Tuesday, 19 July 2011
'Cars 2' review:
Pixar is a studio known for taking risks and taking audiences to places they don't expect to go - making movies about rats cooking food, retired old men in flying houses and silent robots with a passion for 'Hello, Dolly!'. So whilst the studio's new found love of sequels may seem disappointingly in-step with the competition, you'd have to concede that the decision to make a sequel to 2006 film 'Cars' is consistent with the Pixar tradition. After all, who honestly expected a sequel for the studio's least celebrated film? Certainly there is a sizable population of young kids (boys in particular) who have helped to make 'Cars' the most lucrative source of merchandising revenue for the studio, but there is a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm surrounding the release 'Cars 2' when compared to 'Up', 'Wall-E' or last year's 'Toy Story 3'.
The original film saw brash race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) stranded in the backwater town of Radiator Springs where he befriended a rusty, well-meaning tow-truck, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), and learned valuable lessons in humility, ultimately becoming a better racer and winning the coveted Piston Cup. It was a personal film for director John Lasseter, who was indulging his own sincere, lifelong love of motor racing as well as taking a good-natured and nostalgic look at a dying way of life out on Route 66. The sequel is, by contrast, a more sprawling, action-packed and seemingly less personal movie. A globe-trotting spy thriller in which Lightning McQueen is a supporting player. All of which sounds better in theory than it ends up being in practice.
'Cars 2' sees Mater accompany McQueen around the world (through Italy, France, Japan and England) whilst the flashy speedster participates in the "World Grand Prix". And it's the comedy best friend character who now takes centre stage after being mistaken for an undercover American spy by sleek British intelligence agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). Now equipped with gadgets and gizmos, he soon finds himself embroiled in a series of high-octane, life or death encounters, whilst his small town ignorance sees him clash with every culture he comes into contact with. What follows is a 60s spy film pastiche, full of races, chases and fish out of water comedy, set in a world solely comprised of cute motoring puns.
For a studio as famously disciplined in terms of storytelling as Pixar, the film feels quite loose and ramshackle - a series of hopefully exciting or funny moments rather than a compelling narrative. Some things work (John Turturro is fun as boastful Italian F1 car Francesco Bernoulli) but mostly it's the same earnest inter-car relationship drama as the first film (Mater and McQueen fall out, whilst it's the tow-truck's turn to find love) with a lot more broad, misfiring comedy - this time revolving around car-ified versions of national stereotypes. It's pretty tiresome (or should that be tyresome) stuff made depressing because of who is making it. 'Cars' was in fairness an OK film that suffered from the fact that it was below the exceptionally high standards set by Pixar. 'Cars 2' is genuinely just bad.
It begins promisingly enough, with some imaginative new character designs and innovative character animation (particularly of the boats and submarines). The new spy plot element creates an atmosphere of intrigue and excitement and the world of 'Cars' becomes fresh and more fun than it has previously been, especially as Finn McMissile fights off an army of villainous henchman during his escape from an exploding oil rig. Yet as soon as Mater becomes the focus of the story all the tension, excitement and humour evaporates. Finn McMissile is a funny character because he is played completely straight, whereas Mater is supposed to be funny but he's just obvious and annoying. The message of 'Cars 2' is that Mater should be allowed to "be himself", which I'm happy with so long as it does it somewhere else.
It struck me whilst watching 'Cars 2' that it's perhaps much more skewed towards young children than we're used to from the guys who broadened the appeal of the art form with 'Toy Story' all those years ago. This isn't a bad thing in of itself and it's possible that the spectacle of Mater wetting himself (leaking oil) might be as hilarious as intended if I was eight again. I'd most certainly have wanted to own every single toy, especially now that the cars have that other love of young boys - weapons. But as an adult it's got nothing to offer aside from the always-breathtaking animation of the artists at Pixar, who again do an amazing job: the film's reflections, lighting and character animation are impressive and the character designs are much more appealing than the actual characters.
It gives me no pleasure to write a review like this for a Pixar movie. It feels a lot like I'm punching a faithful friend in the face. A friend who, on every other occasion, has stood for not just the best of animated filmmaking but, in many ways, for the best of filmmaking period. Pixar puts in so much effort and invests so much loving care into every one of its creations, and the richly detailed, densely populated world of 'Cars 2' is far from being an exception. I saw a lot of amazing concept art for the film when visiting Pixar last month and it feels somehow churlish to run the movie down in the face of so much talent, especially as director John Lasseter has done more for animation than anyone else on the planet in the last twenty years (including spearheading excellent recent animated output at a resurgent Disney Animation Studios). But with all that said, 'Cars 2' is Pixar's first bad movie and I'd be lying to myself if I wrote otherwise.
'Cars 2' is released in the UK on Friday and has been rated 'U' by the BBFC.