When I decided to tackle the filmography of Pixar studios I knew this day would come. After all the Toy Storys, Incredibles and Inside Outs that would amuse me, move me and, in some cases, strike me with existential dread, sooner or later I would have to come face to windshield with the studio’s most maligned movie – sooner or later I would have to climb behind the wheel of Cars 2.
I’ve never really been the biggest Cars nut and I found the first movie to be, while stunningly populated, possibly one of the more hollow entries Pixar has birthed out into the world, but then years later the sequel came out to essentially go on to be considered the animation house’s equivalent to Thor: The Dark World, Rocky V and Indiana Jones 4 – the weak link in a near unbroken chain. But is this criticism still valid after all these years or is it past time for us to pimp our ride when it comes to this earlier decision?
After his moral victory at the climax of Cars, Lightning McQueen has gone on to win 4 Piston Cups (now awkwardly renamed the Hudson Hornet Piston Cup after the passing of Paul Newman), but his success has come at a price as he’s compartmentalised his friendship with rusty tow truck Mater. Returning to Radiator Springs after his latest win, the buck toothed good ol’ truck has plenty of stuff to get up too but is disappointed when McQueen has to cut it short to have a date night with girlfriend Sally. Meanwhile, Sir Miles Axlerod, in an attempt to promote his new, revolutionary, environmentally friendly fuel, Allinol, has created the World Gran Prix and has invited the worlds fastest cars, such as McQueen and self obsessed Italian formula one car Francesco Bernoulli, to compete and Sally urges Lightning to finally take Mater with him and see the world.
However, while this is all going on, slick British super spy Finn McMissile has uncovered an insidious plot where “lemons” (outdated cars with multiple mechanical issues) are intending to target the race with some shadowy, terrorist goal in mind, but due to the typical, farcical reasons that allow these things to happen in movies, Finn and spy-in-training Holly Shiftwell mistake Mater for their contact, somehow believing him to be a fellow agent of some talent.
Somehow thrust into a world full of spies, gadgets and an actual body count (cars actually get freakin’ killed in this shit), Mater cheerfully wanders through life or death situations without a single clue to what’s really going on.
But when his secret agent buffoonary starts to interfere with McQueen’s win streak, the loyal Mater finds his friendship at risk.
So, after a long overdue rewatch, is Cars 2 really that bad? No, it actually isn’t. However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t still the worst movie that Pixar has made – because it is.
In the light of this every-silver-lining-has-a-cloud revelation, I guess I’d better explain; taken as a loud, obnoxious, fast paced kids movie with frantic action sequences and peerless world building, Cars 2 is perfect popcorn fodder if your kids need a one-watch and then discard adventure to keep their traps shut for around 90 minutes. However, compared to the type of impressive, multi layered story telling that Pixar that uses to appeal simultaneously to kids and adult is alarmingly misaligned and the main culprit is it’s new star. That’s right, overtaking Owen Wilson’s race car lead is former comedy sidekick Mater, who’s accention into the limelight makes him the most punchable truck in cinema since the Green Goblin rig in Maximum Overdrive. Maybe I’m being a bit harsh, but McQueen isn’t actually that out of order keeping Mater away from his races as he does actually screw them up and is he really so wrong wanting some alone time with his girlfriend and not a guy who takes no responsibility for his actions? The kiddiewinks will no doubt love the fact that this loud, lummox has inexplicably been handed the reins to the whole show, but it throws everything off balance as the movie tries to juggle the spy stuff with a parallel thread involving McQueen’s feud with John Turturro’s mouthy, formula 1 douchebag. Going from a sports movie to a spy movie is like sequelizing Rocky with Rambo: First Blood Part II and the whole thing feels like nothing more than an excuse to slam out more toy automobiles that sold gangbusters the first time round which feels more like something DreamWorks would put out rather than the people who gave us the opening ten minutes of Up.
Taking all this into account, Cars 2 remains as one of the best examples of sustained world building ever seen in animation as the movie expands on the vast vehicular empire seen in the first movie and traverses the entire globe, giving us a look at a typically neon drenched Japan, the rustic warmth of France and Italy and finally settling in Britain for it’s rocket powered climax. Frankly, it’s spectacular, and the sheer level of detail stretches from all the funky, tyre-based tech the spies use, to a freaking Japanese bidet (Mater has a butthole?) – but I have to admit that my favorite is the appearance of Thomas Kretschmann’s monocled henchman who’s busted roof rack gives him the appearance of a particularly weak comb over.
There’s some dynamite, off handed, one-liners too; “Finn McMissile, British intelligence.”, “Tow Mater, average intelligence.” is a particularly good one with my favourite being “Is the popemobile catholic?”, but chances are, none of them end up in the mouth of the original supporting cast (3 of whom died in the years since) while the majority of the new cast, including Michael Caine (riffing slightly on his Harry Palmer days) and Emily Mortimer, don’t really have much of a chance to make an impact in the face of Mater’s full on prat falling.
Maybe we shouldn’t blame old Mater entitely for his ill-conceived push, but the same could be said of characters such as Captain Jack Sparrow, who work much better manipulating the plot instead of being the main focus of it.
What I’m saying is, a little Mater goes a long way and while he’s funny as a sidekick, you wouldn’t want to be stuck behind behind him at the checkout of a supermarket.
Sporadically fun and visually inventive, but a muddled focus and an annoying lead will make you feeling: more Tow Mater? Not Tow-day.