Cast (Voices): Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Thomas Kretschmann ~ Writer: Ben Queen ~ Director: John Lasseter
Reviewer: Jehan Ranasinghe (aka @Maustallica)
The Low-Down: Pixar’s sequel to its 2006 animated comedy turns out to be the acclaimed studio’s least successful venture to date: a lacklustre and misguided action comedy that struggles to justify its existence on anything beyond a commercial level.
What’s it About?: Champion race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has settled into a comfortable life in idyllic Radiator Springs, enjoying time with his best friend Mater the tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy), when he accepts a challenge to compete in the World Grand Prix. Soon, McQueen and pals are embarking on a globetrotting series of race events; however, suspicious circumstances surrounding the races draw the attention of British secret agent Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), setting in motion events that will draw Mater into the dangerous world of international espionage…
The Story: All good things must come to an end. It’s an old saying that often proves true, but I think all of us were hoping that somehow Pixar, with their unparalleled track record of critical and commercial smash hits, could be the ones to buck the trend. After all, as of 2010, the Emeryville-based studio had presided over a run of 11 consecutive all-ages classics, redefining feature animation as a medium in the process and inspiring every other major Western animation house to raise their game in order to keep up. So much has been (deservedly) said and written about the studio’s unflinching commitment to quality, creativity and storytelling that it was becoming blissfully easy to believe in a fairytale vision of them as artistically infallible.
That’s why it’s saddening to report that Cars 2 represents the first significant crack in that pristine facade, a technically accomplished but underwhelming film that’s disappointing not only because it’s a failure, but because of the type of failure it is. It would have been almost admirable for Pixar’s golden run to come to an end with an ambitious, overreaching idea that didn’t quite come off, a fate many industry pundits had predicted for conceptually risky projects such as Up, WALL-E and Ratatouille. But it’s hard to make any such argument in defence of Cars 2, a shallow, undercooked movie that says almost nothing and spends an inordinate amount of time doing it.
That this project has resulted in this outcome sadly won’t come as a great surprise to many. The decision to create a sequel to Cars (commonly regarded as the weakest of Pixar’s previous films) was not welcomed with any great enthusiasm, but as a staunch supporter of the original, I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt – at least, up until the point that the concept was revealed. For all of Cars’ flaws – a slow, deliberate pace and predictable structure among them – it had a deeply personal, surprisingly autumnal message beneath its bright, juvenile exterior. A passion project for director, car enthusiast and Pixar head honcho John Lasseter, the 2006 film was a loving tribute to Route 66, the golden age of American motoring, the sad loss of small-town values and the virtues of slowing down to enjoy the little things in life. That the director chose to follow this with a bombastic spy movie parody – divorced almost entirely from the personality and themes of the original – is a baffling decision, particularly from a studio that so successfully extended and embellished the core emotional fabric of 1995’s Toy Story into a remarkably consistent trilogy.
The resulting film struggles to define any clear sense of identity or purpose for itself. Lasseter has stated at length that Pixar considers Cars 2 to be a bona fide 1960s-style spy film rather than a parody, but that’s blatantly disingenuous; even leaving aside the fact that the characters are talking vehicles, the slapstick humour and relentlessly flippant tone undermine any pretensions it might have had to being a true genre piece like The Incredibles was. This is as overtly and purely throwaway a comedy as Pixar’s ever produced, its tone defined by lowbrow culture-clash jokes, contrived misunderstandings and vehicular puns both verbal and visual, with Michael Giacchino’s often irritatingly lightweight pastiche score driving it along. If anything, what little effort there is to be genuinely respectful to espionage fiction serves only to undermine the film, as it prevents the script from employing any genuinely subversive material, as well as creating tonally awkward moments of straightfacedness that can’t work in a context that also includes farting tow trucks.
If one were being generous, you could partially excuse Cars 2’s weakness in this regard on the basis that Pixar has never tackled an outright parody before; however, nothing can mitigate or forgive the film’s lapses in terms of characterisation and emotional development, the qualities on which the studio’s glittering reputation is founded. Cars 2 reunites us with almost all of the first film’s major players, while introducing a host of new ones; none of this is to any great effect. As with all good stories, Pixar’s characters work best as conduits through which to explore a central theme; with the exception of a half-hearted and tacked-on moral about (yawn) the importance of friendship and being yourself, Cars 2 simply doesn’t have one, leaving its automotive protagonists to drift aimlessly.
Owen Wilson’s Lightning McQueen saw his character arc completed in the first Cars, and he develops no further here; key supporting players from the original, most notably love interest Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), are almost insultingly marginalised; meanwhile, new cast additions such as Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer struggle to bring any life to generic characters. However, the sloppiest handling is reserved for redneck truck Mater, unwisely elevated from a comic relief role to that of full-blown protagonist for this sequel. This would be a bad enough idea on its own, but it’s compounded by the fact that he doesn’t really have any particular arc or growth either, remaining a one-note stereotype throughout. US comedian Larry the Cable Guy isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but he does what he can with the role; ultimately, he’s let down by this material just as much as everyone else is.
That a film this problematic was personally directed by someone with as much ability as Lasseter is troubling. After all, this is the man whose unfailing eye for a good story has benefitted not only Pixar, but also played a key role in the recent creative revival of Disney, pulling faltering projects such as Bolt, Tangled and Tinker Bell back on track with a firm and often ruthless hand. It would appear that Lasseter has something of a blind spot as regards the Cars franchise, frequently displaying an enthusiasm for its world and characters that seem at odds with the rather lacklustre reception they receive from wider audiences.
Of course, there is another, more concerning theory: that Cars 2 is a purely commercially motivated cash-in, produced with quality as a secondary concern to the desire to capitalise on the multibillion-dollar merchandising opportunities that have developed around the property. It’s a pessimistic view, and Pixar have shown enough integrity over the years to earn the benefit of the doubt for now. However, with a Monsters Inc. prequel and a rumoured (and seemingly ill-advised) return to the Toy Story franchise among the studio’s forthcoming output, it’s an idea that will be expressed more and more vociferously should the problems of Cars 2 become the rule, rather than an exception.
For the time being, an exception is what Cars 2 is; an exception to 16 years of quality storytelling, multi-generational appeal, sparkling imagination and wit in feature animation. It would be harsh to diagnose terminal creative decline based on this sole failure; at the same time, it would be hypocritical to fail to hold the studio to the high standards it has spent so much time and effort establishing. The world finally knows what a bad Pixar film looks like. Let’s hope never to see another.
The Verdict: Pixar has always had a Midas touch, but on this occasion they simply can’t make gold from a confused, shallow concept that’s tonally at odds with itself, wastes its cast and characters, and ultimately fails to deliver the meaningful experience that the studio has trained us to expect from them.