Cars 2 (2011)
Directed by: John Lasseter & Brad Lewis
Starring: Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard
It’s no secret that ‘Cars 2’ is perceived as Pixar’s weakest film. Let’s take a look at some evidence of that. To date, it is the only Pixar feature with a rotten score on Rotten Tomatoes, the only Pixar feature with a Metacritic rating under 60, the only one with a CinemaScore grade below an A, and the only one with an IMDb score below 6.5. According to both critics and audiences, it’s Pixar’s dud film. After an almost unbroken streak of critically acclaimed features, ‘Cars 2’ brought Pixar to a screeching halt. Some claim that the film exists because Disney executives pushed Pixar producers for a sequel, due to the unprecedented merchandise success of its predecessor. Some believe that it was the first example of Pixar beginning to run out of ideas, kick-starting their slow descent into more uneven territory. Whatever the reason for Cars 2’s existence, it’s pretty clear that most people dump it at the bottom of their rankings; but is this film really as terrible as people make out? I don’t believe so. This is far from Pixar’s greatest accomplishment, obviously, but if you remove the prejudice and ignore the kind of sublime quality we can usually expect from Pixar, ‘Cars 2’ remains a wacky and enjoyable adventure that delivers on at least one of Pixar’s key traits: originality.
The easiest criticism to throw at any sequel is that it is too similar to the original. ‘Cars 2’ takes that criticism, chucks it out of the window and shoots it dead. The original ‘Cars’ (what I believe to be Pixar’s weakest film) tells the story of a racing car who forms an unlikely connection with the kind of cars he would never even think of talking to, and shows how these unusual bonds push him into greatness alongside them. ‘Cars 2’, however, focuses on its predecessor’s sidekick, and throws him into an action-packed espionage story that essentially boils down to the class divide. What ‘Cars 2’ really has in abundance though, what really pushes it past its predecessor, is its irresistible sense of fun. Director John Lasseter (who also helmed the original) has packed this film with clever wordplay, visual inventiveness, dazzling animation and pure genre thrills, but he keeps the story light and fun and the character beats simple. The result is something that never really thrives for greatness, but is perfectly happy to just keep you entertained for 90 minutes. Why should we criticise that?
‘Cars 2’ isn’t perfect. First off, the story takes far too long to get going. Despite opening with a spy-focused sequence, the film then almost completely drops this side of the story until McQueen and Mater run into them, forcing the first act to really struggle in kicking things off efficiently. The script also isn’t as funny as it perhaps should be. Whilst there is a handful of clever wordplay floating about – Mater unintentionally telling his computer system to shoot or deploy a chute when he really just means “oh shoot” is inspired, in that it’s something he is known for saying in the first film – the comedy just never really settles into a groove like it should do. There are a couple of solid chuckles (the Popemobile is funny, and Mater’s confusion between “the field” and an actual field draws a decent laugh) but it’s never as consistent as it needs to be. There’s also no denying that Mater as a character bordered on annoying in ‘Cars’, and so the focus on him here pushes that into even riskier territory. While it nicely creates a new perspective and tone for the sequel, his loud and irritable personality becomes grating by the film’s close.
But this is countered by something that is scarcely mentioned when people discuss ‘Cars 2’: almost all of the twists and turns in this story are deeply rooted in the film’s characters and their emotional traits. The film’s climax, in which the bad cars attempt to kill McQueen, only exists because McQueen feels bad about the way he has treated his friend and his refusal to do so again, something that draws a nice connection between both original and sequel. Mater’s overt personality is even addressed repeatedly, with other characters discussing how annoying and laughable he is, and it evokes a genuinely moving emotional response. Sure, it’s hardly toys-in-an-incinerator-accepting-their-death emotional or watch-an-entire-love-story-fall-apart-in-an-opening-montage devastating, but I challenge anyone not to relate with that awful moment when someone unintentionally upsets you and has no idea how hard it was for you to hear. ‘Cars 2’ strives for fun and energetic, but its emotional beats land too. While the finale sequence of Mater fleeing McQueen due to the bomb on his engine feels a little too overwritten, – “Stay away, I’m a bomb!” “That’s right, you are the BOMB!” – it still encapsulates a lot of what the film is targeting. It’s silly, but it’s effective.
That’s a pretty apt way of summarising ‘Cars 2’ in general, really. It is a deeply silly film in which cars shoot at each other and tie each other up inside Big Ben(tley), but it embraces its own wackiness and just gets on with it. ‘Cars’ largely failed because it couldn’t find a way to make its protagonists interesting and so the story fell flat by the final act, but ‘Cars 2’ avoids that mistake by putting its characters in a story so insane that it’s hard not to get swept along with it all. The film will always have its naysayers, and I understand that, but if you’re willing to look past Pixar’s other much higher achievers, there is still a lot to like here. ‘Cars 2’ is perfectly in touch with its childish sense of fun, and if you’re up for just having a good time with a touch of subtle emotion, it works. Plus, add to that some of the most dazzling animation Pixar have ever achieved and a handful of sequences so inventive with the spy genre that you can’t help but grin from ear to ear, and you’re left something much more than the sum of its parts. Shut out the world, cancel your expectations and just have fun. You’ll find something to like here.
To Summarise: While a slow start and scattershot humour prevent it from sitting among the Pixar greats, Cars 2 is the rare sequel that improves on its predecessor by targeting unique, all out, action packed fun – and nailing it with ease.
Rating: 7 out of 10