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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Cars 2

 Cars 2 (Three and a Half Stars)

U. S.: John Lasseter (co-director Brad Lewis), 2011

Cars 2 is another Pixar feature cartoon for kids, adults, old people and everyone in between — especially if they have a crush on post-‘50s car culture. I don’t, but I could feel the curious, obsessive auto-loving fever pouring out of the movie as I watched it.

 It’s a sequel to the 2006 feature Cars. The new one is directed (with Brad Lewis) by Pixar head honcho and avowed car lover John Lasseter, who also directed the first, and it continues the earlier film‘s story of a world populated and run by talking cars (no humans anywhere) and of a flashy, egotistical flame-red racing car named Lightning McQueen (voice by Owen Wilson, allusion courtesy of movie star/racer Steve McQueen). McQueen gets trapped in a Southwestern town called Radiator Springs, bonds with the residents and a local good ol’ boy tow truck, named Tow Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy a.k.a. Daniel Whitney) and learns, not for the first time in a big Hollywood movie, that just plain folks (excuse me, just plain jalopies) are the very best kind.

 Like most sequels, this one tries to be bigger (and more full of marketing opportunities) — and succeeds. Instead of sticking to “be-it-ever-so-humble” little Radiator Springs, McQueen and Mater have taken off for a grand championship Grand Prix auto race competition held all over the world, in Tokyo, Paris, the fictitious Riviera-like Porto Corsa Italy, and in London.

Among their new playmates are Finn McMissile (Michael Caine, who gives a perfect performance), a secret agent in the body of an Aston Martin, and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), another agent with a classy foreign chassis. Running the race is car mogul and alternative fuel innovator (something called Allinol) Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard). Their new rival is John Turturro as the Italian car stallion Francesco, a prima donna who is for Formula One racing what Turturro‘s narcissistic player was for bowling in The Big Lebowski. Their nemesis, seemingly, is mad auto scientist Dr. Z (Thomas Kretschmann, the German soldier who brought Adrien Brody the sandwich in The Pianist).

 There are plenty of other characters, old and new — including a sportscaster named Brent Mustangburger, voiced by Brent Musburger. But the spotlight is on McQueen, and, even more this time, on Tow Mater, who comes on too strong and makes an ass of himself in the first part of the movie (even though Holley and McMissile mistake him for another secret agent, cleverly disguised as an ass), and then tries to redeem himself in the second part. The unlikely camaraderie between hotshot McQueen and repair doofus Mater is the emotional engine of Cars 2, and how much some of you like it may really depend on how much you like Mater.

 Some don’t. But I was okay with him, and okay with the movie too. It’s not just because I think millions will agree with me. Hey, I don’t care if millions agree with me, or I would have raved over Hangover 2 and Kung Fu Panda 2 and X-Men: First Class and every other huge sequel that‘s come rattling out of the chute recently.

 Actually, I didn’t see the first Cars — strange because I usually don’t miss a Pixar, and it was one of Paul Newman‘s last movies. But I had such a good time at Cars 2, and I was so pleased and entertained by its amazingly detailed imaginary auto-world, its cheerful satire of pop as well as car culture and its blizzard of jokes and allusions — that I was a bit mystified to zip my way through the reviews of the show and discover how many critics consider Cars 2 to be a stinker and Pixar’s absolute nadir: a lemon, a rotten towmater, a ruined birthday cake (Pixar’s 25th birthday to be exact), or anyway, a really bad movie.

 I was also surprised at how many people were convinced that everything that’s usually good about Pixar shows (the wit, the funny heartfelt characters, the rich and sumptuous animated detail) is somehow all missing here: that Cars 2 is too frenetic, too fast, too loud. (Oh, for a nice calm, leisurely and quiet cartoon movie about auto-racing!) And that the main culprit of the whole fiasco may be one of the actors, Larry the Cable Guy, a shameless cornpone comedian with a Southern-fried accent who plays, as mentioned, McQueen’s rustic fix-it-guy and sidekick.

 Mater, as played by Mr. Cable Guy — as the New York Times should have called him and as the New York Post did call him — has been torched, blamed for everything short of the Global Warming that might result if this film is accidentally shot into the ozone layer.

