guy) and his best girl Sally (Bonnie Hunt) reside. One day, McQueen receives an offer to race in the World Grand Prix, an event sponsored by the entrepreneurial Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard) and his new alternative fuel source, Allinol. Through a series of misfortunate events, Mater gets involved in an international cover-up and is enlisted by a pair of British spy-cars to help save the day.

The most admirable aspect of the Pixar ethos has always rested in its refusal to belittle its audience—no matter how little they happen to be. They’re the rare kind of studio that considers the intelligence of its demographic. The best Pixar films are the ones that don’t talk down to children, but instead enliven their imagination and present them with scenarios that don’t immediately appeal to a common denominator.

In other words, their films can be challenging. The opening montage to 2009’s “Up,” for instance, carried the kind of emotional weight not generally reserved for a children’s film. Moreover, the overlying social commentaries of 2008’s “Wall-E” suggested that Pixar seeks to educate its audience in addition to entertaining it.

“Cars 2,” however, has the emotional weight of a dry sponge and, despite its endorsement of alternative fuel sources, doesn’t have much to say in the way of social commentary. Instead, the film relies on hokey puns and gimmicky action set pieces that amount to little more than an over-long Saturday morning cartoon.

Attempts to reorient the direction of franchise are also in vain. McQueen, the hero of the last film, plays a lesser role while Mater, the dim-witted tow truck, takes center stage. As voiced by Larry The Cable Guy, much of the film is dedicated to inserting him into a number of zany scenarios in which his down-home, country bumpkinness can be exploited for a laugh or two. The film relies too heavily on this structure, and before long, “Cars 2” becomes a predictable and arduous experience.

Even more disheartening than this foray into formulaic plotting is the film’s reliance on stereotypes to reinforce its humor. For example, the low-rider is given a Hispanic accent; the VW Bus is depicted as a spaced-out hippy; the film’s bad guys—so-called ‘lemons’—all have distinct Italian and Eastern European accents. These are one-trick ponies, but the film milks them for all they’re worth.

“Cars 2” is never outwardly offensive, but given the concept of the film—that is, a world populated by cars and not human beings—it seems obvious that Lasseter and screenwriter Ben Queen would seek to avoid using such simplistic forms of humor. Lasseter’s ploy could have been to distract audiences from this crudeness by upping the ante in terms of visuals.

There’s no denying “Cars 2” is a marvel to look at it. The sumptuous landscapes and detailed environments are nothing short of remarkable. As Pixar celebrates its 25th year of production, it continues to innovate the form of computer animation. Everyone else continues to play catch up.

Despite this, a distinct and uncharacteristic lack of thematic cleverness permeates every scene in “Cars 2.” For the first time, Pixar seems content in delivering an easily digestible product as opposed to an enriching experience.