Sometimes the world of film criticism should stand back and look at itself: when Cars 2 was released to cinemas it was met with a tidal wave of derision, as critics queued up to put the boot in on what was seen from the outset as a project unworthy of the animation studio’s efforts.
But that line of thinking fundamentally misses the point of Cars and its sequel: in contrast to the majority of Pixar’s other titles, which appeal to broad audiences across age divisions with their adult themes and issues, Cars is arguably the only property that is intended only as a children’s film. One need only examine the sales figures relating to Cars merchandise sales, and the profile of those buying to realise that it remains a compelling enough property among the youngest audience band.
So who are we to criticique Cars in the same manner as the other Pixar titles? It remains a wholly different concern, with different objectives and a different meter of success. And what matters most for Cars 2 is that it has enough charm and enough spirit to keep its obviously targeted audience happy, which it undoubtedly does. Curiously one of the recurring adult criticisms of the Cars world is that the characters are too difficult to care about – after all, who cares about the adventures that cars have? Well, for starters, the millions of children who have at some point played with nothing more complex than a couple of match-box cars. Intricate worlds, with weaving narratives are created every day on road mats across the globe, so the very suggestion that no-one cares is a phallacy well-worthy of a sneer or two.
My own relative reservations about the Cars world centred initially on the fact that the first film was the first and only time I had seen Pixar choose a story that I had seen elsewhere before. I had seen the big city/small town culture clash film before, but even more specifically, Cars seemed to be retelling the Doc Hollywood story very closely (with some pretty obvious fundamental differences of course). And I was and remain a big fan of what is one of Michael J Fox’s finest career moments.
In contrast to The Incredibles, where the studio was playing with far cleverer, and more subtle observations about the neo-futuristic sci-fi of the 50s and 60s told even more cleverly through a populist filter – of the superhero film – which redefined the way we viewed those conventions Pixar chose to focus on, Cars was too explicitly close to the genre it sought to explore through a new filter. But in Cars 2 it seems John Lasseter at least realised that initial miscalculation: it’s just that sequels aren’t the best place to try and overhaul a franchise (that’s what reboots are for), and we end up struggling to reconciling the world made in Cars with the completely alien world presented in Cars 2.
Looking at the only other Pixar sequels – the Toy Story trilogy – the studio chose to develop the same theme throughout the three films – of abandonment ostensibly – but in Cars 2, the spirit of the original is cast aside somewhat, so instead of it really feeling like a sequel, in which we could have had the opportunity to grow to love the characters a bit more, we get something that feels instead like a spin-off. So we lose the opportunity to see more of how Lightning McQueen integrated into his new home before a new threat came along to destabilise things (admittedly a safe approach but one that fit the Toy Story model), and instead get a “…Go On Holiday” sequel that doesn’t follow on satisfactorily. Cars wasn’t an action film at all (despite the Days of Thunder riffs), but the big joke of Cars 2 seems to be based entirely on what it would be like to see Mater as an action hero. And it’s just not all that funny (he was always my least favourite character of the first film).
Having said that, the 60s-swathed spy element in Cars 2 is very well observed, taking in the major works from both sides of the Atlantic, including explicit Bond references and the presence of the coolest 60s spy of the lot Michael Caine. The conceit of the plot allows for some high-octane set-pieces and they are entertaining to watch: it’s just a shame, in some ways that they had to centre on Lightning McQueen and Mater. A simple spy car film about Finn McMissile would have been a far superior product.
Instead we get a film which abandons Radiator Springs and the majority of the first film’s characters, to transport Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) across the globe on a World Grand Prix sponsored by a new bio-fuel creator (played by Eddie Izzard). Trouble is, there’s a villainous presence intent on discrediting the new biofuel in favour of good old fashioned oil (Thomas Kretschmann) who is torn right out of the 60s, but he comes with his own enemies, in the shape of British spy duo Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) who team up with what they think is an American spy (Mater, of course) to confound the evil professor and save the day. A reasonable sounding premise on paper, but it’s just too flat to really sparkle, and the quality of the nostalgic observations (which are almost as good as those of The Incredibles) are never matched by the quality of the writing.
There are too many new characters introduced who fade away into insignificance as the film hurtles through scenes, and the pacing is all wrong, which too much focus given to overly-talky scenes and terrible Mater-inspired jokes. The voice-work particularly from the new additions is very good (especially from John Tuturro) though, and the background cinematic mechanics are largely very well executed.
