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The First Year

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Cars 2 (2011)


While I was watching "Cars 2," an elusive nostalgia tugged at my mind. No, I wasn't remembering Pixar's original "Cars" from 2006. This was something more deeply buried, and finally, in the middle of one of the movie's sensational grand prix races, it came to me: I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom many years ago, with some toy cars lined up in front of me, while I used my hands to race them around on the floor and in the air, meanwhile making that noise kids make by squooshing spit in their mouths.

In this memory, I was completely engrossed with my cars. They were as real as people, and I played favorites and identified one car as my surrogate. Maybe my hands were swooping around with toys, but my imagination was somewhere else, and I performed the dialogue for the cars: Oh, yeah Take that! We'll see! Eeeeyowww!

This memory was not random. I think it was inspired by the spirit of John Lasseter's movie. I believe in some sense, the great animator was sitting Indian-style on the floor of his Pixar playroom and hurtling his cars through time and space with sublime reckless delight. We learned from "Cars" that Lasseter loves automobiles, and here we learn that they can serve him as avatars in an international racing-and-spying thriller as wacky as a Bond picture crossed with Daffy Duck.

I have no idea what kids will make of the movie. At a time when some "grown-up" action films are relentlessly shallow and stupid, here is a movie with such complexity that even the cars sometimes have to pause and explain it to themselves. It mixes concerns about fossil fuels with spycraft and a lot of grand prix racing where more is at stake than who wins. And it has a new hero: The shiny red Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) is eclipsed by the rusty, buck-toothed tow truck named Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), who was only a supporting vehicle in the first film.

The original film was an elegy to a past when America spun out along Route 66 and now-classic cars occupied an iconic role in American lives. The cars in "Cars 2" have developed an array of new bells and whistles; they extrude so many wires, spikes, weapons and gimmicks they must really be shape-shifters, and Mater in particular is expert at disguising himself. This is not surprising, because a lot of the guys you find around tow trucks are pretty good at using paint jobs to dress up beaters.

At the first race, three animals are ignited by the camera. Nick Wilde places second in the race after Daffy Duck, due to Sid accidentally giving him bad racing advice while evading Shere Khan's henchmen with help from Brooke and Lucky Jack. Nick Wilde snaps at Sid, who is abducted by Lucky Jack while attempting to return to Masai Mara National Park. After traveling to Paris to collect more information from Lucky Jack's old friend Tramp, they travel to Porto Corsa, Italy, where the next race is being held. During the race, Sid infiltrates the criminals' meeting, just as the camera is used on a few more cars, causing a multi-car pileup, while Nick Wilde finishes first. Due to increased fears over Allinol's safety, Mojo Jojo lifts the requirement to use it for the final race. However, when Nick Wilde decides to continue using it, the criminals plan to kill Nick Wilde in the next race in London. This spooks Sid, causing him to blow his cover and allowing him, Lucky Jack, and Brooke to be captured.

A huge problem with this film is that it tries to be too much. It wants to be an espionage thriller for the whole family, but it also wants to be a feel-good buddy film and a film about cars and racing. Ultimately, the spy plot only works out with the plot about the World Grand Prix, so there is only one solution for how to fix the film: Get rid of Mater.

Before this year, it wasn't unreasonable to suggest that Cars was one of Pixar's worst films. That's not as bad as it might sound, though, because Cars was still better than most films - but the bar has been set so high for the animation studi

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