Superstar race car Lightning McQueen (Wilson) is cajoled by his tow truck buddy Mater (The Cable Guy) to compete in the World Grand Prix, a tripartite tournament across Japan, Italy and Blighty. Yet Mater is mistaken by British spies Finn McMissile (Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Mortimer) as an American agent and gets embroiled in a hunt for a camera with hidden powers.
As Pixar tradition dictates, Cars 2 stars with a short. Hawaiian Vacation revisits the Toy Story gang who, after Ken and Barbie are left behind from Bonnie’s summer holiday, recreate a perfect tropical idyll for the Mattel lovebirds to share their first kiss. It is pitch-perfect Pixar: a strong set-up delivered with jokes, filmmaking flair, perfect character moments — Mr. Pricklepants’ alien audition is genius — smarts and sentiment, all topped off with a post-credits payoff that works a treat.
This reminder of Pixar’s high benchmark doesn’t make life any easier for Cars 2. Coming off the back of the studio’s least favourably reviewed film — it currently sits at 74 per cent at Rotten Tomatoes — and one of its lower-grossing flicks (it made $462 million worldwide so it’s all relative), the movie has built itself up into a franchise through a series of shorts and spin-off merchandise. A kind of Doc Hollywood with a NASCAR replacing Michael J. Fox, the original was that rare children’s film that suggested you ease up a bit, live life in the slow lane. This time round, things have been amped up considerably, transplanting hot rod Lightning McQueen and thicko tow truck Mater not only into a globe-trotting Grand Prix, but also into a slick espionage flick circa 1966. The two strands never really cohere, but deliver enough spy-cool, visual fizz and comedic touches to entertain.
From the retro fittings of The Incredibles to WALL•E’s adoration of Hello Dolly, Pixar has always been enamoured with ’60s pop culture, and Cars 2 positively thrums with it. From Michael Giacchino’s stupidly catchy Finn McMissile guitar riffs, to a delight in gizmos and gadgetry, to impenetrable coded secret-agent greetings, this is a love letter not only to 007, but also to American counterparts like The Man From U. N. C. L. E. and Get Smart. A terrific opening set-piece sees Michael Caine’s Finn McMissile, an Aston Martin overflowing with Q Department firepower, infiltrate the baddies’ oil rig and the subsequent escape is a potent reminder that Pixar can hold its own against anybody in the action stakes. Be it a nighttime Tokyo race or a high-speed runway rumpus courtesy of Jason Isaacs’ spy plane, Cars 2 is at its best when it is on the move.
It is in the bits between the action, the Pixar specialities of plot points and character beats, that the movie does less well. The narrative is admirably complicated — everyone is chasing a camera which can generate an electro-magnetic pulse that can destroy the cars mid race — but offers little in the way of surprises. There are tons of new characters but, save the Brit spy duo of McMissile and Emily Mortimer’s Holley Shiftwell and John Turturro’s Formula 1 demon Francesco Bernoulli, few register.
It is also hard to remember a more talk-driven Pixar movie, but little of the dialogue crackles or pops. There are first-base jokes about cultural difference, wasabi mistaken for ice cream hijinks, over-emotional Italians and wrong-side-of-the-road gags. The relationship dynamics between McQueen and Mater are too simply drawn, the moralising, as McQueen asks his gauche friend to change to fit into the wider world, too on the nose. It’ll play perfectly for the young but, for once with Pixar, that’s all it does.
As ever, there are stunning little grace notes (watch the mud speckle the camera as the race cars speed by), lovingly realised street scenes and the frame is filled with inspired visual puns. But the film never truly finds its mojo, its heartbeat. If you want a barometer of the difference between top-drawer Pixar and Cars 2, you could do worse than listen to the songs. Randy Newman’s songs for the Toy Story series are smart, charming and heartfelt. Country star Brad Paisley’s tunes are pleasant but forgettable. The former will last for the ages. The latter works well enough for now.
Its not vintage Pixar, but Cars 2 is still streets ahead of most of the animated pack. For all its energy and Bondian panache, perhaps its problems are insurmountable: Pixars cars and their universe dont resonate and endear as much as its toys, mon