Sidekicks exist to steal the show, not carry it like Tow Mater is asked to do in Cars 2. The redneck rust bucket is on screen so much that 3-D glasses should come with tetanus shots.
The voice of Mater, standup comedian Larry the Cable Guy, wouldn't dream of performing his dumber-than-dirt routine on stage for nearly two hours. No comedian would, knowing there's always a point when an audience's entertainment becomes endurance. Yet Mater is the constant focus of Cars 2, after being the best thing about the first movie, which isn't saying much.
This is an idea springing from board meetings, not imaginations making the Disney-Pixar brand so trusted. The emphasis on Mater is just one example, along with international settings and voices for an easier sell in burgeoning foreign markets, and a notable level of violence for a G-rated movie since gunfire and bombs don't require subtitles. All this globetrotting involves talking boats and airplanes, which may be the studio putting out feelers for new franchises.
Cars 2 opens in Agent 007 fashion, with British spy Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) sneaking into enemy territory and making a combustible escape. The setting is a series of offshore oil rigs, the first step in a mission involving alternative fuels, which ranks somewhere beneath a rat chef as far as animation plots go.
Mater gets dragged into the mess while he accompanies Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) on the World Grand Prix tour, sponsored by eco-energy mogul Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard). Miles invented a natural fuel called Allinol and all the competitors are using it to prove its viability. But the fuel explodes under electromagnetic waves, so bad guys in the gasoline business are blowing up race cars.
Perhaps Disney-Pixar should strike Russia and Saudi Arabia off its global release plan.
Lightning's goal of beating his Italian open-wheeled rival Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro) takes a back seat to Mater being mistaken by Finn as a U.S. secret agent, and the tow truck bumbling his way to success. Mater also plays the ugly American role (which can't hurt overseas), violating protocol when he isn't dumbfounded by cultural quirks, like a Tokyo toilet with a bidet for his undercarriage.
It's stunning that a character we couldn't get enough of in one movie can grow so tiresome in a sequel. That will likely be the legacy of Cars 2.
A final note: The "plus" in my grade is earned before Cars 2 begins, with a preview of the upcoming 3-D re-release of The Lion King, a teaser for 2012's Brave, and a Toy Story short subject titled Hawaiian Vacation.
The Circle of Life opening number from The Lion King looks marvelous in 3-D (although the sound track isn't re-mastered for IMAX audio yet). Brave looks darkly intriguing. Hawaiian Vacation is a stitch, with Woody and the gang faking a tropical getaway for Barbie and Ken. In those few minutes, we're reminded that nobody produces goose bumps, curiosity and laughter better than Disney and Pixar animators when they're on. Then Cars 2 begins.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.