“Cars 2”: Flat tires and joke pollution

June 21, 2011

“Cars 2” wins the award for the most unnecessary sequel of the year – at least until someone makes another “Jonah Hex” movie.

Yes, yes, I know – the 2006 original was a huge commercial success. Just one problem: “Cars” was Pixar’s only dud to date, as entertainment.

But “Cars 2,” opening Friday, makes it look like an animated masterpiece.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a major Pixar fan of long standing. And I think the animation in “Cars 2” is indeed masterful. Hey, the movie was directed by John Lasseter, the guy who dreamt Pixar up out of his own head. So what you see is both imaginative and visually amazing – astonishingly photorealistic images created by computers, visualizing things that could never be in real life.

But unlike every previous Pixar film except “Cars,” “Cars 2” suffers from a script that can’t get any traction when it comes to making an actual joke. The story is muddled, the writing is flat – and, oh yeah, this turns out to be Pixar’s contribution to the Larry the Cable Guy phenomenon.

Who, you may ask, is Larry the Cable Guy? (At least I hope you’re asking; God knows I’ve made a point of avoiding his oeuvre, which apparently is on the same humor wavelength as that of the late Jim Varney and his dreadful “Ernest” films.) Larry the Cable Guy is a comedian who, like Dane Cook, has built a huge following without actually being funny.

In “Cars 2,” Mr. Guy (I don’t know him well enough to refer to him as Larry) voices a tow-truck character named Tow Mater (insert Goofy laugh here: hyuk hyuk hyuk). He’s best friends with stock-car champ Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), who agrees to take Mater along when he’s invited to run in an international set of Grand Prix races in Japan, Italy and England. Little does Lightning realize that this will, in fact, be Mater’s film, not his. Be afraid – be very afraid.

But let me back up: The film starts with a James Bond-ish opening, involving British secret-agent sportscar Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), invading an oil platform in the Pacific where a fellow operative has been undercover. He finds clues to dastardly doings, involving a German scientist named Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann – at least it wasn’t Christoph Waltz) – and escapes to try to figure out the mystery.

I’m sorry – did I mention that these spies are, um, cars? That’s right – cars invading oceanic oil rigs run by other cars. Cars chasing each other around Japan, London, Paris and elsewhere. There’s nary a human being to be seen in this automotive world. Somehow it’s ridiculous without being silly enough to be funny.

When McQueen and Mater arrive in Japan for the first leg of the race, they land smack in the middle of McMissile’s operation. Worse, in a Hitchcock-like case of mistaken identity, Mater is erroneously thought to be an American operative and roped into the plot involving McMissile and sidekick Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). Something about alternative fuel – but ignore that.

I’m sorry – did I just invoke Alfred Hitchcock? Please – erase that from your mind.

The dim-witted hick as an object of fun in a world of sophisticates – sorry, but I’ve had week-old bread that wasn’t as stale as that idea. It wasn’t fresh in the 1960s, when it was the basis of everything from “The Beverly Hillbillies” to “Hee-Haw.” It wasn’t even new when it was a Broadway hit called “Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick” in 1919.

But that’s Larry the Cable Guy’s whole shtick – as well as the basis of most of the humor for “Cars 2.” My sympathy to the parent whose child comes away from this film saying, “I want to see Larry the Cable Guy.”

I swear I didn’t hear a single person laugh in the screening I saw. There were more giggles during a short (“Toy Story: Hawaiian Vacation”) that preceded “Cars 2” than in the entire feature.

It’s a rare occurrence – but even Pixar, as trustworthy a brand as there is, lays an egg from time to time. In the case of “Cars 2,” it’s a rotten egg to boot.

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