Pixar1. What most people forget about Pixar movies is how, before anything else, their primary aim is to entertain. When we think of Pixar, it's more about the emotion involved, the wistful longing for the past of "Toy Story 3," the awe and wonder of "Wall-E," the grief of the first 20 minutes of "Up." But none of these movies, or any of the Pixar movies, would work if their goal was not to entertain you first. Pixar has been so good at both moving us and entertaining us, particularly in the last few years, that when they simply try to do the latter, like they did in "Cars" and do even more so in "Cars 2," it's almost like they're not trying. But to entertain an audience the way that Pixar can, and does in "Cars 2," is just as hard, if not harder, than moving an audience. The magic of Pixar isn't just that they've been able to do both for almost 20 years now; it's that they've been able to do either.
2. And "Cars 2" is awfully entertaining. Ditching the "big-car-in-a-small-town, what happened to the real America?" conceits that weighed down the first film, it brings back most of the characters from the first film (minus, sadly, Paul Newman's Doc) and transports them from rural America to the great cities of Europe. So there's no boring buildup and narrative: Just go go go. This time, race car Lightning McQueen brings along his best bud Tow Mater for a Euro racing series event against open-car star Francesco Bernoulli (amusingly voiced by John Turturro), as a way of promoting a new alternative fuel. (This is the film's quick nod at current events before mercifully moving right along.) While that's going on, a British spy car attempts to track down a terrorist who is attempting to ... well, do whatever it is car terrorists do, all that really matters is that the British spy car is voiced by Michael Caine, and for one movie, we can pretend together than Michael Caine is young again, the 007 we never were allowed to have. The two plot lines criss-cross and occasionally meet, but, mostly, "Cars 2" just moves really fast.
3. The moral of the first "Cars" film was "slow down and appreciate life," a little nugget of useless fortune-cookie wisdom this film flattens like a frog on the interstate. This movie is one whiz-bang set piece after another, from a Bond homage water escape scene that opens the film to a gun battle inside Paris' Les Halles to a madhouse chase through London as the Queen (unfortunately not portrayed as a Crown Victoria) follows along, blinking. The movie is wall-to-wall with inventively staged and thrilling chase scenes; after some of what Pixar comes up with here, I can't help but wonder if real car chase scenes, not constructed with the imagination and limitless possibilities Pixar has at its disposal, will ever be enough anymore. The real people, and the real metal, just slows them down.
4. It's a little bit less fun when the cars are talking, other than Caine, whose purr is such a ripened pleasure now that I'd listen to him read a Tucker Max audiobook. These characters have never had the depth of the "Toy Story" toys or Remy from "Ratatouille" or even Wall-E, but here, they're essentially movable pieces on the hypersonic chess board. In the first film, Tow Mater is brief, likable comic relief, but here, the filmmakers have made the questionable decision to make him the center of the film. The character -- repeatedly seen as The Ugly American -- wears out his welcome quickly. (Though it does allow us to imagine a world in which Michael Caine and Larry The Cable Guy do scenes together.) All the characters in the "Cars" movies are ciphers, there just to move us along. Fortunately, they've moving extremely fast.
5. Much has been made about Pixar somehow losing its touch, post "Toy Story 3," turning into Disney, their treacly corporate parent, with movies that affect the bottom line more than the heart. It is worth noting that this was commonly said right after the first "Cars" came out as well, and then we were given "Wall-E" and "Ratatouille" and "Up." It is a measure of just how much we expect of them that we demand perfection every time, like a child who cries when he does not get more more more. "Cars 2" is minor Pixar, but it would be a major film were it made by just about anyone else. I, for one, will not get greedy.