John Lasseter & Brad Lewis | 106 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | U / G
Pixar, oh exalted studio of wondrous excellence, who produce naught but critically-acclaimed and audience-beloved films that may as well just be given the Best Animated Feature Oscar without the need for fellow nominees, dropped the ball with Cars. So why did it become only the second Pixar movie to earn a sequel? As most people know, because of the merchandise. Little boys love toy cars (and grown men too, apparently) and the things sold like hot cakes, and continued to do so for years afterwards. Running out of ways to milk the first movie’s characters, the only solution was to make some new ones — and that involves making a new film.
For what is essentially a near-two-hour toy commercial, Cars 2 fares quite well — it’s better than Batman & Robin anyway. Well, it’s less offensive to one’s sensibilities. Not ruining a great character and a once-great franchise helps. And, despite its lowly Rotten Tomatoes rating (which is flat out appalling, and doubly so for a Pixar movie), there’s a solid argument to be made that it’s better than the first Cars.
The plot is just as predictable though: character arcs are so well-trodden they only seem to bother including them because they push the story along; surely everyone will guess who the ‘surprise’ villain is as soon as he/she/it shows up earlier in the film; and so on. But instead of the stock “slick city guy finds his true self in the country” tale told first time round, here we get an international spy movie — much more fun. The espionage stuff is clearly inspired by Bond (the primary secret service is British, for starters), and the opening eight minutes — an action sequence starring the film’s Michael Caine-voiced Bond analogy — is probably the best stuff in either Cars movie. Actors like Caine and Emily Mortimer lend the whole affair some much-needed class.
Mater, voiced by Some Idiot (I believe Larry the Cable Guy is actually his ‘name’) was a mildly irritating character in the first film, but at least there was less of him than the marketing suggested. Clearly he clicked with someone — the pre-pre-teen toy-buying audience, I suppose — and so his role is massively bumped up here. In fact, I don’t think anyone would disagree that he’s the main character, with Owen Wilson’s McQueen relegated to a supporting role. Mater isn’t the most irritatingly stupid animated character ever conceived, but he’s not a huge amount of fun either. Like so much else, his whole schtick is tiresomely predictable fullstop, and depressingly familiar from first time round — and it was barely amusing in the first place.
McQueen, then, may still be front-and-centre in the marketing, but his story — the racing aspect of the movie — gets quickly relegated to a subplot. It’s kind of ironic, as the first film was all about races on boring NASCAR loops, whereas here we getting exciting European street circuits and we barely see them. On the bright side, we all know how race movies pan out — the back-and-forth battling, the last-minute surge, etc etc — so it’s not really any loss.
There are a raft of cameos — more than the first film, I think — the most obvious being Lewis Hamilton as a black racing car. He’s joined in a sort-of-double-act by some American voice who I presume is also a racing driver. This is the role picked for localisation, getting region-specific racing drivers in France, Germany, Spain, Australia, Russia, Sweden, Latin America and Brazil. I’d wager at least half of those voices would be infinitely more recognisable to a British audience than that yankee bloke they do have in there — I don’t follow racing and I’ve heard of Fernando Alonso, Sebastian Vettel and Jacques Villeneuve, but I’ve not got the first clue who Jeff Gordon is.
One much-criticised aspect of the first film was its world (who built these cars? where are the humans? etc). It was possible to gloss over it, just about, when the film was doing other things to hold your attention. Here, it’s almost like they don’t want you to forget. It’s plenty exciting and fast-paced enough to leave behind concerns about what’s going on, but then throws in all sorts of unnecessary snatches of dialogue or small details in set design that slap you with a brief remembrance that this world doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense. One I didn’t even notice until I was collating pictures for this review: why is the police car wearing a giant hat?!
The technical faults don’t stop there: despite its pedigree, direction is strangely amateurish much of the time. The action sequences occasionally sing, but not always, while the entirety of the dialogue scenes are flatly shot, showing a repetitive choice of boring angles. It doesn’t help that they don’t contain much engaging material, especially the instances when they seem to be literally trotting out all the first film’s characters to deliver a single line each in not-that-quick succession. At times it verges on painful.
The Cars films are really aimed at kids no older than about six. They won’t be familiar enough with movies to see the tired plot points, they won’t question the film’s bizarre world, they’ll probably be enamoured of Mater, they’ll certainly be suckered in by the talking cars and the glossy action sequences… It’s their very lack of familiarity or critical faculties that makes the film easily entertaining. And then they’ll want all the toys, which is why this movie exists.
And one of the reasons people heavily criticise the Cars films in spite of that increasingly obvious fact is because they’re made by Pixar. In themselves, these two films are fine — but that’s all they are. When Pixar can make so many innovative, exciting, emotional, entertaining films, how can they also produce something so uninspired?
Cars 2 still suffers from many of the first film’s faults, being lacklustre in vital departments like character, humour and storyline. But it’s shorter, faster-paced and more exciting, which for my money makes it the lesser of two evils.