Pixar, let’s face it, are wonderful. I dare you to find a better superhero movie than The Incredibles, or a more moving ten minutes of film than the intro to Up, or a better and braver hero than Wall-E. Then I double dare you to think of the first Cars movie as the best of anything. Maybe the best at making Pixar’s board a huge merchandising fortune so they can fill their Lightning McQueen-shaped swimming pool with Cristal or whatever it is rich people drink. Probably imported Dr Pepper.
I went to see Cars 2 when the Rotten Tomatoes rating had been going downhill faster than a relevant racing pun. I’ll see anything, though, and as I’ve seen everything Pixar has done (including Ratatouille, which is the first movie I’ve fallen asleep during) there was no way I could stop myself. Armed with 3D glasses and enough popcorn to float a shipwreck, I bravely went to see the first Pixar movie the masses appeared to be dreading.
And they shouldn’t be. Actually, Cars 2 is pretty good.
Perhaps it was my low expectations. I’m not interested in racing or in arrogant race cars voiced by Owen Wilson. (Though I am interested in Owen Wilson when he plays humans.) I own a bunch of movie paraphernalia but cars aren’t my thing. For me, Cars 2 was lifted from horror by ditching the races—there are only three, and the last one you only see for about five seconds—and instead following an adventurous spy thriller storyline when Lightning McQueen’s best pal, country bumpkin tow-truck Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), accidentally happens upon some highly secretive information in a Japanese bathroom. (Yes, there is a scene in one of those convoluted Japanese toilets. Yes, it’s funny. Yes, I wish I also had buttons on my otherwise dull toilet at home.) Mater then becomes the target of the bad guys—headed by a monocle-side-mirror-wearing car who answers to a faceless villain I picked from miles away—but is thankfully found first by British Intelligence officers Holley (Emily Mortimer) and the moustachioed Bond car Finn McMissile (Michael Caine, totally and utterly excellent.) A misinterpretation of events leads Holley and Finn to believe Mater is a spy under deep, stupid cover, and together they must save the day.
Interestingly, the plotline McQueen follows is about a competition started by Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard) to best show off the new alternative fuel source he has come up with. While it’s a topic that is currently quite relevant, it’s not elaborated upon too much (fair enough too, the target market really couldn’t give a toss about petrol prices no matter how much we moan about them) but was a pretty interesting angle to take. It’s discovered during the first races that the cars running on the new fuel are prone to go boom, and Axelrod’s new fuel and race appear to be the end of his career.
Along with that drama, McQueen and Mater have a falling out, basically because Mater is stupid and annoying and ruins everything. Which is what stops Cars 2 from attaining the heights of Pixar’s excellence. While Lightning McQueen is smarmy and arrogant, Tow Mater is not street-smart, doesn’t listen, and makes terrible puns. (Okay. And some good ones which should be terrible, like when someone says, “tout suite!” and he says, “I’ll have two sweets too!”) You can forgive him a lot, because he’s never really left his quiet hometown of Radiator Springs before, but the incident that gets him out of favour with Lightning during the first race is actually appalling behaviour on his part as both a friend and a team member. So while I appreciated getting away from McQueen, Mater is still a very imperfect character. You get so little of everyone else that I don’t know who I’d prefer it to be about. Maybe Finn McMissile.
Cars 2 is a beautiful looking movie, which is hardly a surprise. The action is thrilling, Finn McMissile is an amazing addition—he’s a car! He’s on skis! He’s a submarine! He’s got guns! Etc!—and there are a lot of little jokes you could miss if you weren’t paying attention, like that there’s a Popemobile that has its own Popemobile, and the ads on the side of the racetrack that say “Lassetire”. For Australian audiences, V8 Supercar driver Mark Winterbottom voices a car in one scene; in other countries, the paint job and voice is changed. Some jokes are flat-out hilarious. Some will induce a smile. It’s a movie you shouldn’t mind taking your niece to go see.
One flaw that bothered me was the excessive use of stereotypes. It starts with the cringeworthy hillbilly that is the bucktoothed Tow Mater, goes off to Japan where all the female cars appear to be geishas (in my three week experience of Japan, I did not see a single geisha anywhere), then heads over to Italy where everyone is making out and McQueen is told he needs to be fattened up. The only “non-white” characters in Radiator Springs are Flo (Jenifer Lewis), who speaks fluent sass, and her panelbeater husband Ramone (Cheech Marin). My problem is that these kind of stereotypes should be avoided, and pushing them on kids when they’re young and impressionable—“it’s okay to think that other countries are made of a homogenous people!”—is something I’d wish my kids would avoid seeing.
Also, while I’m totally okay with the fact that cars talk in these films, it absolutely pushes my credibility when you see what they have built. HOW DO THEY DO THIS? THEY DO NOT HAVE HANDS. A scene with an army of miniature robots would fix this. Or, you know, I could get over it. After all, there’s one scene in this where the a bunch of cars play guitar in an Italian plaza. HOW DO THEY STRING THE GUITARS THOUGH? I cannot buy it. Also, while I can be okay with teeth (I can buy that they’re actually grills, or whatever), why do cars have tongues? WHYYYYY
So it exceeded my expectations, made me laugh, and I had a good time. And, thrillingly, there’s a Toy Story short before it called Hawaiian Vacation that rocked my socks. There are worse movies out there to see this holiday season, like Kung Fu Panda 2 (which I may review later). And if anyone asks you if it’s better than Cars 1, you can even quote it: “Is the Popemobile Catholic?”