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Pixar's track record has been close to impeccable for turning out intelligent, emotionally rich, beautifully detailed animated films, with plenty of humor and heart to appeal to movie lovers of all ages.
But the weak link in the chain, at least from a narrative standpoint, has always been 2006's "Cars," with its two-dimensional talking autos and hokey, borrowed tale of small-town life.
Sure, it was bright and zippy, which was enough to appeal to the little ones, and it became a merchandising juggernaut. Just try finding a kid who doesn't have some sort of "Cars" stuff. My 19-month-old son has a Lightning McQueen sippy cup and I have no idea how he got it — these things just show up on their own. That's how ubiquitous they are.
So sure, why not make a sequel? Trouble is, "Cars 2" is such a mess, it makes the original look like it ought to rank among Pixar's masterpieces by comparison.
What has set the studio's films apart from all the other animated fare is story: It's paramount. Innovative tales like "WALL-E" and "Up" get you choked up just thinking about them, they're that good. "Cars 2" tries to encompass many kinds of stories at once, none of which is terribly clever or compelling. And the fact that Pixar mastermind John Lasseter is back as director is the most baffling part of all. This is the man who kicked it all off with the soulful and groundbreaking "Toy Story" back in 1995. This is not someone from whom you would expect empty glossiness.
Here, working from a script by Ben Queen, Lasseter makes a transparent attempt at catering to the ever-expanding global moviegoing audience by having the hero of the original "Cars," Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), compete in an international grand prix through Japan, France, Italy and Britain. The sponsor is a Richard Branson-type Range Rover-looking vehicle (Eddie Izzard); McQueen's main rival is an arrogant Italian Formula 1 racecar (John Turturro).
At the same time, "Cars 2" panders to middle America by placing Mater, the rusty, aw-shucks tow truck, front and center. McQueen is flashier but this is Mater's time to shine, as it were; Larry the Cable Guy, who voices the character, even gets top billing over Wilson. But a little of the comedian's twangy shtick goes a long way — for the audience, and for McQueen, who gets annoyed with Mater's boorish behavior in all these refined settings. Still, Mater is there to teach us some lessons about valuing the underdog. Or not judging people because we think they're different or stupid. Or something.
But wait, there's more. "Cars 2" is also a James Bond spoof, with Michael Caine providing the voice of the elegant English sports car, superspy Finn McMissile. Finn and his rookie sidekick, Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), run into Mater, who has tagged along with McQueen on this globe-trotting journey, and mistakenly believe he's the American undercover operative they're supposed to meet during their latest mission. This ties into a whole `nother subplot involving alternative fuel sources and the German villain (Thomas Kretschmann) who has big plans to keep cars reliant on Big Oil.
With all these new characters and various narrative strands competing for our attention, there's not much room for fun. "Cars 2" is one thing a family-friendly summer blockbuster should never be: boring. Yes, it looks beautiful, lavishing in photorealism as so many Pixar movies do. In 3-D (because of course it's in 3-D), the chase scenes have their thrilling moments, and the many shiny surfaces do have a tactile quality. Young kids — at whom so much of this material is clearly aimed — will probably enjoy the bright colors and incessant motion.
But as the structure grows repetitive and Mater's corny puns and malapropisms become tiresome, we — like the anthropomorphized autos — feel like we're just spinning our wheels.
"Cars 2," a Disney Pixar release, is rated G. Running time: 114 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.
A radically different approach just might save the genre. The no-frills, no-star, no-budget African-American musical, "Leave It On the Floor," which had its world premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival over the weekend, demonstrates the possibilities. It actually takes some chances.
Most recent movie musicals that succeeded, including "Chicago" and "Dreamgirls," incorporated most of their songs as production numbers performed on stage, so they didn't challenge audiences' preference for realism. But in "Floor," the characters burst into song on the subway or in convenience stores, and the performers are so dynamic that we buy into an ancient musical convention that has fallen out of fashion.
The film doesn't have huge box office potential, but it could develop cult status and find a niche audience.
The script by Glenn Gaylord is an uneven, sometimes threadbare affair, but it does take off from a core of truth: the homophobia within the African-American community. At the start of the film, Brad (Ephraim Sykes) is kicked out by his mother when she discovers that he's gay. He ends up being adopted by a group of drag queens who compete in monthly balls held at downtown L.A. dance clubs. A similar milieu inspired the documentary "Paris Is Burning" a couple of decades ago, and director Sheldon Larry has been tantalized by the idea of making a fiction film on the subject ever since seeing that earlier film.
It's too bad that Larry and Gaylord hew to formulaic storytelling, but the script has never been the most important element in a musical. The key is song and dance, and here "Floor" delivers. The songs by Kimberly Burse (music director for Beyonce and other performers) run the gamut from rap to ballads, and a few of them -- including a sly homage to Justin Timberlake called "Justin's Gonna Call" -- are genuinely rousing. The choreography by Frank Gatson Jr. is equally ebullient.
Characterizations are thin, but the gifted actors help to put the roles across. Sykes has a thrilling voice and an unmistakable charisma. Miss Barbie-Q, playing the den mother of the ragtag group, also sings excitingly and emerges as a force of nature. Andre Myers and Phillip Evelyn as the rivals for Brad's affections both strike sparks with the hero.
Some of the plotting is primitive. A sudden car crash seems convenient rather than convincing, but the funeral scene that follows -- a musical duel between the dead boy's family members and his adopted drag community -- is one of the strongest in the film because it finds the humanity in both contingents.
Larry's direction is sometimes clumsy but always energetic, and the production team makes good use of the gritty locations. The filmmakers' enthusiasm for the musical genre proves to be contagious. This movie may not win awards, but it's a good-hearted joyride.