The first Cars movie was one of Pixar's more slower-paced movies--fitting, given that despite the NASCAR-like racing, the movie was about slowing down and enjoying life, among other things. It was also probably Pixar's most underrated film ever. As for the first sequel, Cars 2? Well, it switched gears entirely (no pun intended). Completely. As in... went from a simple tale about slowing down and sticking it to the Interstates to... James Bond, basically. With Mater as more or less the main focus. Pretty odd, right?
Well, the film's plot deals with Lightning McQueen racing in the World Grand Prix. Mater, among others, comes along and along the way accidentally gets caught in a case of mistaken identity and ends up being stuck in the world of car spies and espionage and a ridiculous and convoluted bad guy plot.
When this film first came out, it was considered to be Pixar's first flop. I guess compared to the material they had released before this movie, that's sort of true. It's definitely not as bad as some would have you believe, and it's not Pixar's worst film either. (That honor goes to Monsters University.) But it is still rather dumb at times.
The decision to make Mater the main focus wasn't really a great one. It's made even worse by the fact that he's actually made even dumber in the sequel--going from silly but fun and endearing comic relief in the first movie to being painfully idiotic at times in this one. But there are other points of massive idiocy throughout the plot--whether it's the fact that the actual spy cars can't figure out that Mater's not a spy (they think his idiocy is his cover), or the fact that this movie does not know how electromagnetic pulses work, or how other characters aren't as smart as they once were (McQueen suffers from this too), or just the villain's plan in general. Can't say it without spoilers... but just know that it's a terrible plan and makes no sense.
What actually does work about this movie, then? Well, even if it's a 360-turn genre-wise, the spy stuff is still kind of cool regardless. The action scenes are actually fairly fun to watch. Even if some of the characters' stupidity annoys you at times, most of them are still likable. Although there are some attempts at humor that fall flat, there is still some pretty funny stuff too--such as the wasabi gag, the disguise technology scene, or a gag involving a Gatling gun. Also, attention should be called to the animation, which is astounding--the Tokyo sequences in particular are breathtaking. The voice acting is still pretty good too--in addition to returning actors like Owen Wilson, Tony Shalhoub and Bonnie Hunt, we get newcomers Michael Caine, John Turturro, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard and a sadly briefly used Bruce Campbell. Turturro in particular provides some more of the better comic relief. The film itself is still mostly a fun and entertaining ride, even if certain parts of it make you cringe a little.
Cars 2 is definitely not as bad as many say it is. But it's still below average for Pixar (though a few years later, "average" doesn't mean what it used to for Pixar). And it's a bit of an odd film, given how insanely different it is from its predecessor. That said, you still could do worse both with Pixar and in the animation/kids' movie department in general. Even though no one will come away calling this a classic, it's not the kind of thing most will hate themselves for watching afterwards either. Even if it was still flawed, the biggest reason it got panned was because of everyone's higher expectations from Pixar at the time. Which is unfortunate, because this film is still a decently enjoyable (if not great) way to spend 105 minutes.