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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Cars 2 [2011] : Film Review

Opens: June 24 (Disney)
Production: Pixar Animation

Voice cast: Larry the Cable Guy, Owen Wilson, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard, John Turturro, Brent Musburger, Joe Mantegna, Thomas Kretschmann, Peter Jacobson, Bonnie Hunt, Darrell Waltrip, Franco Nero, Dvid Hobbs, Tony Shalhoub, Jeff Garlin, Michel Michelis, Jason Isaacs, Jenifer Lewis, Sig Hansen, Vanessa Redgrave, Cheech Marin, Jeff Gordon, Paul Dooley, Katherine Helmond

Director: John Lesseter
Co-director: Brad Lewis
Screenwriter: Ben Queen
Original story: John Lasseter, Brad Lewis Dan Fogelman
Producer: Denise Ream
Directors of photography: Sharon Calahan (lighting), Jeremy Lasky (camera)
Production designer: Harley Jessup
Supervising technical designer: Apurva Shah
Music: Michael Giacchino 
PG rating, 107 minutes 

Cooler cars and more action follow Lightning and Mater as they mix it up with spies and Formula 1 racers in yet another Pixar winner, writes Todd McCarthy.

Pixar's 2006 release Cars is widely regarded as among the less dazzling of the animation house's dozen sterling titles, so it's fair to imagine that John Lasseter and his pit crew felt motivated to use a little extra elbow grease in order to deliver an improved new model. On the whole, they have, as Lightning McQueen and the loyal pick-up truck Mater quickly vamoose from sleepy Radiator Springs to join the Grand Prix circuit in a succession of world capitals, where they become entangled in some related international spy intrigue. Featuring cooler cars and more action than Fast Five, Cars 2 is notably less refined and more rambunctious than Pixar's recent run of artistic gems. But commercially, it'll be off to the races this summer, with even bigger international prospects assured on this lap than on the first spin.

No special knowledge or memory of the original is required to get one's bearings, as this beautifully designed sequel stands easily on its own four tires. A self-professed car nut from his youth, Lasseter takes advantage of the global locations to jam the cast with an auto show's worth of vintage international motorcars, from an amply armed Bond-style Aston Martin to the humble East German Trabant; in the bargain, he even further adorns Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower and, in the end credits, Pixar's own campus to charming effect. Perhaps as much as in any animated film one could cite, there's always something beautiful or clever or funny to look at and, as often as not, to listen to as the anthropomorphized automobiles zip about in high and determined spirits.

The story, cooked up by Lasseter, co-director Brad Lewis and Dan Fogelman and scripted by Ben Queen, is both simple and not always entirely discernible on a moment-to-moment basis. At the outset, in fact, the coordinates are geographically and dramatically inscrutable; physically, the action begins literally at sea, amidst an ocean of sinister oil rigs infiltrated by British spies Finn McMissile (an Aston Martin voiced by Michael Caine) and Miata-like Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), who make use of all their special extra-automotive endowments -- wings, heavy weaponry, underwater capability -- to make a nocturnal escape with their dignity and paint jobs intact.

A world away in the American desert, the spiffy red Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is hot-rodding around with tow-truck buddy Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) when he's persuaded to enter an upcoming series of races in which big shot Land Rover Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard) hopes to prove the viability of his revolutionary clean fuel Allinol as a substitute for gasoline. Here, as elsewhere, the visual, verbal and musical jokes practically exceed the speed limit; one blink-and-you-miss-it gag shows the marquee of the local drive-in promoting "The Incredimobiles."

First stop is Tokyo, where cars engage in sumo wrestling and the lights of the Ginza district look so bright you're glad for the slight dimming effect of the 3D glasses (Pixar typically amps up the brightness of its images to compensate for the darkening).

During a pass through Paris, the old Les Halles is wondrously reconstituted as a spare parts bazaar, Gusteau's from Ratatouille is part of the cityscape, the tops of the Eiffel Tower and the Arch de Triomphe are automotively reimagined and Mater, who went home after Tokyo, makes a too-soon return. Inoffensive in small doses, Mater's "Hee-Haw" routine gets old pretty quickly and comes to excessively dominate the film with his saddlesore witticisms.

Next stop is fictional Porto Corsa, an Italian seaside jewel that resembles a theme park version of Monaco. The Italian champion, Francesco (John Turturro), intends to assert his dominance over Lightning McQueen here, while a disguised Mater tries to infiltrate a gang of low-end Euro cars working on behalf of unknown bosses out to discredit the Allinol vehicles so as to maintain the demand for oil. The message is clear.
The in-fighting becomes downright vicious during the final race in London in front of the Queen, while the picture itself becomes rather more antic and frantic than it needs to as the ultimate villain is exposed, the British spies are vindicated and the Americans, while happy in their achievements, typically decide that there's no place like home.

Even as recent Pixar films have benefited from increased simplicity and modulation of mood and effect, Lasseter keeps Cars 2 running at close to the red line from start to finish with nary a pit stop to refuel. On balance, it's more exhilarating than exhausting, but there are moments when sensory overload threatens to set in. More is better seems to be the by-word, but a bit less aw-shucks humor and Looney Tunes-like madness over the long haul would have made for a more agreeable balance.

