'Cars 2' is preceded by 'Hawaiian Vacation', a short film set in the Toy Story universe. Despite the fact that 'Toy Story 3' was supposed to be the end of the franchise, Pixar seems reluctant to let go. It is not hard to see why - despite being only 6 minutes long, this appetiser manages to pack more Pixar magic than the main feature.
That is not to say that 'Cars 2' is a bad film. There are clever ideas, and moments of charm and wit, but the film does not spend enough time on them. As a result, the film fails to reach the lofty standards associated with Pixar.
At one point during its development, the film must have centred on a new story, with new characters. As the film opens, British secret agent Finn McMissile (Michael Caine, as a DB5) investigates a conspiracy involving alternative fuel, scaling an oil-drilling platform with magnetic tyres and grappling hooks.
The mood is one of intentional melodrama, simultaneously revering and ridiculing the adventures of 007. The sequence inevitably culminates in a car chase, and it is more thrilling and visually appealing than anything that EON has produced in recent years.
Things should have stayed that way, because 'Cars 2' is at its strongest when it has nothing to do with its predecessor. Alas, Finn McMissile becomes a secondary character, while the narrative returns to Radiator Springs. Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) accepts a challenge to participate in the World Grand Prix. Accompanying him is his best(est) buddy Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), whose bumbling misadventures become the overpowering flavour of the remaining 90 minutes.
It is here that the film blows a tyre. As a supporting character, Mater was fun and endearing. The hillbilly schtick came in small doses and served as effective comic relief. Placing him in the spotlight and trying to make him a hero, however, highlights the character’s lack of depth. Jokes based on Mater’s stupidity mostly consist of slapstick humour, which wears thin very quickly. What makes this worse is the decision to merge his storyline with that of Finn McMissile.
It is one thing to make a 'Cars' spin-off based on Mater, but quite another to combine a simple, child-oriented narrative with a more serious, sinister plot that, at one point, actually involves car-torture and car-assassination. The result is dissatisfactory, creating a jarring blend of the right things in the wrong proportions.
There is barely any solid racing, which unravels the foundations from the last film. There is not enough spy drama, which raises questions about the point of introducing the espionage element at all. On the other hand, there are many attempts to be funny, the success of which depends on the age of the viewer.
Ultimately, 'Cars 2' is a wasted opportunity. The Bond-inspired opening hinted at great things that were merely sprinkled throughout the film. It is a solid example of animation, but it does not feel like it is really part of the Pixar collection. Over the years Pixar has built up a reputation for films accessible to adults and children alike, and this is not one of them.
Children will no doubt have too much fun to notice the lack of sophistication, but adults used to the universal appeal of Pixar’s standard fare will find this disappointing. 'Cars 2' is a fun film, but it is no 'Toy Story 3'.
'Cars 2' will be on wide release throughout UK cinemas from this Friday.