Let me begin this review by saying that I love Pixar. I LOVE them. Beginning with Toy Story in 1995 (and short films before that), they have managed to successfully create films for all ages under the guise of children's entertainment; a successful marriage of story, character, wit and heart with state of the art computer animation.
My favourite of Pixar's 13 features thus far is Finding Nemo (2003), for mine, a masterpiece. My least favourite? Cars (2006). Until now. For as much as I love Pixar's films I had not been anticipating the release of this sequel. The first Cars did absolutely nothing for me (it would have done nothing for the 8-year-old me), admittedly because of its central conceit: a world populated by cars.
I have no interest in cars - I can't even drive - but that bias aside, the first instalment, about an arrogant racing car named Lightning McQueen who discovers the simple things in life when accidentally waylaid in the off-highway town of Radiator Springs, didn't seem to warrant a sequel.
But here we are, five years and several billion dollars in Cars merchandise revenue (aha!) later, and the gang from Radiator Springs are back. Well, some of them, for this time round the action goes global - Japan and Europe - and not everycar can come along for the ride. Even Lightning McQueen (once again voiced by Owen Wilson; maybe another reason why I didn't like the original?) has been pushed to second on the grid, forced to play support to his best bud, Mater, who's somehow scored pole position.
Accompanying Lightning and some fellow 'Radiators' to Japan, on the first leg of an international three race series sponsored by an English billionaire (Eddie Izzard) who made his money in oil but has seen the light and converted to clean fuel, Mater is mistaken for an American secret agent by British intelligence officers, Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer).
Following a fallout between Lightning and Mater, the tow truck finds himself in Europe with the British agents though he hasn't cottoned on to their actual profession and his mistaken involvement in their mission: to prevent an anonymous villain from proving clean fuel* to be dangerous, killing innocent cars in the process.
Mater (voiced by Larry The Cable Guy!) is a hill billy tow truck with all the grace, charm and intellect which that description implies; he gets on your nerves faster than Francesco, the Italian sports car (John Turturro) and rival of Lightning McQueen, can complete a qualifying lap. Mater's elevation to lead vehicle in Cars 2 is akin to George Lucas making Jar Jar Binks the hero of the second Star Wars prequel (of course, Attack of the Clones sucked regardless).
Is it unfair to expect so much of Pixar, especially a film directed by founder and leader, John Lasseter? After all, it is he who is responsible for setting the bar so high. Is it curmudgeonly to begrudge a film made almost entirely to cater to its (predominantly) under-8 audience? While not wit-free or absent of creative Pixar flourishes - the pigeons of Paris rendered as miniature bi-planes is a wonderful touch - I think most adults, and more importantly, the ones without kids, will find Cars 2 more La Mans 24-hour endurance than a mere 70 lap Grand Prix.
And am I just being a dog with a bone for lamenting Pixar's use of 3D? Granted it's not the first time, following Up (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010), and nor does the film's colour palette suffer for it in the same way it does in Kung Fu Panda 2. But seriously, dudes, you don't need the extra $$ for the glasses; you really don't!
Cars 2 is not an awful film, it's not even a bad one. But as sequels go, it's unnecessary, and as films go, it's only mildly engaging and entertaining. It's the closest Pixar have come to producing a lemon (and my apologies to any vehicles reading this for my use of such offensive language).
*Side note: While I applaud Pixar's environmental message, isn't it illogical for cars to be concerned about the environment? In a world populated by automobiles (Where are the humans? And who built everything? Cars have no thumbs!) why would they care about clean air?