It’s never easy coping with the death of an icon, especially for a franchise as intimately associated with that icon as Cars was with Paul Newman. Yet in a shocking miscalculation, the usually brilliant folks over at Pixar coped with Newman’s death in the stupidest possible way—by transforming John Lasseter’s shiny love letter to the automobile into an unabashed vehicle for the hayseed comedy stylings of Larry The Cable Guy. Larry The Cable Guy’s hillbilly tow truck Mater must have sold a lot of toys and played like gangbusters for focus-group respondents, because Cars 2 makes the vehicular redneck its proud centerpiece. That leaves Owen Wilson, the film’s ostensible star, to fret about the state of his relationship with his best friend Mater. Itchy & Scratchy Studios didn’t push Poochie on audiences the way Cars 2 does Mater.
Cars 2 sends Mater and Wilson’s Lightning McQueen on a globe-trotting trek to compete in an international Grand Prix that doubles as a showcase for an amazing new wonder-fuel. In Europe, Mater unwittingly lives out the plot of The Man Who Knew Too Little when he gets entangled in a web of intrigue involving a James Bond-style car voiced by Michael Caine and his more-than-capable associate Holley Shiftwell. Yes, in Cars 2, Mater even gets the girl.
The first Cars was pitched at a much younger audience than the rest of Pixar’s oeuvre; the sequel is pitched even more directly at an even younger audience. It’s difficult to insert scatological humor into a film devoid of human bodily functions, but Cars 2 nevertheless manages to smuggle some in via Mater “leaking fluids” and at one point ending up in a lavatory truck. Cars 2 is so enraptured with Larry The Cable Guy’s persona that it even has Mater spout the comedian’s catchphrases, though the more Mater insists something is just funny right there, the less funny it becomes. This being Pixar, Cars 2 looks fantastic, but the studio has never given audiences—especially audiences over the age of 10—less reason to be emotionally invested in the beautiful shiny things flying across the screen.
(Preceding the film is a clever short from the Toy Story universe involving Ken and Barbie’s crudely improvised Hawaiian vacation. This provides an unflattering reminder of what a really good Pixar sequel looks like.)