Saturday, 23 July 2011

Cars 2 [Review]

For many years now, Pixar has built itself modestly upon a throne of fervent praise; a throne most warranted by a library of films of the highest calibre. Not so much as a single negative comment can be said about the majority; though perhaps most of The Incredibles (2004), arguably the weakest of the bunch. To be celebrated of the studio indeed was its inherent originality; the Toy Story trilogy notwithstanding (though great as all three instalments were, it was certainly excusable), Cars 2 is the first of reportedly many sequels lined up over the next few years. And while not without its merits, if this is a sign of things to come, Pixar may well have had its day.

From the off, Cars 2 faced difficulties. Perhaps one of the least well-received of Pixar’s films, the original Cars (2006) was criticised for its predictable story and unsophisticated humour, and while in many ways Cars 2 works to right these wrongs, it still falls short in various areas. The first automobile outing was a small-town adventure; mostly enjoyable if slightly clichéd, but revolving around a few central characters. The sequel, however, goes global - in more ways than one. Much as the Star Wars prequels appeared to be created solely for the wallets of Lucasfilm’s glorious empire, so too does the cast of Cars 2, numerous beyond reason, exist apparently to sell toys. And that’s what this movie will inevitably do: sell merchandise. The first film was Pixar’s most successful in that respect, though what good it has done the franchise is debatable - indeed, many have criticised this sequel as no more than Disney milking another of its cash cows ‘till its udders run dry.

Regardless, Cars 2’s plot is undoubtedly - and perhaps inevitably - on a much grander scale than it’s predecessor’s. A World Grand Prix to celebrate the founding of a new renewable fuel source takes protagonist Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) to all corners of the Earth; from Japan to Italy and right back to good old Blighty. Well, actually, that’s the only three places it takes him, but at least it’s across different continents. Allow me to correct myself, however: when I refer to Lightning McQueen as the film’s protagonist, this is simply due to the manner of the first film of placing him on this pedestal. For the sequel, director John Lasseter and his crew decided instead to focus the spotlight on the token imbecilic comedy character of the original: Tow-Mater, voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, and all the stereotypical ugly-Americanisation that he puts into the happy-go-lucky truck. But this was a poor decision.

The main plot of the film circles around an MI5 style spy ring of vehicles (perhaps a more apt title for the film would have been Planes, Trains and Automobiles 2), led by one of the many, many new characters - Finn McMissile, in an instantly recognisable turn by Michael Caine. Mater is inevitably drawn into this in all his ineptness, and thus begins an escapade around the world to thwart an evil corporation of, uh, ‘lemons’ (a name attributed to cars with bad engines, and played upon brilliantly in one of the film’s more subtle jokes - look out for the table decoration during a meeting in Italy). But nevertheless, while Cars 2’s plot is ambitious, it doesn’t feel apt for this film. Granted, there’s a Grand Prix going on, but it’s all in the background. Secret agents and the like don’t seem like a natural choice for a film about talking cars. Combine this with the decision to support an entire film on a secondary character, and you’re setting yourself up for failure.

It’s lucky, then, that Pixar’s traditional scriptwriting runs much stronger here than the original. The humour is more subtle, or else more sophisticated - watch out for famous London vehicular landmarks such as Tyre Bridge or Big Bentley - while the dialogue is mostly tighter than before. Sadly, stereotypes still abound: the hippy one, the army one, the crazy one - they’re all still present from before, this time joined by a host of international typecasts. But aside from a loosely crammed in plot to give McQueen more screen time - a clichéd quarrel between Mater and the racecar over friendship that screams a carbon copy of the original - the script mostly improves on the first.

As always, Pixar’s animation quality excels, with dizzying visuals and a finely crafted London cityscape for the film’s finale. And sure it’s enjoyable, but while the plot is fairly more unpredictable in places - you won’t see the final twist coming - and the humour more up to Pixar’s usual standard, Cars 2 still doesn’t feel in the same vein as the studio’s usual brand of magic found in classics such as Toy Story (1995), or even the recent surprise emotional rollercoaster Up (2009). Moral stories lie under no subtext or pretence, and stereotypes display little imagination of character yet again. Even despite a slamming by critics, Cars 2 will no doubt become a commercial success, though whether it deserves it is another question entirely.


See also: Cars (2006), Johnny English Reborn (2011)

Dir: John Lasseter
Cast: Larry the Cable Guy, Owen Wilson, Michael Caine
Disney Pixar, 106 mins, 22/07/11

Synopsis: Racing champion Lightning McQueen and sidekick Tow Mater head overseas to compete in the World Grand Prix. But Mater soon becomes embroiled in the world of vehicle espionage... 


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