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‘Cars’ sequel stalls as Mater takes the spotlight

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, July 1, 2011 8:19 am

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, we won’t be getting a look at “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” this week or any other week, for that matter, as I’ve gotto  put my foot down somewhere. I’m still suffering some lingering ill effects from “Revenge of the Fallen,” and I simply can’t risk exposure to any more of Michael Bay’s lame BS.

I enjoy spectacle and explosions as much as the next red-blooded American, but the mind-numbing repetitiveness of the “Transformers” movies is just too much to bear. On the bright side, I doubt a negative review from me would have made the slightest difference — everyone who saw the first two will see this one as well, and in a couple summers we’ll be treated to “Transformers: Back in Black” or whatever they’re going to call the next monstrosity. Round and round we go.

“Cars 2” is the focus of this week’s review, and next time we’ll have a look at “Larry Crowne,” which I will attempt to survive despite the presence of my arch-nemesis, Julia Roberts. After that is the with-any-luck delightful “Horrible Bosses,” followed by the sure-to-be amazing “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II.” So stay tuned.

Well, it was bound to happen eventually. Until now, Pixar was never in the sequel business — save for the “Toy Story” films, which proved that with the right cast and crew, animated follow-ups could be much more than a cash cow. But with the release of “Cars 2,” and announced sequels to “Monsters, Inc.” and “The Incredibles” (with a fourth “Toy Story” entry rumored), it is clear that the studio is now embracing the idea with gusto. This decision has caused a fair amount of controversy, as Pixar has always been rightly viewed as a haven for creativity and originality — words that aren’t exactly synonymous with “sequel.”

I’m not against the idea of Pixar sequels (they‘ve earned my trust many times over), but I must admit that I wasn’t really clamoring to see a follow-up to “Cars,” which was itself little more than a charming cartoon remake of “Doc Hollywood” with cute automobiles instead of Michael J. Fox. Whereas movies such as “Toy Story” and “The Incredibles” and even “WALL-E” seem set up for further installments, “Cars” always struck me as a stand-alone affair, and without a doubt the Pixar film least worthy of a sequel.

And judging by the plot of “Cars 2,” which finds Tow Mater unwittingly embroiled in a James Bond-esque international espionage plot, the filmmakers didn’t have a compelling reason to revisit these characters or their story. This isn’t a natural, organically conceptualized narrative — it’s high-concept drivel, probably suggested by a coked-out lackey who blurted out the first thing that popped into his head at the pitch meeting. (Maybe a “Finding Nemo” sequel could follow Dory as she embarks on a series of Indiana Jones-inspired archaeological adventures searching for sacred artifacts. It would make just as much sense as “Cars 2.”)

Still, if the second two “Toy Story” films demonstrated the creative possibilities of animated sequels, then “Cars 2” proves the superiority of Pixar even when they’re hamstrung by creative difficulties. This isn’t their most original or trail-blazing effort by far, but for the time you’re watching it, the film is an entertaining diversion. Pixar’s trademark subtle humor is ever-present (who knew that jokes about pay-per-view porn could find their way into a family film?), the visuals are polished and eye-popping, and the film includes a pair of Grand Prix races that, in terms of editing and composition, easily trump any other action sequences the studio has attempted since “The Incredibles.”

Yet for all its seemingly effortless charms, “Cars 2” suffers from a near-fatal flaw in the recasting of Mater as the heroic lead. Even I will admit that Mater, the dim-witted tow truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, was the best thing about the first film. But that’s no reason to thrust him into the spotlight for the sequel, and in the process relegate the rest of the cast to also-ran status. Mater isn’t just the star here — he’s in virtually every shot, and very soon it becomes clear that when it comes to Mater, less is definitely more.

“Cars 2” boasts outstanding supporting work from newcomers Michael Caine, as the suave and very capable British intelligence agent who inadvertently recruits Mater, and Emily Mortimer, as the accidental spy’s handler and potential love interest. But their efforts are nearly drowned out by the constant barrage of “Oh, that Mater!” jokes that take a once-beloved supporting player and turn him into a run-of-the-mill idiot. So thanks for the pleasant diversion, Pixar, but better luck next time.

“Cars 2” is rated PG for mild violence and crude humor.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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