Film Review: Cars 2 * *
The world would be a poorer place if it weren't for John Alan Lasseter. The animator and filmmaker has guided Pixar towards unparalleled excellence and personally overseen the glorious Toy Story franchise.
But even he is only human: the production and development of the first Cars film was entirely his idea, and that turned out to be that rarest of beasts, and the aberration that proves the rule -- a bad Pixar film.
Released in 2006, Cars followed the adventures of a plucky country racing car called Lightning McQueen who dreams of being a champion. The cars were the characters -- in this alternate universe there were no people to be seen -- which meant that the film's personality and charm depended entirely on talking bumpers and blinking windscreens.
It didn't work, not one bit, and loud noises and manic energy were no substitute for the trademark Pixar wit.
With a box office gross of $460m, Cars could only be considered a modest success by Pixar standards. But this was a very personal project for Lasseter, and in a way he's to be admired for sticking to his guns and insisting on a sequel.
In Cars 2, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is now a champion race car, having triumphed in the Piston Cup. When he's challenged to take part in a world grand prix using a new environmentally friendly biofuel called Allinol, he decides to take his chatty friend Mater the tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy) with him.
Lightning's main rival is a cocky Italian race car called Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), who brags constantly and refers to himself in the third person. But as Lightning and he do battle in a series of races in Japan, Italy and London, darker forces are at work behind the scenes.
Michael Caine provides the voice of a suave Bond-like character called Finn McMissile, who first mistakes Mater for an American secret agent and then enlists him in the fight against terrorism.
Emily Mortimer voices an eight-cylinder love interest, and the rather tortuous plot eventually manages to resolve itself in a suitably spectacular climax.
Perhaps the single most annoying thing about the first Cars film was Tater the tow truck, a kind of certified village idiot with a single-digit IQ and a talent for disaster. To move him centre-stage for the sequel could be called brave, but the consequence is disastrous.
For Cars 2, despite some wonderful animation and lovingly devised international set pieces, is actually worse than its predecessor.
As McQueen and his buddies tour the globe, cities such as Tokyo and London are impressively rendered in three-dimensional splendour, but if only as much thought and love had been lavished on the script. It's terrible, and some of the puns are so weak I had visions of restless five-year-olds peppering the screen with M&Ms.
The film's voice cast is as impressive as you'd expect: apart from Wilson and Caine, there's Eddie Izzard as a British industrialist, the likes of Mortimer, John Ratzenberger, Joe Mantegna and Tony Shalhoub in supporting roles, and Vanessa Redgrave shows up to voice an Italian momma and the queen.
None of them, though, is given very much to go on with a script that trades in the laziest euro-stereotypes, and Larry the Cable Guy is more irritating than ever as that infuriating windbag of a tow truck.
It's as though Lasseter and his team were trying too hard to breathe life into a project that was flawed from the very start. Perhaps this will dissuade Mr Lasseter from embarking on Cars 3 -- but I wouldn't bet on it.
Day & Night