Saturday, 9 June 2012

Film Review | Cars 2 (2011)

When praising Pixar, you're spoilt for choice as to where to start. For me, one of the key things Pixar get right time after time is their ability to create characters of depth and humanity, whether those characters are people, animals, toys, monsters, or even robots. Hand in hand with this go the worlds these characters inhabit. They feel real - the characters believe in them unreservedly, and therefore so do we - and they are always pleasurable destinations to which the audience can escape. The one exception to these truths is Cars, Pixar's 2006 effort depicting a world populated by anthropomorphic automobiles. The universe presented in Cars never quite rang true or appealed in the same way as, for example, Andy's toys or the employees of Monsters Incorporated. For Cars to become only the second film in Pixar's canon to spawn a sequel in some ways therefore seems an unlikely choice; by the same token, it could allow Pixar the opportunity to flesh out the characters and ideas introduced in the first film, bringing them closer in quality to what audiences have come to expect from the studio.

Cars 2 continues the story of racing car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) who now lives in Radiator Springs with best friend Mater (Larry The Cable Guy), girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt) and the other friends he made during the first film. After some goading from Formula 1 racing car Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), McQueen enters the World Grand Prix, a series of three races taking place in Japan, Italy and England. Meanwhile, secret agent Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) is working to foil a secret plot involving a new type of biofuel, in which Mater soon finds himself accidentally tangled up.

Reviewing any Pixar film is always what I classify as a "Godfather Part III" review. In the same way that the third part of Coppola's trilogy may pale in comparison to the first two but is actually pretty good in its own right, Cars 2 must be judged against both the studio's previous output as well as the wider spectrum of other films in its genre.

Taking the former point of view, Cars 2 falls very short of the benchmark Pixar have set themselves. Compare this to their most recent output and it simply doesn't stand up in any way. The script is uninspired and heavy-handed in delivering its moral messages. There are almost no traces of Pixar's trademark subtle humour that appeals to both adults and children, and the cultural references just feel tired - be prepared to see wacky Japanese advertising and Mater driving on the wrong side of the road in England. Yawn.

Any opportunity to develop the characters from the less-than-stellar first outing is squandered. Most of the returning cast are reduced to one-dimensional cameos, and big name new additions such as Caine and Eddie Izzard fail to inject any real energy into proceedings. The animation is fine, but often feels no more than functional. The CGI is at its best during the espionage-based set pieces, but things are woefully lacking elsewhere during the race sequences which feel pedestrian and really quite flat.

That said, Pixar at their worst is still quite good in comparison to a lot of the dross currently filling the children and family market. The animation may not be Pixar's best, but it's still relatively vibrant and detailed, in particular the panoramic shots of London and Italy. The story is simplistic, and the grand prix and spy mission strands never quite mesh comfortably, but the film remains fun and keeps the pace up. It's also clear that director John Lasseter is a fan of classic spy flicks, with many pleasing nods to everything from the Bond Films to Austin Powers.

But there are still one or two slip ups that can't be forgiven. Turturro's turn as the antagonistic F1 racer Bernoulli is potentially the film's most solid and entertaining performance. But, having been set up during the first two acts of the film as a credible rival to McQueen, the character is forgotten entirely during the climax; a half-hearted return during the closing scenes feels suspiciously as if Lasseter suddenly realised he'd left one of the film's key characters hanging in mid air.

Cars 2 therefore ends up as by far Pixar's weakest production to date, but still a couple of notches above the average contemporary family fare. All things considered, it's fun and will undoubtedly succeed in entertaining the younger members of the audience. Anyone looking for the humour, heart, charm, expert storytelling or breathtaking visuals of Wall-E, Up or Toy Story 3 will be sorely disappointed. It's hard to recommend Cars 2 when there are numerous five star classics in Pixar's back catalogue, as well as offerings from several other animation studios that are also superior to it. Cars 2 is by no means awful, just seriously disappointing.


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