It might be a marginal improvement over the lacklustre first installment, but it is a far cry from Pixar’s best. To be the least of Pixar is still often the best in animation, but while the visuals soar in this sequel, the soul remains on the tracks.
With 26 Academy Awards under their belt since their 1988 short Tin Toy, including 6 out of the 10 possible Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature to date, animation powerhouse Pixar quickly rivalled Disney as the makers of the finest animation in the world. Indeed, when The Walt Disney Company bought Pixar for $7.4 billion in 2006, the same year that Cars was released, it was an expensive bargain for the House of Mouse. With a string of hits in the years since the acquisition, including WALL-E, Up and Toy Story 3, it seemed that Pixar could do no wrong, producing one magical piece of art after the other. With Pixar founder John Lasseter returning to the director’s chair for the first time since the money-spinning Cars, it seems that run may have come to an end.
When Francesco Bernoulli (voiced by John Turturro) challenges racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), the latter heads off on a world trip with his best friend and tow-truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). While they travel the world to Japan, France, Italy and the UK, Mater inadvertently falls into a super secret spy plot in which British agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) attempt to take down the big bad threatening to undermine clean fuel efforts around the world.
Despite being one of the most successful merchandising franchises in Pixar history, the original Cars was a critical failure due to a number of inherent flaws. Very much the pet vanity project of the car-obsessed Lasseter, it failed to heed the formula of the previous Pixar successes. Pixar have always been good at taking us into the hidden worlds that lurk just beneath the human ones, from what happens when we aren’t around to play with our toys (Toy Story) to the impact of human intervention on life beneath the sea (Finding Nemo). Cars removed humans from the story entirely, and by extension removed much of the connection we humans have with any of the characters during its bloated running time. The suspension of disbelief required to buy into a world run by cars (they don’t have thumbs, people!) is easy enough for a child, who will undoubtedly remain the core audience for animated films, but Pixar has always been good at finding the right balance between kiddie-oriented and adult fare, ensure that everybody in the audience goes home with a smile on their face. Yet the intention with Cars 2 seems to be nothing more than a giant, and often mean-spirited, advertisement for the toys that are on screen in glorious 3D.
If ever there was a franchise in need of direction, it’s Cars. Shifting gears from the Pixar Buddy Comedy™ to the boys-own-adventure of the spy genre is an attempt at appealing to a wide audience. Cars 2 misses the mark widely, and makes its first error in putting Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater as the lead, ensuring that the humour levels never get beyond the base. There is a certain amount of fun to be had in travelling the world of Cars, and the sometimes amusing takes on ‘Cars-ified’ versions of London (complete with Big Bentley) and in particular the very kawaii Tokyo, the depictions of those countries seem to be stuck in the past. Really, Pixar: jokes about electronic Japanese toilets? Were it not for the often stunning animation, with every chassis gleaming and water and light bouncing ultra-realistically off the hubcaps of the cast, audiences would be forgiven for thinking this was made two decades ago. More than this, Cars 2 is often quite violent for younger audiences, with guns blazing in the opening sequence, and the phrase “kill him” seeming a little bit too much for the kids. While the globe-trotting approach certainly overcomes the sheer boredom of watching cars talk to each other in backwater America, Cars 2 misses the heart of other Pixar films and feels hollow as a result.
Cars 2 is released in Australia on 23 June 2011 from Walt Disney Studios Australia and New Zealand.