So here it is, Pixar’s first flop. It always seemed a very odd decision to make sequels to Cars, by far the least critically acclaimed of Pixar’s films. Toy Story’s sequels had a difficult production story, the second film originally intended as direct-to-video and later got expanded and completely rewritten, causing something of a rift between the studio and Disney bosses. The Incredibles is in consideration for a sequel, but what I think makes a crucial difference is that Cars is John Lasseter’s baby, perhaps even more so than Toy Story. Lasseter continues to be the most recognisable of Pixar’s directors, but has acted as an executive producer to most of their feature films since the last Cars film, and only now has he returned to the helm.
I thought it would be a bad idea when I saw the trailer. I had seen the Cars Toons shorts, and thought that would be enough – especially as some of the ideas (like the Japanese setting) looked like they would be rehashed. I didn’t think much of the secret agent angle and the slapstick jokes did not seem funny at all.
So I was surprised and pleased to find that Cars II was actually enjoyable – and certainly better than I had expected. And while the film lacks the nice, wistful tone and yearning for an old, semi-mythical America that made the first film more than it could have been, it also has fewer moments where the racial stereotypes really get too close to offensive, fewer moments that could be called predictably mawkish, and rather more visual spectacle.
In the first film, Lightning McQueen had discovered the good hearts and great expertise that can be hidden in small communities. Our story opens with him returning to Radiator Springs after a successful racing season. His best friend Mater, the halfwit tow truck, hears cars on television mocking McQueen for not entering a grand prix designed to promote a new biofuel and calls in to argue, with the result that McQueen himself intervenes and ends up entering himself. With his team of friends from the little town, he goes to Japan for the first race. After some of the usual culture-shock comedy, the race takes part – but Mater has managed to get himself mixed up in a conspiracy and has been mistaken for an American undercover operative by British secret agents, and confusion over his radio communication leads McQueen to lose the first race.
After the two argue, Mater means to return home, but ends up bound up with the intrigues between agents, who remain convinced his is a brilliant act so that nobody will suspect him. There are two more races – in Italy and in England, but cars are starting to blow up during the races. Can Mater and his new friends get to the bottom of it before McQueen is targeted?
If it sounds a long way from the usual small-scale Pixar set-ups with a lot of heart and nostalgia, it is. But the film is still centred on the friendship between two unlikely buddies, and how they should believe in one another. The sight gags are still clever and the visuals are still superb – the streets of London in particular look like they could be live action rather than CG. And because of the pacing, simplicity and the fact that actually, Mater isn’t that annoying and is actually quite likeable, it works.
It’s no Wall-E or Up. It’s definitely one of the weaker of Pixar’s films. But as bad as it looked, and as bad as so many reviews have made it out to be? Certainly not.