I'm Stealing Your Thunder!
Pixar had always treaded carefully when it came to follow up films, with only Toy Story getting the honor given its established fan base, and soon, Monsters Inc getting a prequel as well. As to why Cars warranted a second film would be anyone's guess, but I suppose the story allowed some bandwidth to break out of the small town of Radiator Springs and into the big leagues of an international racing circuit to the tune of a lot more merchandise and toys to make money from, that it perhaps proved to be irresistible.
The idea is a no brainer, since there's F1, the World Rally Series and others to tap more ideas from, that the story by John Lasseter, Brad Lewis and Dan Fogelman could adapt from, featuring cars of all makes and series being put together and competing with one another around the world. Or at least that's what the initial premise was thought to be, until someone decided to include a major plot to centre this around a James Bondish espionage tale about oil versus bio fuels, sidelining what would be simple to follow for the kids, and making this one vehicle based spoof of Bond, complete with gadgets, planes, trains and more automobiles.
But that's not to say I didn't like the idea, since it had a very interesting motivation and adversary built between the elites - those branded, luxury models and the lemons, mass produced vehicles who don't have prestige nor prominence, but go about their daily chores if not for faulty and cheap parts to break them down at times. This was an aspect that was present, but could have played up a lot more, especially since we are dealing with fat egos in Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), and that of his rival in this installment, the Formula One Italian car Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro) with an even larger ego that came complete with ill wisecracks.
And who knew the main character of the film swung from Lightning McQueen to his small town buddy the tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), who enrolled his race car friend into a competition organized by Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard), a tycoon bent on proving bio fuels to be a safer alternative to oil. So a crew from McQueen's posse at Radiator Springs got put together, and off they go into three legs of a race around the world, in Japan, Italy and England. But it's spy versus spy stuff with Mater got tangled with British spies Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and his assistant Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) as they go about trying to uncover who the mastermind is behind the sabotage of the race, and perhaps these episodes were the most fun, having the bumbling Mater working together with the slick spies in many set action pieces. It's pretty adult with its espionage theme complete with torture and murder, so parents you've got some explanations to do.
With Pixar you can be quite assured of the quality of animation in this film, but somehow when compared to the other Pixar films of late, from Wall.E to Up to Toy Story 3 even, those films had a lot of heart and emotion put into their characters, whereas this one lacked that emotional punch, coming close to reiterating the importance of friendship again, but overall feeling too superficial, focusing a lot more on the technical aspects of an animated film, and the buffoonish Mater for comedic effect. It's akin to waxing the exterior of a vehicle to shiny perfection, but pop the hood, and the flaws show up with the lack of a proper, driving engine to fuel the story.
It's still not that bad when compared to other animated films in recent years, but given that Pixar had raised its own bar so high, Cars 2 fell a little short, though still no less entertaining as a film, just never being able to reach the company's stratospheric heights in terms of storytelling, and heart.
Those who missed our friends from Toy Story will do yourselves a favour by coming into the cinema earlier to catch the usual short preview before the main Pixar feature, where we see the toys rather settled in their new home and new owner, and turning their play environment into a Hawaiian paradise so that Ken and Barbie can share their first kiss. It's a short feature, but these precious minutes prove to be quite the powerhouse with drama, romance and comedy all rolled into one, and in itself worth the price of an admission ticket.