The vocal talent assembled for the voices is impressively varied and deep; even for small roles one finds enlisted such estimable actors as Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Isaacs, Jenifer Lewis, Franco Nero, Katherine Helmond and Paul Dooley, not to mention Cheech Marin, Brent Musburger, Deadliest Catch star Sig Hansen and race car drivers such as Darrell Waltrip, David Hobbs and Jeff Gordon. Michael Giacchino's score has the effect of a super-charger on the film, as if it needed one.

The Bottom Line

Lightning and Mater mix it up with Formula 1 and spies in yet another Pixar winner.

If "Cars" was perhaps the least engaging of Pixar's hugely successful animated features, John Lasseter and his team have hit the creative accelerator with the unexpectedly delightful "Cars 2." The rare sequel that improves on its predecessor, this lightning-paced caper-comedy shifts the franchise into high gear with international intrigue, spy-movie spoofery and more automotive puns than you can shake a stickshift at, handling even its broader stretches with sophistication, speed and effortless panache. High-performance B.O. is assured, but as with "Cars," ancillary/merchandising is where this expertly souped-up entertainment will leave others in the dust.

As it recently reaffirmed with "Toy Story 3," Pixar never ventures into the bottom-line-driven sequel market without the essentials of a good story and a clear artistic purpose. Working from a whip-smart script by Ben Queen (a relative newcomer with the salient TV credit "Drive"), Lasseter has not only invigorated his original concept but enabled the viewer to appreciate and share his passion for this unique corner of the Disney toon-iverse.

With 2006's "Cars," the helmer fashioned a lovely, lackadaisical piece of Americana, evoking a bygone world of pit stops and open roads inhabited by anthropomorphized automobiles. This time, Lasseter abandons Route 66 nostalgia to deliver a giddily escapist action-thriller that moves too swiftly and assuredly for the viewer to do anything but sit back and enjoy the ride. Result may look like a more conventional assembly-line product than its soulful predecessor, but "Cars 2" is nothing if not personal; not a frame goes by where you can't hear Lasseter's inner child squealing with pleasure.

The adjustments are clear from the brilliant opening chase sequence, in which suave British spy Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine) outguns and outruns the minions of monocle-wearing German scientist Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann). It's characteristic of the film's cleverness that it never winks at the absurdity of enacting such a standard spy-thriller setup with cars; yet that unacknowledged element is what makes the pastiche feel so fresh and witty, and the deliriously inventive manner in which the sequence keeps topping itself sets a thrilling pattern for developments to come.

But first, the story slows down for a quick stopover in Radiator Springs, the now-thriving home of Piston Cup-winning racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and his best friend, rusty-brained tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). When Lightning is invited to compete with arrogant Formula champion Francesco Bernoulli (a hammy John Turturro) in the World Grand Prix, he decides to bring Mater along, unaware of the trouble the easily distracted, socially embarrassing truck will stir up.

"Cars 2," in fact, is really Mater's movie, expanding the first film's friendship-driven themes from the moving perspective of a character whom others are quick to dismiss as a dumb sidekick. The first big setpiece in Tokyo offers marvelous fish-out-of-water comedy as Mater cluelessly chugs his way through this bewildering neon-colored metropolis; he also crosses paths with Finn and fetching associate Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), who mistake Mater for an American spy. Soon the hapless truck finds himself at the center of an international conspiracy to sabotage the race, which is being sponsored by Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard), chief proponent of an alternative fuel called Allinol.

Super-fast cars, cosmopolitan settings, sustainable energy -- what's not to love? Critics and columnists should have fun parsing the deeper political messages of "Cars 2," which never allows its gas-guzzlers-vs.-hybrids topicality to overpower its exhilarating sense of play. As the film zips from Tokyo to Paris to the Italian Riviera to London, Lasseter, co-director Brad Lewis and their crack team of animators unleash the sort of wizardly action sequences most live-action directors would envy, powered by the brassy James Bond-style riffs of Michael Giacchino's score. Pic allows the viewer to relax into a pleasurable groove even as its abundant in-jokes and peripheral details encourage the mind to stay actively engaged.

Set in a world where cars are outfitted with machine guns, rockets, parachutes, holographic displays and, in perhaps one innovation too far, insta-disguise mechanisms, "Cars 2" is as close to a pure boys' movie as the toon studio has yet made -- though all boys' movies should be so universal in appeal. More so than the Pixar norm, pic possesses a certain lowbrow streak entirely consistent with its vroom-vroom milieu, handily demonstrating that the often-aggravating staples of so much kid-friendly animation -- nonstop banter, ethnic accents, goofy wordplay (mileage may vary), even bathroom humor -- can be executed with wit and class.
Larry's vocal turn lifts Mater to the pantheon of endearing Pixar creations even as he gets occasionally gets on the viewer's nerves, as he should; with their more elegant diction, Caine and Mortimer provide a wonderful contrast as his formidable new allies. Almost every member of the original "Cars" gang gets at least a line or two, with the poignant exception of Doc Hudson, wisely not recast after the death of Paul Newman.

Pic will require frame-by-frame DVD scrutiny to fully appreciate the sheer number of creative choices that must have gone into its lensing, lighting and production design (informed by live location scouting), though the topnotch 3D treatment makes for an immersive experience best savored on the bigscreen.

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