I’ve never been much of a fan of Pixar. Besides 2009’s Up—an honestly great movie and the one time the studio’s lived up to its reputation—I’ve found their output to be either perfectly harmless (the Toy Story franchise) or simply overrated (The Incredibles (2004), Ratatouille (2007)). But regardless of this, I’ve come to appreciate their attempts, at least, at making films more substantial than your usual kiddie fare—something truly for the entire family—even if I often find them falling a bit short of their lofty goals. While they don’t always hit their target, Pixar generally aims high. Which is almost certainly why I found the knuckledragging on display in their latest release, Cars 2, so maddening.
Here, we have what’s easily the studio’s nadir: a noisy, simplistic movie. Far from a typical Pixar film, Cars 2 is closer in spirit to the sound and fury of a Michael Bay flick, trading plot and characterization for frantic action and earsplitting explosions. But in comparison to the actual humor the movie carts out—a tiring cavalcade of lazy cultural and ethnic stereotypes—the action scenes are the high points. The majority of the comedy is at the service of Larry the Cable Guy, who returns to voice Tow Mater the tow truck, whom the film is largely built around.
Mater plays the ultimate Ugly American, as the plot sends him and Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) abroad to Japan, Italy and England. We get a heaping of Cable Guy-styled culture clash, mining cheap laughs out of general willful ignorance and buffoonery, while he traipses around the globe, never shutting up for two seconds, never listening or learning, and stumbling his way through the dull comic set pieces the film creates. It’s a kind of obvious humor that feels like it was ripped off from beer commercials.
Mater quickly finds himself accidentally involved in a web of espionage when a couple of British secret agents (voiced by Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer) mistake him for a spy, and Mater—through sheer obliviousness—wanders blindly through a host of deadly situations. It’s basically the goofy Bill Murray vehicle The Man Who Knew Too Little (1997), except Mr. Cable Guy is no Murray. Ultimately, what we have here is a mainstream, kiddie version of stuff like Larry’s Delta Farce (2007), but toned down for children, which—in theory—is a tad bit better. At least its cultural ignorance is less blatant and offensive.
Of course, the counter-argument will be that this movie is perfectly fine for kids, because it’s teaching them to be themselves. Let’s ignore the fact that “perfectly fine for kids” should be viewed as a back-handed compliment, and that Pixar earned their reputation by making films that are perfectly fine for pretty much every demographic. Instead, let’s take a look at that message of “being yourself” as Cars 2 presents it: Being a dumb, loud, blatantly ignorant oaf is the cat’s pajamas as long as that’s just who you are. Don’t bother trying to better yourself, learn or listen. Just be yourself. It’s this kind of stuff that puts Cars 2 on the brink of being insultingly bad, and doesn’t even have the entertainment value to make it in the least worthwhile. Rated G.