The film’s visuals are typically impressive – this is still Pixar remember – with some wonderfully drawn environments and complex compositional shots. But the character designs are once more limited by the fact that they must look like cars, and it remains difficult to really give a car a personality (which I realise is a huge contradiction in terms of what I said before, BUT those car adventures in childhood playtime never came with an insistent pre-packaged personality, so it was easier in many ways to love them). Still, it is a luxuriously aesthetic film, and the looks can somewhat atone for the fact that there is definitely lacking in the spirit of the film. Dialogue seems oddly uninspiring for a Pixar film, and there is a lot more of it than usual (even in comparison to the first film), and the story just isn’t as simply compelling as you’d take for granted from the studio.
But then these are all relative failures, and with Cars 2 it seems Pixar may have fallen slightly on the sword of success they themselves made. It says something about how affectionately a studio is considered when a slight perceived drop in form results in bilious criticism: even on adult audience terms, Cars 2 is no more than middling – it is neither terribly good nor terrible, but it is a plain fact that it still out-performs the majority of rival animation studios’ output.
Even if the content of the film is only a 3 to 3.5 star film, the presentation is definitely a 5 star affair. The transfer is yet another animation of such high quality that it could be an advert for the medium – not only high definition but also 3D: the environments built within the film are stunningly layered and textured with light and colour, and there is a definite sense of how to produce depth (which was immediately obvious way back when Up unveiled Pixar’s 3D skills) without relying solely on eye-popping gimmicks. Unlike a lot of post-production and less cleverly built 3D films, here the technology feels completely immersive, and as a result is entirely convincing – when things come out of the screen, it feels like part of the story, rather than a showy, obligatory add-on. I can genuinely say here that the 3D element adds to the film, because of the way shots have been composed (especially the impressive race shots) to fit the medium and because crucially, that medium doesn’t detract from the other objectives of the film.
As a conventional high-definition experience, Cars 2 is also astonishingly well accomplished: colours are vibrant and bright (the neon Japan scenes are wonderful), and detail and textures are as close to perfect as one might expect from a studio that is usually so attentive to the most minute of details. It helps that the entire universe here has been built, so we aren’t invited to judge anything against a realistic reference point, but for I suspect even that would see the HD transfer shine. It is the same story for the audio transfer, which is incredibly bombastic (this is where it becomes plainly obvious that Lasseter loves the throng of an engine) and pitch-perfect, seguing from heavy, broadly active action scenes with gunfire and car sound effects to more tentative talky scenes without an issue. The music also sounds great, and though the soundtrack isn’t up to a comparison to the finer soundtracks of Wall-E and Toy Story it is still perfectly presented.
A lot of 3D package exclusives, including four easter eggs (find them yourselves!) and a raft of behind the scenes and promotional material is to be found on the second disc’s Interactive Globe, which splits features into their geographical positions from the film’s locations. It’s a nice idea, but it makes navigating a bit of a nightmare, especially if you’re looking for something specific. The actual content is good though, featuring extensive behind the scenes information, multiple trailers and lots of bonus and deleted scenes, and the manner in which it is set-up will add a little more enjoyment for younger fans.
Elsewhere we have two animated shorts – the first being the excellent Toy Story: Hawaiian Vacation and the second another of Mater’s Tall Tales – called Air Mater. They’re both good, but the Toy Story addition outstrips just about everything else on the disc, and actually stands as an unfortunate comparison for what Pixar are really capable of. There’s also an audio commentary from the directing team, which John Lasseter rescues when Brad Lewis seems to lose interest every now and then. All-in-all its a very respectably executed package.
- Audio Commentary with Directors John Lasseter and Brad Lewis
- Hawaiian Vacation (HD, 6 mins)
- Air Mater (HD, 6 mins)
- Radiator Springs (HD, 10 mins)
- The Pacific (HD, 10 mins)
- London (HD, 15 mins)
- Paris (HD, 12 mins)
- Munich (HD, 9 mins)
- Prague (HD, 3 mins)
- Porta Costa (HD, 14 mins)
- Tokyo (HD, 23 mins)
- Emeryville (HD, 20 mins)
- Sneak Peek: The Nuts & Bolts of Cars Land (HD, 7 mins)
- Sneak Peeks (HD, 10 mins): Pixar’s Brave, Cars spinoff Planes, The Muppets, Lady and the Tramp, Cars 2: The Videogame, Naughty vs. Nice and Secret of the Wings.
Cars 2 is available to buy now on 3D Blu-ray Super Play pack, Blu-ray and DVD.