Think of Pixar as a person instead of a studio. Imagine it as Clint Eastwood. Remember that middle stretch in Eastwood's career, when he would alternate more artistic endeavors with pure popcorn flicks? One year he's helming something as weighty as The Outlaw Josey Wales, the next he's starring in something as blatantly stupid as The Gauntlet. One moment he's attempting to stretch with White Hunter Black Heart, the next he's hanging around with that idiot Charlie Sheen in The Rookie. Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson have also been allowed to follow this pendulum career path, so why not Pixar?
Before Cars 2, the animation giant had released 11 feature-length tales, all but one of them considered unqualified gems that spoke to adults as much as to the kids. The exception was 2006's Cars, which earned mostly positive notices but was dismissed as lightweight children's fare. I would argue that it's a bit stronger than that -- its Route 66 mythology, coupled with the presence of Paul Newman in what would turn out to be his final role, lent it a nostalgic, bittersweet tinge -- but when placed alongside the magnificence of, say, Up or the Toy Story trilogy, it clearly doesn't possess the same emotional or artistic wallop.
And neither does Cars 2, which will replace its predecessor as the new runt of the Pixar litter. But so what? If the Pixar gurus occasionally want to kick up their heels and make movies that offer only surface pleasures, then so be it. The only requirement should be that they entertain, which is something that Cars 2 certainly does.
Adopting an international template, this sequel finds Lightning McQueen (voiced again by Owen Wilson) invited to participate in a Grand Prix event that formally kicks off in Tokyo before moving to Europe for three separate races (Rome, Paris and London). McQueen reluctantly takes Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) with him, only to be immediately humiliated by his best buddy's redneck behavior. But while McQueen tries to ignore these distractions and concentrate on beating his racetrack rivals, particularly a swaggering Italian auto (John Turturro), Mater gets mistaken for a brilliant secret agent by a pair of British operatives (Michael Caine as Finn McMissile and Emily Mortimer as Holley Shiftwell) trying to uncover the shadowy head of a criminal cabal.
With a running time close to two hours, Cars 2 does feel protracted, especially in the sequences in which Mater frets over the fact that people -- err, cars -- are laughing at him rather than with him; trust me, neither kids nor adults will be particularly enthralled by witnessing an existential crisis on the part of a hick tow truck. But the film gets a lot of mileage (pun intended) out of its 007-styled storyline (and hearing Caine as the top agent brings back fond memories of his work as Len Deighton's super-spy Harry Palmer), while it remains endearing to witness familiar names refashioned in automotive lingo (e.g. Big Ben becomes Big Bentley).
As for the animation, it's adheres to the studio's usual high standards, which makes the charges of creative coasting even more ludicrous. Listening to detractors, you'd think this was from the same companies that released such animated eyesores as Battle for Terra, Hoodwinked! and the recent The Lion of Judah. But it's from Pixar, an outfit whose vehicles -- including this one -- have yet to show any signs of serious tread wear.
It's no Bad Santa, but Bad Teacher brings just enough naughty behavior to the table to make it a decent watch for viewers tired of PG-13 timidity. In her best role since 2005's underrated In Her Shoes, Cameron Diaz plays Elizabeth Halsey, a gold-digging middle-school teacher who, having just been dumped by her wealthy fiancé, sets her sights on substitute teacher Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), who happens to be the heir to a watch-making dynasty.
Elizabeth is manipulative, deceitful, insensitive and lazy (each class period is spent with the students watching a school-themed film like Stand and Deliver or Dangerous Minds while she tries to get over a hangover), and she's forced to use all her cunning to dislodge Scott from the grip of a perpetually peppy teacher named Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch). Meanwhile, nice-guy gym teacher Russell Gettis (Jason Segel) hangs around, hoping to get past Elizabeth's obvious disinterest in him.
Hollywood, which fashions itself as a bearer of moral messages, usually feels the need to take down its flawed characters before the closing credits, with the arrogant/narcissistic/self-centered protagonist miraculously transformed into a wellspring of small sacrifices and big embraces (e.g. half of Jim Carrey's canon). To its credit, Bad Teacher doesn't resort to such shameless pandering: Like Billy Bob Thornton's Willie in Bad Santa, Diaz's Elizabeth Halsey bends but doesn't break, and the film has no need to automatically punish the wicked for their indiscretions.
On the downside, the combination of a short running time, often erratic pacing, and a number of red-band-trailer moments conspicuously missing from the finished piece suggests that the studio ultimately didn't have quite enough faith in the picture to let it all hang out. This Bad Teacher is amusing enough to earn a passing mark, but we'll have to hope for an unrated director's cut on DVD/Blu-ray in order to fully gauge this school project's merit.