We've all been wondering about (and dreading) the moment for a while now: when is Pixar going to break their astounding 15-year golden run of back-to-back classics? (To recap: Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, Toy Story 3.) Well, the moment has sadly arrived with this underwhelming sequel to the dazzling 2006 tale of automobile Americana – and what's most disappointing about Cars 2 isn't that the studio has finally issued a minor film. It's that the precise element that has always been key to Pixar's magic is below par: the story.
The premise is strong enough: flashy racing car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) enters the World Grand Prix and takes his best friend, kind-hearted redneck tow truck Mater (Larry The Cable Guy), along for the ride, only to be mistaken by British intelligence for an American spy and be swept up into industrial espionage hi-jinks in a James Bond style. The exquisite, immaculate perfection of the studio's animation remains of very high calibre – and the admission price is worth it alone for the superbly rendered reinvented cities McQueen and Mater visit (Paris, Tokyo, London) and the tons of inspired sight gags crammed into each frame.
But the tone, rhythm and structure is disappointingly generic, and the original's heartfelt Americana stylings, its advice to slow down and enjoy the sights along the journey, is here replaced by a frenzied, busy tour-bus rhythm that is the exact opposite of everything the original Cars stood for and suggests Pixar head John Lasseter (for whom the first film was a labour of love), too distracted with his new role as president of animation for the entire Disney operation, may have left too much of the load up to untested co-director (and Dreamworks alum) Brad Lewis. The sidetracking of McQueen into supporting status to make way for Mater as an unlikely hero also brings out what's more grating and repetitive about Larry the Cable Guy's redneck shtick.
To put things into perspective, Cars 2 is hardly a bad film: there's enough inspired gags and dazzling animation (like a lovely Italian village intermezzo) to make it worthwhile, and the voice cast is as always spot on (big kudos to Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer as the British spies Finn McMissile and Holley Shiftwell). Either Dreamworks or Blue Sky would sell their souls for something this visually handcrafted – but storywise, this could well bear the seal of either of Pixar's top competitors. And that's not good enough after the studio's recent golden run.
With the voices of Owen Wilson, Larry The Cable Guy, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, John Turturro, Eddie Izzard.
Directed by John Lasseter; co-directed by Brad Lewis; produced by Denise Ream; screenplay by Ben Queen, based on a story by mr. Lasseter, mr. Lewis, Dan Fogelman; music by Michael Giacchino; directors of photography (colour, widescreen, 3D), Sharon Calahan (lighting), Jeremy Lasky (camera); production designer, Harley Jessup; film editor, Stephen Schaffer.
A Walt Disney Pictures presentation of a Pixar Animation Studios film. (US distributor and world sales, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.)
Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9 (Lisbon), June 30th 2011.