 It is my happy duty to report however, that Larry, or Whitney or Mr. Guy (let’s just call Cable Guy) did not in fact ruin Cars 2, nor, I think, was the movie in fact ruined. I don’t necessarily want to use this review as a brief for Larry, the Cable Guy. I found him occasionally annoying and one-note too. But I don’t believe a movie as lushly imagined and lovingly detailed and full of fun and high spirits as Cars 2, something on which Lasseter and company have lavished so much talent, skill and energy, should be trashed like this, nor that it should be suggested that one actor — who is a human being after all, even if he is playing a tow truck — should be accused of bringing the whole edifice down on everybody’s ears, mostly by talking like a red-state rube.

 The problem with Mater isn’t that the performance doesn’t work, because it will probably work fine for kids, many of whom are likely to name Mater as their favorite character in the movie. The problem is that the truck has now become more of a lead character than Lightning, and so much more is demanded of him, including some heavy emotion and sentiment that may not be the comedian/actor’s forte.

 Cable Guy and Cars are probably both being penalized a bit just for not being great, because they come at the end of a remarkable string of Pixar movies where everything seemed to fall just right for Lasseter and his studio. What reviewers are objecting to about Cars 2, in many cases, is that, for them, it isn’t a work of genius, as a lot of us feel Up and Wall-E were.

 Maybe they also identify Cable Guy as a red state rube, who represents the kind of suckered audience that believes all the nonsense commentary Fox News churns out — and maybe in a way the character is meant to stand in for Small Town America. But I grew up in a Republican small town with a population barely over a thousand, and it was full of nice people whom I still like — even if I disagree with the way they view the world and with the way they vote in political elections. I think Lasseter, with the two Cars cartoons, is trying to speak to those kinds of people, and to as many kinds of people as he can, and I’m glad he is.

 So saying that this Cars 2 is the worst Pixar movie (as many have), though it may even be true (I don’t think so), may be no more damaging than tryong to name Beethoven‘s worst symphony or Shakespeare‘s worst play or Brueghel‘s worst painting or The Beatles’ worst album or Dr. Seuss‘s worst children‘s book.

 And no, I am not comparing John Lasseter or Pixar to Shakespeare, Beethoven, Breughel or the Beatles. (Dr. Seuss, maybe, or, even better, the Walt Disney studio in its ‘30s-’40s prime.) I’m simply trying to make a point about expectations, which, in this case, are bringing Cars 2 more critical grief than it deserves.

 Imagine a different actor in the role of Tow Mater — with the character’s mixture of bravado and humility, naiveté and expertise, savviness and down-hominess. Imagine say, the late Slim Pickens, who played the cowboy-hatted nuker Major Kong in Dr. Strangelove, but who also memorably died by the water in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid while Bob Dylan sang “Knockin’ on Heaven‘s Door.” An actor like Pickens (who began his career as a rodeo clown) could have probably gotten more out of the role than Cable Guy did this time, but who knows? The two things you can say for sure about Larry the Cable Guy is that he knows how to tell a joke, but that he should vary his delivery more in trickier parts.

 But try to imagine a better-visualized, better-shot, better animated and better-filmed Cars 2 and you’re pushing a little, ignoring what‘s on the screen. The new Pixar is a good movie for children and for adults and for old people, and it definitely shouldn’t be held against this picture that it will sell a lot of tickets and DVDs and action toys. Somebody has to. Better somebody like Lasseter and his team, and a company like Pixar.

 Something else the movie made me think about. We’re living in a dying age, the fossile-fuel age — and also of course the dying age of fuel-driven cars. And however long it lasts (almost forever if you believe most Republicans, not that long, if you accept the direr hypotheses of lefties or ecological types), some day, a movie like Cars 2 will be a mystifying (to some) memento of a vanished era. It will be a very old movie like other old car movies (Grand Prix and Smokey and the Bandit) maybe occasionally watched on old, badly damaged discs or tapes like the one of Hello, Dolly! in Wall-E, all commemorating an era that survives maybe only in bits and pieces. That survives in old cars or car parts in a museum, or in some little car toys from a long-ago time that some children still keep and play with. Cars 2 toys maybe, the last precious few.

 So what will Cars 2 look like then? What will the children and adults and old people of the future think of that loud, fast, bright, frenetic world on their screens? Vanished glory? A waste of oil? Another Ozymandias? Will they carp about Larry the Cable Guy? I wish I knew.

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And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

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But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

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