Forgive me for not loving every damn thing that the once-impeccable Pixar makes. Cars and its unimaginative sequel feel like prolonged deals with the devil: clearly a run for the money. Anthropomorphizing vehicles into cutesy, homespun, though admittedly rounded characters reeks of the Disney mindset that invented movie merchandising and theme parks, and smells like Lucasfilm’s plastic light sabers. But it is somehow worse coming in a time when the relationship between combustion engines and climate change is so obviously dire. In order to compensate for potential sell-out charges, John Lasseter’s new film opens in the middle of the ocean, where a city of oil derricks appears in roiling waves like Blake’s Satanic Mills. And even though the plot pits fossil against artificial fuels and despite the dim-witted protests from conservatives, Cars 2 ends up endorsing cars, gasoline, and the greenhouse status quo—but cutely.
Before this becomes too much of an environmental screed, though, let me hasten to add that this is the first time fans will likely be bored during a Pixar film. The obviousness of the plot machinations—a world-encircling race between Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and Italian formula car Francesco (John Turturro)—is only secondary to the derivative visual theft Pixar employs, stealing everything from Speed Racer, the best kid’s film nobody saw. To be fair, the subplot, involving a tow truck named Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), yields the film’s truly fine flourish: a lovely philosophical riff on the importance of honoring the dents we all inevitably accumulate.
Other than that, though, there’s little for grown-up animation fans here, including the 3-D effects, which are surprisingly bad. It’s not the first time Pixar explored the technology: Up, one of the best animated films ever made, used subtle depth perspectives and deep focus tricks to aesthetically reinforce its bittersweet themes. In Cars 2, however, even the glasses feel like another way to milk money from consumers. Come to think of it, they are made from plastic, which we all know comes from petroleum, which mostly comes from those satanic derricks out there in our troubled seas.