Wow. After such a long run of success after success, was the 25-year-old Pixar Studios due for a kicking from the critics? Because the American mob certainly gave Cars 2 a mauling upon its release in June. And unfairly, in my book, because while Cars 2 is not in the same league as Up, Wall•E and The Incredibles, it's certainly not the stinker that many are claiming it to be (it's currently sitting at just 35% on Rotten Tomatoes).
Let's be clear about one thing. Although it took an absolute bundle of cash at the box office, and raked in further millions through merchandising, Cars was – and is, for many – the least favourite Pixar film. I know it's mine, although I did enjoy it hugely when it came out in 2006. The problem is that, when compared to the rest of the Pixar catalogue, Cars just isn't as great as just about every other film the studio has made. And it's tough to put my finger on why, (in his review at the time, Neil Davey did say that it's hard to invest emotionally in vehicles). But when you read many of the nasty, bitter and down-right mean reviews of Cars 2 in the US press, you'd think that Lasseter and his team had been revealed as a bunch of Satan-worshippers who ate babies for breakfast and wiped their arses with pages from the Bible.
And you know what? The American critics are wrong. Cars 2 is gorgeous to look at, heaps of fun and full to the brim with excitement and wonder. Yes, it's flawed (more on that shortly), but hell, even a flawed Pixar film is way, way better than the bulk to the dreck that's being served up as entertainment by Hollywood these days. Cars 2 really ratchets things up a few notches; where the original was a quiet, laid-back affair about the need to slow down and smell the roses occasionally, Cars 2 delivers the action at breakneck speed. And whereas racing car Lightning McQueen (Wilson) was the star first time around, this time the lead goes to the rusty, buck-toothed tow truck Mater (Cable Guy) who finds himself caught up in a spy drama as he accompanies McQueen on a series of grand prix races around Japan, Italy and the UK.
Cars 2, it turns out, is actually a far better Bond film than many of the actual Bond films themselves. Caine pops up as the Bond character, a British agent named Finn McMissile, while Mortimer's his sidekick, Holly Shiftwell (a bit of a nod to the Austin Powers films there?). There's gunfights aplenty, gadgets galore, mistaken identity and all the usual tropes of the espionage genre, all given the usual clever Pixar twist. Plus some stunningly brilliant racing action that's even better than it was in the first film. In fact, everything's better this time around. The international vistas – particularly Tokyo and London – are breathtaking; the cityscapes look lifelike, although with the "cars" twist that you'd expect.
Yes, it's true, the Pixar crew get more clever with each film, and every one they make looks better than the last, thanks to the continual improvements in the technology. But as well as looking great, Cars 2 has a terrific story, loads of laughs and plenty of warmth, too – again, as we've come to expect from Pixar. But (and it's quite a bit of a but) ... is Mater a big enough, popular enough character to carry a film? He was very much a second banana first time around, and he worked well there, but is the country bumpkin schtick enough to keep audiences glued to their seats? I don't mind him as a character, but judging by some of the scathing reviews that have come out of the US, most people seem to loathe the little fella. But like or loathe Mater, there's still enough here to keep kids and grown-ups well entertained, and everyone should walk away from Cars 2 pretty happy. This ain't the car wreck that many are making it out to be, but likewise it's no Lambourghini. It's actually a well run-in Rolls Royce Silver Shadow ... and that's good enough for me.