That Larry the Cable Guy has nearly acquired name-above-the-title privileges for Cars 2, leapfrogging past even the first film's Owen Wilson in star billing, should tell you all you need to know about Pixar's crass and uncharacteristically threadbare cash-grab, spun not so much from the thread of 2006's Cars as from that feature's spawn of short films, each of which stars Larry the Cable Guy's stupid, bucktoothed tow truck. No surprise, since we're dealing with the same breed of moneymen who thought Sing-Along Pocahontas videos were a good idea, and were correct: There's gold in them thar hills. Rather than aiming for another Best Picture nomination, Cars 2's pitch is grounded firmly in two safe bets—one, Larry the Cable Guy's inexplicable but undeniable endurance, and two, that Cars has generated more revenue (with its line of toys rather than its box office) than any other Pixar property.
Cars 2, even more than its predecessor, is the Pixar movie that's safe to hate. From the get-go, the franchise's main conceit seems blatantly secondhand: Anthropomorphized toys, anyone? The eye-filling backgrounds (a whirlwind world tour reduced to theme-park caricature, and I mean that in a nice way) and photo-real textures fail to compensate for the lack of variety in individual character animation. After a while, all I could see when I looked at Lightning McQueen, Mater, or anyone else, was a matched pair of craft-store googly eyes, pasted onto whiteboard, its expression as variable as the positioning of a foreskin-like uni-lid would allow, itself a concept lifted from Mike Wazowski, the one-eyed hero of Monsters, Inc.
The discrepancy between the photo-real and the slapdash effectively neutralizes any talk of Cars 2 being a work of great animation. It's a worse problem than the uncanny valley, the most commonly leveled charge against Robert Zemeckis's underrated Beowulf and A Christmas Carol; say what you will about dead eyes and a crack squad of Tom Hankses doing backflips, at least there's a consistency of tone, a unifying creative force. Cars 2 looks like the work of multiple committees completing various objectives, with varying degrees of success.
Which is a shame, because the brilliant unification of über-talented groups of tech and creative whiz kids—groupthink touched by the hand of God—is the alibi that grants Pixar safe haven from even its most vehement critics. Considered as a body of work, the Pixar feature films represent the Platonic ideal of corporate Hollywood: a perfect amalgam of verisimilitude and candy-color expressionism; humor that slaloms from puerile to Oscar Wilde without hitting any bumps; Spielbergian escapism and crisply choreographed action sequences; validation of that amorphous cloud of “humanist values” that no one can really describe in great detail, but which seems to have best been illustrated by the incinerator sequence in Toy Story 3.
Adding insult to injury is an unfocused script that relies heavily on some of the most unfortunate screenwriting clichés of post-1980s Hollywood. One, in particular, stands out: the “friends who have a falling out because one of them is a hopeless imbecile and the other one says so, only to reconcile just in time for the big finish,” which I believe dates back to 1992's Pauly Shore vehicle Encino Man. This cliché is infuriating because it argues that an already implausible friendship grants absolution to all manner of lunatic, anti-social, and destructive behavior. If this sounds prudish on my part, consider the TV scripts of Joss Whedon, whose own career was jumpstarted by co-writing the Oscar-nominated script for the original Toy Story. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Firefly are rife with characters making bad, selfish, or just plain lunkheaded decisions, but never without consequences. Consider the scene where Mal nearly throws Jayne out of the airlock, and the genuine uncertainty as to whether or not he'll really do it—that's the kind of drama Cars 2 could have benefited from, big time.
That said, while the craft is sometimes shoddy, the photorealism is there solely for our kneejerk admiration (my my, how long that metallic sheen must have taken to render!), and the shitty script is altogether unworthy of the legacy of Ratatouille, Up, WALL-E, or even the first Cars, there are isolated moments of pleasure, most of them in a cold open that meticulously recreates an outlandish James Bond espionage and escape sequence. The high point is the cold open to the cold open, a video left by an intrepid undercover agent, a visually incoherent stitch of animation that, in its abstraction, makes for a refreshing change from the exhausting “clarity of line” that governs, and fails to redeem, most of the rest of the film.