Pixar's 12th feature film begins as a James Bond spoof in a night-time raid at sea. Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine) is a sleek English Austin with a line on the grille suggesting a David Niven-like mustache. He's trying to photograph a top-secret camera on board a ship carrying the monocle-wearing German scientist Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann).
As semi-amusing as the idea of anthropomorphized cars acting out a 007 scenario is, the opening teaser sets up a shadow of doubt that the otherwise bright, fast and shiny Cars 2 never quite escapes. David Niven? Spy thrillers? Germans in monocles? Just who is Pixar aiming this movie at? Contemporary children or their great-grandparents?
Over the past 16 years, Pixar has enjoyed one of the great runs of movies in Hollywood history ( Toy Story, The Incredibles, Up and Wall-E), but they haven't all been aces. Cars 2 is the sequel to what is perhaps the weakest film in the Pixar chain, 2006's Cars. The new movie is more ambitious, but in noise and visual dazzle rather than storytelling chops.
The idea here seems to be that, if you're making a movie about cars, you should appeal to car fans. That means a fast-moving action thriller that hops around the world, to Tokyo, London, Paris and the Italian Riviera and features plenty of chases, explosions and gadgets. For the auto-buff dads, there are animated Fiats, Mini Coopers and Rolls-Royces (as well as some evil AMC Gremlins and Pacers).
Apparently fuelled more by prospective toy sales than any intrinsic narrative purpose, Cars 2 varooms right under Pixar's usually high bar. Unlike most Pixar fare, this isn't a movie you can imagine many adults wanting to see without their children in tow.
Shortly after the opening, Cars 2 makes a pit stop in the familiar ground of the more homespun first instalment, in the small desert town of Radiator Springs, where race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is enjoying some between-race downtime with friends Sally (Bonnie Hunt), Ramone (Cheech Marin), and Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), the motor-mouthed, buck-toothed-hick tow truck.
Mater, in response to a radio call-in show, gets Lightning signed up for the new World Wide Grand Prix, created by British tycoon Miles Axlerod (based on Virgin's Richard Branson, voiced by Eddie Izzard). Axlerod wants to promote his new renewable, non-fossil fuel Allinol.
Lightning's main rival is the preening Italian Formula One champion Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro, hamming it up on all cylinders).
On the advice of Sally, Lightning decides to bring Mater along, a decision he soon regrets when Mater's hick ways prove a social embarrassment. In Tokyo (with a beautifully rendered skyline), Mater mistakes wasabi for pistachio ice-cream and leaks oil in public. He is mistaken for an American spy by Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), a Miata-like agent who works with Finn McMissile. They're trying to thwart a dastardly plan to sabotage the race by someone working for Big Oil.
As for the relationship stuff that usually forms the heart of Pixar's films, it feels almost extraneous here. Lightning disowns his rough-mannered friend, who becomes the film's protagonist and fires off a constant stream of auto-related puns and malapropisms. His blue-collar shtick grows increasingly tiresome as the pace accelerates.
By the time the movie screeches across the finish line, there's just time for the standard Pixar message about the importance of sticking by your friends – no matter how exhausting, or full of exhaust, they are.
- Directed by John Lasseter and Brad Lewis
- Written by Ben Queen
- Featuring the voices of Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy and Michael Caine
- Classification: G