After sampling the exotic South American wonders of fictional Paradise Falls in Up, Pixar explorers must have felt that returning to Cars' make-believe town of Radiator Springs located in the imaginary West off historic Route 66 was too been-there-done-that. Besides, without the great Paul Newman around anymore as the voice of Radiator Springs' doctor, judge, and racing legend Doc Hudson, the place was a little too quiet. That's my theory, anyway, as to why Cars 2 leaves the town so far behind, so quickly, for most of this very busy globe-trotting sequel. At some point in the years since champion race car Lightning McQueen (voiced once again by Owen Wilson with his trademark hotdog drawl) settled down in Radiator Springs, Cars 2 director John Lasseter got a notion: For the follow-up to 2006's Cars, he'd graft the appeal of the nostalgic American road-trip values and automotive pride established in the first movie onto the foreign-accent high jinks of an international spy caper. He'd get no more kicks from Route 66; he'd see the world!
The resulting sequel is as forced and overloaded as the premise suggests a rare display of narrative and tonal struggle on the part of Pixarians, famous for their attention to the nuances of story line and character development. But at least Cars 2 looks as expertly sleek and sturdy as audiences have come to expect from the standard-setting animation company, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Now a celebrity and revved up to snag the title of world's fastest car, Lightning McQueen sets off to race in the World Grand Prix, a multicontinent-spanning competition that takes him to Tokyo, London, and fictional Porto Corsa, Italy. McQueen had no plans to include his Radiator Springs helpful-hick friend Mater in his traveling pit crew, since Mater is an unsophisticated tow truck with a heart as bulgy as that of human hayseed Kenneth the Page on 30 Rock. Still, long story short, Mater makes the cut. And away from home, his accidentally effective, made-in-America naïveté attracts the attention of the James Bond-ish British spy vehicle Finn McMissile (Michael Caine, at the ready) and sidekick Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), who are on a complicated undercover mission of their own. Convinced that Mater must surely be dumb like an undercover fox rather than just an American idiot, they rope him into their spy operation. (Lucky truck, he gets to go to Paris, too.) McQueen, meanwhile, runs his races, facing off against a world-class Italian rival voiced with full bologna by John Turturro.
As an animated cartoon travelogue, Cars 2 features the usual sights and cultural differences: Tokyo, for instance, is a welter of neon Hello Kitty sensibility, with capsule hotels for cars. (At a buffet reception, Mater makes the grabby Western mistake of shoving a mound of sinus-stinging green wasabi horseradish into his grill, mistaking it for a free mound of pistachio ice cream.) In Italy, families eat-a and dance-a the night away. I'm trying hard to forget the scene in which German automotive meanies, on the side of the bad guys in the spy portion of all this entertainment, round Mater up in a cargo truck and gas him. (To quote Seth Meyers on SNL: Really?!)
Not to get all Dorothy about it, but when it comes to Cars, there's no place like home. The emotional punch of the original is inextricably rooted in the movie's appreciation of off-the-beaten-track America, and all that homegrown vintage car culture signifies. Abroad on a tourist visa in Cars 2, Lightning McQueen, Mater, and the rest of the fleet do their tricks and, as responsible corporate citizens of Pixar, do them well, assisted by the voices of a lot of famous actors. But they're really just spinning their wheels. B–