Recently I saw a photograph of utter Thanksgiving Day excess: a duck stuffed inside a chicken stuffed inside a turkey, slit down through the breast so the meats looked like various layers of sedimentary rock. It was gross, a perversion of the form that you would not want on your dinner table- and it made me think of Cars 2.
Cars 2 picks up with the duck; an over-boiled 007 pastiche spy tale forced up the tail-pipe of a hick-in-the-city yarn (sidekick Tow-mater), which is then rammed up the tail-pipe of the original turkey- a sweet kids story about Lightning McQueen growing out of his selfish and egotistical ways.
What we get is messy, overindulgent, and ultimately just as stomach-turning as the Thanksgiving Franken-turkey: a distended mess that goes on too long, has just way too much stuff in it, and not not nearly enough Lightning McQueen gravy.
McQueen and Tow Mater in a big old spy chase sequence (one of far too many).
Think for a moment about Toy Story. The sequels both picked up on something real and imaginable in the world of Woody et al, and then thrust them into the middle of it; but in a believable and bounded way. Toy Story 2 is defined by Woody’s decision to go along with his Round-up Gang. He made the choice that then forced everyone else to come to his rescue. Toy Story 3 is even simpler and more of a natural out-growth of the story arc so far- Andy grows up, the toys get dumped, and they have to figure out what is next for them.
I expected something similar from Cars 2. I only saw the original recently- but enjoyed it a lot. The premise is easy enough to swallow: arrogant race-car Lightning McQueen is forced to take a long hard look in the mirror of slow-life reality- and everything from there follows on in a nice and logical way, with McQueen learning several lessons (be nice to people, accept help, turn right to go left) which he then applies towards winning the finale race. It is a proper story with an arc. I thought maybe we would follow on from that organically, perhaps with McQueen training his son to be a race-car, or even simply facing off against challengers for the Piston Cup.
You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off
Instead we get an out-of-left-field spy caper led by Michael Caine’s special agent- hunting a secret weapon being developed by a cabal of rust-bucket ‘lemon’ cars. This storyline absorbs our characters, pounds them near flat as pancakes, and leaves them as barely moving cogs whose personalities have next to nothing to do with the outcome of the plot. It hops us in true spy style across 3 gorgeously rendered countries each hosting a race in the World Grand Prix, sponsored by the new biofuel Allinol, that leave us just plain exhausted and gasping for air. It thrusts Tow-Mater, the comedic sidekick pickup truck from the original, into the limelight, and completely sidelines McQueen to little more than a princess-in-the-tower to be saved.
There are so many problems with this movie. It’s not just that the original characters get swamped by the plot, that there are waaaay too many scenes, or that McQueen becomes an afterthought. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the spy story strapped to the Cars 1 cadaver like an artificial heart doesn’t actually work.
The spy plot, mild ***SPOILERS***
It’s a story of green biofuel versus Big Oil. This is interesting. A Richard Branson-like entrepreneur is pimping his new biofuel Allinol across a series of international races; but there are all those crappy cars moving in the background to try and stop him, by poisoning the biofuel and forcing the cars using it to flame-out on the race track. Throughout the movie we are shown pictures of the head honcho bad guy’s engine- but never his face. He could be anyone.
What it results in is a denouement that requires as much of a leap in logic as the movie Salt or the 9/11 truthers. The conspiracy suggested by Cars 2 is totally stupid and pointless, with a vast amount of complex manipulation and energy directed into an outcome that could have been achieved with minimal to no effort at all.
To be specific-
*** REAL SPOILERS ***
The Branson character is actually a lemon car, heavily invested in Big Oil, who wants biofuels to fail. He has set up this entire Allinol biofuel as a straw dog stand-in for ALL green energy, and organized for it to fail in a very public way. By doing this he hopes to remain in power as a Big Oil guy. At the end he gets unveiled by a string of very hasty and incredible leaps in logic from Tow Mater, most of which are glossed over quickly lest we examine them too closely and find them full of rust holes as well.
But the conspiracy. The fact is- Big Oil was in power already. The lemon cars had the power already, and there was no green biofuel to challenge them. There was no reason for the Branson-car to do this whole story. He already had everything he wanted. I’m going bold because it annoyed me that much, and yes they tried to sweep most of this deep plot mechanic stuff under the carpet in the gloss of a speedy finale. But it irks. It makes you watch and think- well, what was the point in any of it?
*** END of SPOILERS ***
There was no point. Not like in Cars 1, or in the Toy Story movies. Nothing that happened in Cars 2 resolved an existing threat or solved a problem. Nothing happened at all, except some cars whooshed around some tracks while a very silly self-contained loop of a conspiracy theory played out around them. Ugh.
Could the movie be fixed? Yes. You could probably fix it mostly in the edit.
1-? Push McQueen more to the front, Tow Mater to the back again. This is what we came to see.
2- Cut the number of races from 3 to 2. There was just too much. Or cut the amount of cross-cultural stereotypical slapstick going on at each to make them less wearying. Less chase sequences!
3- Make the bad guy a proper bad guy, who has to be defeated- not just unmasked.
4- Have way less spy stuff. Open with the Tokyo race, probably, and flame-outs. Introduce the spy story at the side- if at all. We don’t even need it, really. Instead let McQueen investigate what’s going on out of concern for his friends getting flamed-out.
Just quite disappointing and exhausting; an overstuffed and under-torqued piece of evidence that even Pixar are able to lose sight of the finish line from time to time.
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