Of all the studio’s output Cars is probably Pixar’s least well thought of film among critics. The concept of sentient vehicles living in a world devoid of humans has always been one of their toughest sells, it’s a gimmick that raises a lot of questions about how such a world could work. How are new cars born? How are the buildings constructed? If there are no humans to drive the cars why do they have things like doors and mirrors? Such observations are a little pedantic after all I’m fairly sure there were some Tex Avery cartoons that presented similar ideas and no-one ever complained about them, after all this is animation and it’s intended for kids. Perhaps Pixar are just victims of their own success. The authenticity of films like Toy Story has led us all to expect a higher level of thought in their films but for once we were being asked to just go along with what we were seeing without thinking too much about it.
The other chief criticism of the film, one I’m more inclined to agree with, is that it doesn’t really do much with its conceit. The NASCAR background makes perfect sense but setting most of the film in a sleepy Route 66 town where the hot-headed race car Lightning McQueen learns some life lessons from a cast of colourful characters. Sure the film is bookended by a pair of thrilling race sequences but it still felt like a wasted opportunity.
In spite of the film’s faults, its moderate reception and relatively disappointing box office takings I have a soft spot for Cars and welcome this sequel which comes as no surprise considering the huge popularity with youngsters the first film and its endless merchandise has found. Best of all the sequel represents a chance for Pixar to get it right at the second attempt.
Cars 2 is a very different film from its predecessor. While the first film was a relatively easy-going story of an overconfident young athlete learning some humility the sequel is a fast paced, action packed and surprisingly complex riff on the James Bond tradition of globetrotting espionage and conspiracy. It’s all about Allinol, a clean, renewable fuel for electric cars that is designed to allow maximum performance for racers. The fuel’s creator, voiced by Eddie Izzard, proposes a Grand Prix series for the world’s greatest race cars using Allinol. Lightning McQueen, by now the proud owner of four Piston Cups, decides to participate in the event after being insulted by an obnoxious Italian Formula 1 car and flies to Tokyo with sidekick tow track Mater and his pit team for the first race. At the same time British spy car Finn McMissile (a gadget packed Aston Martin played by Michael Caine) is on the trail of a shady organisation of old bangers with a vested interest in seeing Allinol fail.
There’s no denying that Cars 2 makes a lot more of its concept than the first film with more races and high octane action all the way through with a constant stream of gags to boot. But it comes with a number of slightly strange decisions. McQueen takes a backseat to Mater this time as the tow truck is mistakenly drawn into Finn and resourceful Bond girl style sports car Holly Shiftwell’s investigations having been reprimanded by the Owen Wilson voiced McQueen for his hillbilly behaviour. The race sequences likewise become less important as they are cut into with action segments involving the three spies as they work against the efforts of the criminal conspirators to sabotage proceedings. It’s quite a full on approach to the set pieces but it feels like we’re being cheated of some exciting racing at times.
Of course the way the movie is organised means you will have to like Mater to get on with it. His screen time is considerable compared to McQueen’s and although I’m generally very patient with characters like Mater I found him starting to grate by the end. The fact is he was originally designed as a comedy sidekick and bringing him to the fore doesn’t work very well. Fortunately there’s enough of the much more entertaining Finn to balance him. On the other side of things McQueen’s rivalry with Francesco the F1 Italian stallion provides consistent entertainment.
As you can expect from Pixar the visuals are superb. An opening sequence with Finn infiltrating an oil rig features some astounding water effects and some of the vistas on show are absolutely gorgeous especially the Italian racecourse. There’s also a catchy little theme tune that strikes up whenever Fin starts getting his Bond on. The script is littered with puns and gags, many of which are a little obvious and the best friends falling out story feels rather tired for family storytelling but other more original aspects of the eventful plot make up for this.
Cars 2 fixes a lot of what was wrong with the first film but can’t avoid raising new ones in the process. The James Bond concept is fun throughout but it creates a slightly jarring departure from the first and the level of action and quick pace does rather invalidate the first film’s message that sometimes it’s best to live life in the slow lane. I realise I’m contradicting myself somewhat to the point at which Cars 2 is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t but I greatly appreciate the risks that were taken and the spirit of escapism John Lasseter and his team have tapped into here. Like the first film I enjoyed the film immensely in spite of its glaring flaws but like The Tree if Life I sense the film will be divisive. My housemates both hated it as a hackneyed mess that puts its most annoying character centre-stage, a view I completely understand but while those of us more in awe of the brilliance of Wall-E, Up and the Toy Story trilogy will have a problem with these flaws, kids, the film’s primary audience will lap it up and you can’t ask fairer than that.
A flawed but fun action comedy that fondly sends up the James Bond genre in unique style. The complexity might be lost on some sprogs but the other ingredients mix together for a breathless and perfectly paced giggle.