Rating: ★★½☆☆

“Out of gas”, “running on fumes” and “in need of an oil change” are just a few of the painfully unfunny puns that nevertheless serve as relevant judgements on Pixar’s latest film – and first real dud – Cars 2.

The original Cars, released in 2006, is the studio’s most underestimated concoction to date, yet during the interim, Pixar’s three most sophisticated pictures – Wall-E, Up and Toy Story 3 – have been released, causing this light, thoroughly mediocre sequel to feel utterly piecemeal by comparison. It unquestionably sparkles visually and the very youngest kids will still enjoy it, but between Cars 2 and particularly Pixar’s three previous features stands a wide chasm of quality.

On the face of things, Cars 2 is little different from its predecessor, aside from shifting the focus from hotshot race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) to his dappy tow truck friend Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). Though the film still features a few races – with McQueen being goaded into competing in the World Grand Prix – the meat of the meal this time however is a curious espionage plot intended as a wry spoof of the 007 series, with British spy cars Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) aiming to prevent a nefarious oil war which threatens to sabotage the Grand Prix.

While there’s little doubt that Pixar were motivated to revisit their least-acclaimed intellectual property to date for the simple fact that Cars has raked in over $5bn in merchandising revenue alone, there is still plenty exciting that could have been done with this project to make it thrilling, funny, and resonant, as most all of Pixar’s previous work has been. What we get here feels like a committee-scripted effort cobbled together by a studio trying to ape Pixar, and failing.

Not past some praise, though, Cars 2 is as visually elaborate an outing as the studio has ever made; the races, though regrettably rather stilted and infrequently-placed they are, are still also pure eye candy, and the 3D provides a pleasant sensory boost, a claim not even Pixar’s golden opus, Toy Story 3 – with its wholly unnecessary and rather uneven 3D – can hold claim to. Also retaining Pixar’s high standard for vocal talent, everyone plays their part with lively gusto – especially Caine in an extremely well-cast role – but it’s just a shame the script neglected to give them much of interest to do.

Relying too much on the goofiness of its admittedly rather likeable protagonist, Cars 2 suffers inexorably through its simplicity, such that Pixar risks alienating not only the adult audiences who have come to expect the two-tiered level of meaning applied to most of their films, but just about any kid over the age of about five. The jokes are the studio’s most elementary to date, utterly unfussy and interested mostly in physical gags and simple wordplay-based humour, rather than the sparkling wit and Chaplin-inspired body comedy of their recent work. Truly the first of the studio’s films to resolutely operate on just one level, this will be underwhelming to adults expecting a moderately stimulating day out with the kids, and any children reared on Pixar’s very best output are liable to feel restless.

Much of the film’s problem rests in its pacing; while the original film itself had plenty of downtime, the racing peppered between was frequent, frenetic and fun. Here, while still colourful and dazzling to a point, the action is truncated and brief, lacking the punchy thrills necessary and instead changing it up with a needlessly distended spy plot, which is too mired in witless dialogue. Moreover, the anthropomorphism, while enough of a tough sell in the original film, is rendered more awkward here, giving the cars simply too-human a methodology. In cutting actual human beings out of the picture entirely, much of the film’s sense of humanity quietly drains away with it.

Anyone reared on Pixar will kindly want to give Cars 2 a pass; it is totally watchable and ticks plenty of boxes in pure aesthetic terms. However, lacking catchy or engaging music, a heartfelt plot and funny gags does it no favours; with a heavy heart, this film breaks the studio’s unprecedented streak of winning pictures.

Cars 2 is released in the U.K. today!

 

Watch our exclusive interview with John Lasseter;

 

Actress Emily Mortimer;

 

Producer Dennis Ream;

 

First assistant editor Kevin Rose-Williams;

 

Character animator Jude Brownbill;

 

 

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This article was first posted on July 22, 2011