Cars 2…as good as the original, for me at least

Would I say I like Cars 2 better than the original Cars? Not likely, but I will say I like it as much. I realize this is somewhat of a sacrilege being that I live in NASCAR’s home state and well, for a lot of people no sequel, simply by virtue of being a sequel, will live up to the original, but in this case, I thought it did.


A lot of people I know, and a lot of them were mothers, were disappointed that Cars 2 was not a Cars redux. I have heard grumblings that a better plot line would have been for Lightening McQueen to be a mentor ala Doc Hudson in the original. I don’t think that would have worked. Part of that paradigm would require Doc Hudson to be available as a mentor to the mentor and that, unfortunately, is impossible with the passing of Paul Newman. To those who would suggest that Newman be simply replaced by another actor, I think the studio made the correct decision in honoring Newman’s memory by having Doc Hudson pass on as well but re-naming the “Piston Cup” the “Hudson Hornet Piston Cup.” And as an actor, Paul Newman is irreplaceable and I doubt very much many actors in Hollywood would have wanted to try and fill his shoes.


Now that leads to another obvious argument that the character of Fillmore’s actor was replaced after George Carlin (who voiced the VW van in the original Cars) passed away. Fillmore is a much more peripheral character in both movies and his replacing was therefore much less of an issue. Replacing Paul Newman as Doc would be analogous to replacing Larry the Cable Guy as Mater…just not going to work.


The idea for Cars 2 was conceived by the brains behind Pixar during the original Cars world tour when in countries like Japan and Italy, the creators began wondering what Mater would be like on these streets. Obviously the character of Lightening McQueen (voiced by actor Owen Wilson) still had plenty of growth even five years later and Mater has never lived anywhere but Radiator Springs, so a new experience would be an interesting change of pace for Mater whose biggest change was Lightening McQueen’s appearance in Radiator Springs. So why not take them on the road?


Well, according to what I’ve read in a variety of comment boxes and heard from friends and neighbors, the biggest problem with this movie is that the show “went on the road.” It brought up cultural differences (the geisha scene for example) that some people didn’t know or want to explain to their kids and it brought up something else. Something very uncomfortable for many a stock-car racing fan. Exactly what type of racing is the best? Formula One, Stock Car, Rally, etc. are all in the running on an international scene and as a result we have drivers who are Japanese, Brazilian, French and Italian.


Now we are to what I think was the genius of putting these cars in a new setting. New characters are introduced who never would have found their way into Radiator Springs. Or at least, not all at the same time. Namely Formula Car Francesco Bernoulli who is expertly voiced by actor John Turturro. Francesco’s arrogance and condescension are what gets Lightning McQueen into the World Grand Prix, a race created to highlight a new alternative fuel: Allinol.


The race knits the movies two subplots together and adds a new genre element to the film. See, Cars 2 is a spy movie too. Let me tell you a secret: I LOVE spy movies.


Finn McMissile is the old-school James Bond type British spy voiced by Michael Caine. I’m going to let you in on another secret: there is only one car I have ever lusted after and it’s the car that Finn McMissile is. An Aston Martin. Finn is called to action by a younger spy, Leland Turbo, whose cover has been compromised on a secret oil rig and Finn is brought to the remote location by a gruff old crab boat that fans of tv’s Deadliest Catch will recognize as F/V Northwestern and voiced by the Northwestern’s real life captain, Sig Hansen.


McMissile’s path crosses with Mater’s in Japan, site of the first race in the World Grand Prix; where Mater is ultimately confused for American spy Rod “Torque” Redline who was also undercover on the oil rig with Leland Turbo; sadly both Redline and Turbo come to untimely ends at the hands of the evil Dr Z and his legions of Lemons.


One thing I have loved about Pixar since seeing the original Toy Story in the theater as a teenager is that there is something in their films for everyone. Parents bringing their kids will have laughs and sometimes tears right along with their kids although not always for the same reasons. I can remember leaving the theater not being able to wait to tell my dad about Toy Story because of the Bucket O’ Soldiers modeled after the little army men my dad grew up with.


The original Cars continued this tradition by using the Magliozzi brothers of NPR’s Car Talk as the leaders of Lightning McQueen’s sponsor Rust-Eze telling their trademark jokes, “Winter is a grand old time; of this there are no ifs or buts; but remember, all that salt and grime; will rust your bolts and freeze your…”. And the inclusion of racing legend Richard Petty as “The King” with The King’s car being a replica of Petty’s legendary #43 STP Cheverolet down to the font of the “43.” And allowing NASCAR hall of famer Daryl Waltrip to sit in the booth and in the final race utter his catch phrase, “Boogity, boogity, boogity, LET’S GO RACING BOYS!”


Cars also appealed to younger Nascar fans by modeling racing bad-boy Chick Hicks after the late Dale Earnhardt Sr and Lightning McQueen after a young Tony “Smoke” Stewart who was known in his younger days as disrespectful, brash and flash but underwent a lot of changes in his career. There was also the car “Jr” who raced showing the modified “8” logo that driver Dale Earnhardt Jr raced under at the time the movie was released. (Almost prophetically, the “8” logo in the first movie is shadowed to make it look like “88,” Jr’s current number given to him by owner Robert Yates to use in honor of late grandfather Ralph Earnhardt on his current ride with Rick Hendrick Racing after a falling out with his step-mother Teresa Earnhardt led to his leaving DEI.)


And the hipster reference in the first Cars is the character of “Harv” McQueen’s agent voiced by actor Jeremy Piven who has played agent Ari Gold on Entourage since its inception.


Similarly, Cars 2, by incorporating the British spies McMissile and Holley Shiftwell (voiced by Emily Mortimer), many of us who have become Bond fans over the years were not disappointed. I have to say the casting of Caine was genius as he brought a certain authenticity to the role. John Turturro’s casting will not disappoint his fans (of which I am a huge one) either. But the biggest throwback for the adults in the crowd is the Lemons. The use of the real Gremlins and Pacers is not lost on anyone who owned one or knew someone who owned one. Nor is the “Hugo” which is an obvious reference to the defunct “Yugo” make. To cast them as part of the real villainous team gave many an adult watching a good chuckle. Jeff and I included.

Now, as I said before…I live in the birth of NASCAR country so I’ve heard a lot of complaints about both movies specific to location and what drivers were included and not included. In the first one, there was a major complaint as to the fact that in the end of the movie Lightning McQueen moves his racing headquarters to Radiator Springs. Doesn’t he know stock cars belong in NC? Really, people, they don’t all live here in real life…give me a break. And in the sequel there was a huge backlash that the character of “Jr” was not part of the cars. Well, for anyone who has paid attention to the career of Dale Earnhardt Jr’s career knows he’s not had a very stellar one, particularly of late. (I’m married to a Jr fan, I live the agony vicariously every race.) Pixar decided to create a new character in Jeff Gorvette voiced by four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion and three-time Daytona 500 winner Jeff Gordon, who happens to be my four-year-old’s favorite driver. Certainly Pixar made a good choice in choosing a proven champion who also has charisma.


I thought that Cars 2 did teach my kids some important lessons though: the importance of standing by one’s friends; the importance of being who you are, not who society (or the secular world, if you rather) wants you to be; and not to compromise your principles just to be popular. Setting Mater out in the world did make him child-like regardless of his age and he was always himself and honest which is why he was the one to figure out the plot, not the trained world-weary spies or the popular, smart race cars.

So, yeah, I liked the movie, as much as the first, so what. But don’t take my word for it, if you haven’t seen it, take a look, you might like it yourself.