It’s probably safe to say that the character of Mater was the most popular character in the first Cars film. Voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, the rusty and oblivious tow truck has been featured in a DVD short, a spin-off series of television shorts and a video game. It comes as no real surprise that Mater is the star of the latest Pixar film, Cars 2, even more so than Owen Wilson’s Lightning McQueen. In fact, this film marks a shift in storytelling for the venerable film studio. Typically Pixar has given us an emotionally compelling character journey wrapped in the guise of a children’s animated film. Kids could drink in the visual spectacle while adults enjoyed a multi-dimensional and emotionally satisfying story. This time Pixar has chosen to eschew all that in favor of a rather straightforward action adventure movie. In the hands of any other animation studio this would result in a derivative sequel lacking the heart of the original. This being Pixar, that isn’t a concern.
Lightning McQueen gets pulled into an international race ostensibly against the arrogant Francesco Bernoulli (voiced by John Turturro) and decides to take along his best friend Mater. An obvious fish out of water, Mater fails to fit in with the jet-set lifestyle of sophisticated parties, but does manage to be mistaken for a cunning undercover spy and embroiled in a mission by Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (voiced by Emily Mortimer). Much like an automotive version of Inspector Clouseau, Mater fumbles his way through intrigue and life-threatening situations all without losing his hillbilly charm and ability to make us laugh. Thinking that his bumbling has cost him McQueen’s friendship, Mater enthusiastically embraces his new friends and new friends. Of course the central plot by the mysterious bad guy eventually includes McQueen which rallies Mater to save his best friend. There’s quite a bit more fun and adventure along the way and everyone from Radiator Springs eventually gets caught up in the action, but this is most definitely Mater’s time to shine.
Let’s face it, Pixar essentially set the storytelling bar to near-unachievable heights with WALL-E. UP and Toy Story 3 came very close to matching the little robot who could with their themes of growing old and growing up, respectively, but it would have been unrealistic to expect Cars 2 to sustain that type of momentum. Instead, John Lasseter and company chose a different track for our revisit with the denizens of Radiator Springs and gave us exactly what we wanted in sequel to a film whose main characters are various types of vehicles; faster pace, more action and more and varied anthropomorphic mechanoids. But don’t think this film is lacking in heartfelt moments. There is a touching tribute to Doc Hudson, voiced by the late Paul Newman in the original film, and an underlying theme of friendship underpinning the whole thing. Just don’t expect to need any excuses concerning having something stuck in your eye as the credits roll.
As a sequel and as a style of story this was an interesting and somewhat surprising choice for Pixar, but they pull it off with the quality filmmaking that they are now synonymous with. This is easily the best movie of the summer so far and one I highly recommend. One other fun treat is the Toy Story short shown before the film. We get to catch up briefly with some old friends before treated to a feature length visit with some other good friends. If that sounds like a great way to spend a couple of hours of your time, then Cars 2 should be your next cinematic experience.