Cars 2: A Pixar Fantasy That Runs Out of Gas

In Pixar's latest, an unlikely friendship runs out of gas

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Disney / Pixar

In the first Cars film, the biggest rube in Radiator Springs hitched himself to famous race car Lightning McQueen and never let go. The rusty tow truck Mater (voiced by professional rube Larry the Cable Guy) was desperate to be friends in a semistalkery way. I always assumed that, on his return to civilization, McQueen (Owen Wilson) would gently detach from needy, dopey Mater. Just because the former braggart learned humility on Route 66 didn’t mean he had to be a martyr.

Somehow, that’s what Pixar’s high-gloss, thinly premised Cars 2 wants. This globetrotting spy adventure treats the race‑car–rube match as a love affair to be nurtured and cherished. After taking Mater to the World Grand Prix in Tokyo, McQueen loses his first heat to a flashy Italian (John Turturro) because of one of Mater’s innocent flights of idiocy. There’s a scolding (“Maybe you should just act a little different,” McQueen says), and a chastened Mater rolls away.

(See a TIME Q&A with Cars 2 director John Lasseter.)

But no one pauses long to pout. Mistaken for an undercover agent by British spy cars Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), Mater is whisked off on a mission. An alternative-fuel conspiracy is afoot, and an amusing crew of mobsters (Yugos, Gremlins, Pacers) is out to promote Big Oil.

A Pixar movie is always lively, and this might be the studio’s liveliest (and loudest) yet — but its leanest in terms of warmth and heart. The movie coasts on endless puns and visual gags. Its delight in an alternate reality in which cars go to discos and aim blowtorches at one another is as golly gee whiz as Mater himself.

Fitting, since this is Mater’s movie. It’s a Materthon. I would call it Materific if he didn’t leave me longing for WALL•E‘s robot to crush him into a silent cube. Such is the sincerity of the Pixar vision and the marvel of its visual execution that I feel guilty about this urge. Such is my child’s devotion to the franchise that I can hear him saying, “Mommy, that’s mean. Mater’s nice.” Well, yes, he is nice. But friendships must include give and take, and the premise of Cars 2 — that it is a cardinal sin to ask a friend to alter his behavior — is a lemon.

See pictures of great animated movies.