It was bound to happen sooner or later: Cars 2, a sequel to one of Pixar’s less memorable features, is the studio’s first outright dud. But it isn’t all bad, and indeed, the target demographic may take to this more action-oriented sequel. If the worst from Pixar is still on a par with, say, Madagascar or the last two Shrek films, you know they’ve set the bar pretty high.
The original Cars focused on overzealous race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), who learned a thing or two from old champion Doc (Paul Newman). Mater, a redneck tow truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, was the least interesting character, sez me, but others must have felt differently: he was given his own DVD spinoff in Mater’s Tall Tales, a collection of shorts.
In Cars 2, Mater has the full spotlight, with Lightning McQueen pushed to supporting status (Doc, who was the heart of the earlier film, is expectedly absent following Paul Newman’s passing in 2008). This, I feel, is the film’s greatest weakness; almost every Pixar feature, from the Toy Story films to (my favorites) Ratatouille and Wall-E, has a strong emotional undercurrent, which is all but absent here (there is a nice message about accepting your friends for who they are, but it never comes close to tugging on the heartstrings).
In its place is a lot of lowbrow Mater comedy (yeah, I chuckled at the oil leak). And lots (and lots) of action. While the first Cars was almost entirely set in the sleepy Midwestern town of Radiator Springs, this one is a globetrotting James Bond adventure that takes us from Tokyo to Paris to Porto Corsa, Italy to London and then back to the USA.
Bond here is the Aston Martin-inspired (of course) Finn McMissile, voiced by Michael Caine, who is assisted by Jaguar-like Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). In the midst of their international espionage, they mistake Mater as their American contact. You know the rest. Cue the bumbling Inspector Clouseau comedy.
There’s a lot to like here: Caine is a lot of fun as McMissile, there’s some observant cultural humor (love that Tokyo restroom), and the automotive gags – in this world where everything is a car or car-related – are still pretty clever. And it looks great: the 2006 film was Pixar’s most visually innovative up to that point, and this one takes it a step further: the globetrotting locations, which include a lot of familiar sites, are often beautifully rendered.
But Cars 2 doesn’t really cut it as a feature – the plot and tone of this film, so drastically different than the earlier feature, make it feel more like a direct-to-DVD spinoff. And compared to Pixar’s other work, it really doesn’t cut it – this is the only film they’ve produced that I cannot wholeheartedly recommend.
Also note: the James Bond theme, which includes a lot of explosions, gunfire, and even some torture scenes, which include what I presume to be the “deaths” of some characters, might be too intense for younger viewers.
After a banner year for mainstream animation in 2010 – How to Train Your Dragon, Despicable Me, Legend of the Guardians, Tangled, and Megamind were all solid successes, and Pixar hit it out of the park with Toy Story 3 – 2011 has failed to impress so far with its slate of sequels: Hoodwinked Too, Kung Fu Panda 2 (which was good), and now Cars 2 (and coming in November: Happy Feet 2). Also released (and unseen by me): Rio, Gnomeo and Juliet, Hop, Mars Needs Moms.
One bright exception: Rango, which was exceptional, though it skewed to an older demographic. Hopefully, Spielberg’s Tintin and Aardman’s Arthur Christmas pick up the slag later this year.