For the last five years, Pixar has been on quite a roll, churning out one reliably solid animated film every summer. The last four have won Oscars for Best Animated Feature, and the last three (WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3) are, in my mind, stone cold classics. This winning streak and reputation for quality are what make Pixar's latest, "Cars 2," not just disappointing, but puzzling.
The hero of the first "Cars" film, a race car voiced by Owen Wilson, returns to Radiator Springs to spend some time with his best friend Mater, aka Larry the Cable Guy. If there's any time left over, he might take his sweetheart out to dinner. But before he's in town for a day, an Italian race car challenges him, and Cable Guy signs him up for a series of races that take place in various exotic locations around the world. So we're off to the races, where Cable Guy(seriously, doesn't this guy have a real last name?) can engage in a series of fish-out-of-water comedy gags, mess things up for Wilson, and get himself embroiled with a couple of James Bond-ish spies (Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer) who are chasing a ring of Hugos and Gremlins who are trying to take over the world or something.
So basically, "Cars 2" is a mashup of "Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo" and "The Man Who Knew Too Little." The plot devices at work here are rustier than Mater's fenders. The mistaken identity spy plot is particularly tiresome; Cable Guy (ok, I just looked up his real name; it's Daniel Lawrence Whitney. From here on out, I'll refer to Larry the Cable Guy as Whitney) manages to accidentally hear just the right things to believe he's getting involved in something quite innocent, then, once he's in too deep, say just the right things to convince Caine and Mortimer that he's acutally a spy cleverly disguised as an idiot tow truck. The fish-out-of-water stuff occasionally plays better. For every lame joke that has Whitney mistaking wasabi for pistachio ice cream (and by the way, how is it that a tow truck can even eat wasabi or pistachio ice cream? So much of this movie concerns itself with engine models, spare parts and fuel types, where does the ice cream fit, exactly?) there's a clever joke about Whitney trying to use a Japanese bathroom.
Everyone else takes a serious backseat to Whitney, which seems a strange choice. Larry the Cable Guy's schtick works much better as comic relief than in the spotlight, if it works at all. His previous films have looked so unspeakably terrible that I haven't seen them; looking at the box office numbers, it doesn't appear that anyone else has, either. Why is Pixar giving him this shot in the arm? Why hitch your wagon to a falling star that can't fall fast enough?
Every now and then, a gleam of the patented Pixar wit and creativity appears(there's a great throwaway joke about headlights/eyes about halfway through; it might be the funniest moment in the movie) but it feels like our favorite writers are caged up somewhere, sending in jokes via Twitter or text message. Whoever's running Pixar in their place is incredibly lazy and unimaginative. Have the interns taken over? No, even interns have more drive than this. And this is what is most puzzling about "Cars 2;" it's not just a bad film (though it is that, for sure) it's a film that has no ambition to be any better. From a studio that, even when it fails, has always done so by reaching too high, "Cars 2" is a serious clunker, a movie perfectly content with being mediocre, confident that it will sell tickets (and a crapload of toys) without needing to try.