Cars 2 is probably nobody’s favorite Pixar movie. It is the easiest to shrug off, anyway, a sequel to the other Pixar movie that is nobody’s favorite and a critical flop besides. Of course when I say “nobody” I am talking about us grown-ups, so maybe I am completely wrong. After all, Pixar movies are children’s movies, a fact that we totally understand but not really. As grown-ups we have decided that a Pixar movie has responsibilities: it must have a complexity, it must not insult our intelligence, it must be beautiful. We must be able to go see it with our other grown-up friends, no children in tow, and we must not feel like total weirdos. And you know what? It feels a little weird, as a grown-up, to watch an animated movie about a redneck tow truck who fights crime.
Because Cars 2 is a spy movie! Sort of! Actually it’s more of a Get Smart situation, a bumbling bumbler who manages to foil the bad guys in spite of himself. The bumbler in question is the tow truck Mater, voiced by Larry the Cable Guy. Mater is a buck-teeth-and-rust-spot yokel whose actual personality is mistaken as well-crafted deep cover by two British agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). Mater is dense but good-hearted, thick but wholly devoted to his very best friend ever, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson). And I keep saying he’s dumb because the movie does, too, shows you over and over how poor are his social cues, how ugly the American. He has streaks of a savant—his knowledge of engines is unparalleled, and useful to the plot—but also he mistakes wasabi for pistachio ice cream.
And it is on this divide that Cars 2 hangs its lesson. McQueen takes Mater to an overseas race and immediately regrets it, cringing at his friend’s every intercontinental blunder. When he rejects Mater, because of course he does (something something Mater inadvertently screws up McQueen’s first race something), Mater doesn’t even fight back. Instead he retreats, gets out of his best friend’s way with his big eyes blinking. McQueen regrets his behavior almost immediately, because of course he does. Rejecting Mater is like rejecting an overexcited puppy who never did anything except be himself. If you’re friends with someone, pleads the movie, aren’t you supposed to stay friends no matter what? If you love how your friend is freewheeling and fun and comfortable with himself, then why would you turn against him the second he doesn’t know how to use the Japanese toilets?
If you’re starting to feel a little uncomfortable, I don’t blame you. Mater is after all played by Larry the Cable Guy, that terrifying embodiment and/or exploitation of the working-class Southern United States. Mr. Cable Guy’s carefully crafted trailer trash persona (his cover, if you will) has been turned kid-friendly and then tipped straight into Mater’s dented frame. What we’re left with is a dumb guy who loves life and trusts everyone, and so if you’re going to be mad about Mater being the hero of this movie, you’re forced to be mad about a guy who loves life and trusts everyone. There’s nothing high-minded about him, and in fact there is nothing particularly high minded about Cars 2. While Up had that whole sequence at the beginning that made everyone cry about love and mortality and whatever, Cars 2 has “dag gum!” and a lot of car chases. But: is that even so bad? Is McQueen’s shame in fact the shame of the grown-up Pixar fan?
It would help, of course, if the spy portion of the movie were a little less convoluted. There’s a thing about a former oil tycoon (Eddie Izzard!) who is now promoting alternative energy via this World Grand Prix, and also there is this evil professor named Zündapp who is working with these crime families made up of terrible cars (THE LEMONS), also McQueen has a Formula One enemy (John Turturro!) and the Queen is there (Vanessa Redgrave!) and the thing is packed with fight scenes and races. The fight scenes are actually kind of fun; they’re gleeful and ridiculous and overall more delightful than the film that surrounds them. And then something happens, and then something else happens, and Mater is both accidentally helpful and actually helpful to the British agents, and eventually he and McQueen make up and the world gets saved, I don’t know.
Like its protagonist, Cars 2 is not a particularly clever movie. Much of the humor is derived from thin globetrotting stereotypes, like isn’t it amusing to see Italian cars bicker and offer McQueen more to eat. And as sequels go, it’s not much of one, shortchanging existing characters in service of the Mater plot. Some of that is by necessity—McQueen’s mentor, Doc Hudson, was played in the first movie by the late Paul Newman—and some of it just seems short-sighted. Of course, a sequel wants to be bigger and wants to travel and wants to blow up a lot of things, but we don’t want to see just anyone do it, we want to see our favorite characters do it. With respect to agents McMissile and Shiftwell, what could Cars 2 have been if it had been Radiator Springs v. The Bad Guys?
So Cars 2 is nobody’s favorite Pixar movie, except for someone, it probably is. It did almost twice as well overseas as it did domestically (where perhaps gross Southern stereotyping outweighs the rest); it’s both merchandise, video game, and theme park friendly; and honestly it has a good heart. So it’s no Ratatouille or Toy Story 3, so maybe Mater isn’t for you, but he is for somebody. Some kid who needs to know that being a good person doesn’t have anything to do with being shiny or fast or worldly (even the villains of the piece are only mad because they’ve been underestimated their whole lives). Reject it if you must, but don’t be cruel about it. The least of Pixar is better than most, and to be honest, that bit with the wasabi is pretty funny.