Pixar are, in a word, perfectionists. The animation studio’s trophy cabinet — housing no less than twenty-six Oscars and seven Golden Globes — should be evidence enough. Yet even virtuosos are subject to the occasional lapse in judgment; days when they produce something that doesn’t quite live up to their own impossibly high standard. Something like 2006’s Cars, for example.
Now call me an optimist, but I like to believe that it’s because of Pixar’s fastidiousness — and not in the least due to the billions amassed from merchandising — that the studio decided to return to the Cars universe for a sequel. You know, to right their wrongs and prove, once and for all, that a world inhabited by talking vehicles can actually make for a great movie.
Nice try, but no dice. Despite a complete change in gear, Cars 2 is just as unremarkable as its predecessor, predominantly pandering to pre-teen boys with its onslaught of car puns and relentless chase sequences. The animation remains top-notch, and parents will appreciate the added complexity the spy-centric storyline brings, but it does not compensate for the simple-minded characters and shallow sentiment. And when Pixar have proven, time and time again, that they’re gifted emotional storytellers, it’s hard to settle for anything less.
Similar to the recent Pirates of the Caribbean instalment, Cars 2 makes the mistake of promoting the supporting comic-relief character to the role of protagonist. This time around, speedway hotshot Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson; Little Fockers) takes a back seat to Mater (Larry the Cable Guy; Cars), the rusty pickup truck who taught the arrogant racer some humility in the previous outing. While McQueen is busy competing against the bigheaded Italian F1 car Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro; Transformers 2) in a global grand prix to promote renewable fuel, Mater is unwittingly confused for an undercover agent by British spies Finn McMissile (Michael Caine; Gnomeo and Juliet) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer; Harry Brown). They’re on a mission to foil a dastardly plan by the evil German scientist Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann; Valkyrie), who under the orders of his mysterious boss, is preparing to sabotage the big race.
In lieu of the simple and predictable narrative from the original Cars, the dual storyline of Cars 2 does make for a more engaging caper, particularly the many nods towards the James Bond franchise and racing world. Still, a good story is nothing without strong characters, and I’m not convinced either Lightning McQueen or Mater fit the bill. With McQueen preoccupied by the race, it’s up to Mater to learn a valuable lesson and save the day, yet he’s intrinsically too much of a caricature to connect with on a deep level, causing his development to feel superficial and ineffectual. His bumbling naivety might have been endearing and amusing in his unassuming American hometown, but against the backdrop of various international cultures and customs, Mater just comes across as an insolent and ignorant fool. The film’s core message to be yourself, regardless of where you are in the world, is an imprudent one as it implies that when in Rome, it’s OK to do as you damn well please.
Of the new voice cast, both Michael Caine and John Turturro relish their amusing roles, while Emily Mortimer as spy Holly Shiftwell is less seductive than she is sedate. The action, however, is anything but; Cars 2 is easily Pixar’s most explosive film since The Incredibles, and while that is sure to engage young eyes, the constant onslaught of fireballs does become a chore for adults, regardless of the immersive 3D implementation. With a more intricate plot and constant car carnage, Pixar seems to be aiming a tad higher with their target audience (boys aged 9-13) than they were with the toddler-friendly original, evidence being the numerous tots crawling up the aisle during our screening. Still, as they did with the original, Pixar have once again overlooked their most crucial audience — the parents who pay for the tickets.
As a long-time Pixar admirer, I have not enjoyed writing this review. The studio have unquestionably spoilt us in recent years with three masterpieces in a row; WALL-E, Up and Toy Story 3. While I was greatly disappointed by the original Cars, my faith that the studio would atone for their past mistakes kept expectations high for the sequel. Unreasonably high, you might even say. But if you’re going to set the standard in animation, however lofty it may be, you best be prepared to live up to it. And Cars 2, it pains me to say, does not.