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Cars 2 is a race to nowhere
Speed trap

Less than the sum of its car parts.
Less than the sum of its car parts.
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Minutes of the June 21, 2011, meeting of CDC (Critics Defending Cars):

Dear friends - I know it's been lonely. We've seen the conventional wisdom that Pixar has had a nearly perfect 15-year run of features..."well, except for Cars." We've fought against the notion that director John Lasseter's 2006 original was the weak sister of the Pixar canon, defending its wise challenge to the notion that the newer, shinier thing was always the better thing. It felt like Pixar's promise to us that it would remain grounded in something more vital than the sparkle and speed of contemporary computer-generated moviemaking. And with Cars 2, it feels as though that promise has been broken.

The movie certainly starts off with gusto, as the car-populated world finds itself fender-deep in international espionage. British secret agent Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) has uncovered some sort of diabolical plan aboard an offshore oil platform. The trail leads to a multi-nation road race where Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), among other racing champions, has been invited by industrialist Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard) to test out a new alternative fuel. And while accompanying Lightning on his trip, simpleton tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) is mistaken for the American spy carrying a key piece of information on which the fate of the car world rests.

That opening sequence promises a tremendous energy, with transforming autos full of gee-whiz gadgetry chasing and battling one another. But something feels off about the writing. Cars 2 tosses out characters like Lightning's Italian open-wheel rival (John Turturro) that don't matter at all except as part of the next toy line, and buries Lightning and most of the Radiator Springs cast in favor of the better-in-small-doses Mater as main protagonist. What little emotional component there is to this story feels like a minor variation on the done-to-death "like yourself for who you are" angle taken by so many lazy animated films. For the first time, a Pixar script feels like it was shot before it was really ready.

Maybe our expectations remain too high, and maybe we should forgive Lasseter and Pixar their token stab at genre frivolity. There are solid jokes and satisfying action sequences here, but they never pull together into anything more than the sum of its car parts. We were here to defend Cars because we felt that there was something soulful at its core. This time around, friends, the defense rests.

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