Revisiting what is easily the weakest link in their near-perfect chain, Pixar’s sequel to 2006’s Cars – the imaginatively titled Cars 2 (2011) – is a clear attempt to cash in on an original that made, and continues to make, a lot of money in merchandising sales alone.
Dreamt up whilst on the road promoting the first film, Cars 2 is once again brought to the screen by Pixar’s premiere director John Lasseter (with additional help from Brad Lewis), and the man has clearly taken on board the criticism lathered onto his original, which claimed its plot to be drowsy and derivative, something rarely found in the usually zestful and unconventional traits of the studio’s output. Assuring that this new venture cannot be assimilated with the fish out of water approach seen first time round, the sequel arrives souped up and boasting two entirely different, and rather unforeseen plot strands which gel in terms of narrative progression but ultimately fail at synthesising its overarching emotional, moralistic quota with some inventive and ornate action set pieces, something The Incredibles (2004) excelled at. These new directions land the film into pastiche-centered territories, most predominantly an exploration of the spy genre where more than a few nods to the 007 series are administered, feeling fresh and inventive but ultimately out of place and property to another film.
Whereas Lightning McQueen (voiced diffidently by Owen Wilson) was the protagonist, his role is switched with a previous supporting player; the dim-witted, comic relief-supplying annoyance Mater, played again by Larry the Cable Guy, a comedian/radio personality whose identity this side of the Atlantic is indistinguishable at best. One of the many mistakes Cars 2 has juddering under its bonnet, this central character reversal does nothing for the slow charm built up beforehand and is responsible for inspiring the filmmakers to shift gear and direct the plot into entirely new directions, pushing minor characters aside and introducing new faces that barely register.
Michael Caine just plays Michael Caine, bringing nothing out of the ordinary to his debonair British Intelligence agent Finn McMissile, and Emily Mortimer, though a competent actress in body, suffers from a doleful and plain approach to voice acting, seen before in the dubbed version of Studio Ghibli’s Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), where she failed to convince as the mousy character Young Sophie. Further, John Turturro’s Formula 1 brute Francesco Bernoulli is introduced in the same ruthless vein Michael Keaton revelled in last time, yet he is soon shrugged off as the forgotten antagonist to McQueen’s Grand Prix-shaped dreams of triumph.
McQueen’s desire to retain his position as king of the racetrack takes the film to dizzying new climates, including Tokyo, London and Paris, and it is perhaps here that the film only really comes alive, where xenophobic, culture clash jokes arrive thick and fast to counterbalance the abundance of slapstick pratfalls and mistaken identity dalliances. Such a change of setting allows the animators to really flex their muscles and deliver some typically sublime visuals (the Tokyo scenes are a particularly sumptuous highlight) but they serve only as mere backgrounds to a frankly overcomplicated narrative that will do nothing for the younger audience Lasseter is clearly aiming for, though the opaque Scooby Doo-esque resolution may strike a chord.