Pixar has made another enchanting film, witty, touching, and utterly delightful. It is “Toy Story Hawaiian Vacation,” a brief opener followed by the less delightful “Cars 2.”
In “Toy Story Hawaiian Vacation,” Ken and Barbie are disappointed at being left behind when Bonnie and her family go to Hawaii. So, once Barbie coaxes Ken out of the backpack where he is sulking by telling him she needs some help coordinating her accessories, the other toys create their version of Hawaii in Bonnie’s bedroom. It is adorable — and the best part is that there will be another Toy Story short before next fall’s Muppet movie.
Then comes “Cars 2,” which continues the story of race car champion Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and his best friend, the rusty, dented tow truck called Mater (voice of Larry the Cable Guy). But this sequel is very different in tone and setting. Mater takes the leading role in an action-filled and sometimes violent spy story that mixes poorly with some muddled messages about friendship and being yourself. I suspect that if it had come from any other studio it would have been given a PG rating.
Lightning loves being with Mater in remote Radiator Springs, but has never taken him along to a race. When he gets the chance to compete in his first international event, Lightning invites Mater to come along. Sir Miles Axlerod (voice of Eddie Izzard) is sponsoring a series of races to promote his new renewable resource-based fuel. Lightning thinks his biggest problem will be out-racing the arrogant Italian champion, Francesco Bernoulli (voice of John Turturro). But there are even more difficult challenges including the embarrassing behavior of his unsophisticated friend and what appears to be sabotage by someone who does not want Axelrod’s new fuel to succeed.
While Lightning is seeing less in his friend away from home, the suave super-spy Finn McMissile (voice of Michael Caine) mistakes Mater for another agent and Mater finds himself caught up in a web of danger and intrigue with Finn and his researcher-turned-field agent Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). Mater takes over the lead role, first as the kind-hearted but naive and clumsy rube who gets in everyone’s way and whose gaffes are so outrageous the sophisticated spies think it has to be a disguise.
Like a classic James Bond movie, the action moves from the US to Tokyo, Paris, London, and an imaginary spot in “the Italian Riviera.” But it is overly violent, with many minor characters apparently burned up and one non-explicit scene of torture. And it feels both over- and under-plotted at the same time. All the different shifts in location with four big races and the spy story’s mechanical and logistical intrigues get overly complicated without drawing us in. There’s a disquieting sense of missing the forest for the trees. There are so many details, some quite delectable, that somehow the story and characters get lost in the clutter. Is this a story about racing? Friendship? The environment? Taking risks? Bullying? How other people can help us see that we’re capable of more but we should never let them persuade us we are capable only of less? Being proud of your dents and the stories they help you remember? How being rich and powerful does not make you happy and sometimes wisdom comes from unexpected places? All of the above and more.
But some of those details remind us that even second-rate Pixar is worth seeing. There’s the movie playing at the Radiator Springs Drive-In: “The Incredimobiles,” and some nice moments about how different kinds of cars are good at different kinds of race courses and the importance of being kind to “lemons.” There’s a popemobile, a queen car, and geisha cars, even a mime car in Paris. There’s a joke about the word “shoot” that is funny — twice. But it is too scary and confusing for little kids and parents may find that they check their watches, not to see whether Lightning has beat his own record but to see how long before they can go home.
If you like this, try: the first “Cars” movie and all of the other Pixar films, especially “Finding Nemo” and “The Incredibles.” Older audience members will enjoy some of the spy films that inspired this one like the James Bond series and “Our Man Flint.”