The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
Cars 2

Reviewed by Richard McCulloch.

Director John Lasseter, Brad Lewis
Length 106 mins
Certificate U / G
Rating *****-----
Filmmaking: 2  Personal enjoyment: 3

Photo from the article Trailer.

It is safe to say that the UK release of Cars 2 was probably not helped by its timing. Coming just one week after the eighth and final Harry Potter film, Pixar’s latest has been somewhat dwarfed, both in terms of media coverage and box office receipts. I can picture director John Lasseter sitting in his office, consoling himself by insisting that his film is simply the Ron Weasley of the summer blockbusters: considerably less famous, yes, but overshadowed rather than undeserving. It is true that any movie would surely struggle to make an impression under such circumstances, but to use scheduling as an excuse would be to ignore Cars 2’s many failings. In truth, the film is far from a Ron Weasley. It is not even a Colin Creevey. The Sorting Hat would have put it in Hufflepuff.

After a brief return to the town of Radiator Springs, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) depart for the World Grand Prix, a series of races organised by biofuel inventor Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard). A case of mistaken identity soon leads to Mater being unknowingly recruited by British intelligence agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), and from there the film becomes a spy adventure with an environmental slant. Along the way we are treated to races, fights, gadgets galore, and an assortment of national stereotypes of which Richard Curtis would be proud.

Visually, the film is undeniably stunning. Pixar have once again raised their own high technical standards to such an extent that the quality of the animation alone might all but justify the admission price. Individual set pieces also work well, and contribute to a maintaining a narrative momentum that was rarely present in the first Cars film. The movie’s significant problems, however, lie primarily in character and storytelling, both of which struggle for coherence at every juncture.

Arguably the biggest mistake is the decision to base the story around Mater, a character who in Cars was more of a comedy sidekick than a protagonist. While the film has a perfectly pleasant (if unremarkable) moral about personal authenticity, it is McQueen who is in fact the centre of its emotional journey. Since it is he who is initially flawed and in need of life lessons, the amount of time devoted to the slapstick foibles of a rusty tow truck makes it incredibly difficult to connect with either character. As a result, a story that on paper sounds almost like a light-hearted North by Northwest (1959) - or, as Lasseter sees things, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. or the Bourne trilogy) - actually ends up resembling an animated version of Johnny English (2003).

That I largely enjoyed Cars 2 in spite of these problems is largely a testament to its spectacular visuals, but there is also something about the film that probably appeals to my childish side. The character of Finn McMissile bears a striking resemblance to the gadget-laden James Bond cars I adored as a boy, and even the trailers before the film felt almost purposefully chosen in their similarly nostalgic appeal: Tintin and The Smurfs both made an appearance, as did Mr. Popper’s Penguins, which appears to be effectively a remake of Beethoven (1992) with CG penguins.

It is McMissile, however, to whom my thoughts constantly returned when it came to writing this review, since he seems to encapsulate the best and worst aspects of Cars 2. Often flashy, occasionally exciting, and particularly appealing for children, both character and film fall down because they have their priorities wrong. This car may be shinier than many around it, but there is nothing much going on under the bonnet.

Read our article about the film's reception here.

This review was published on August 12, 2011.

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