As the trademark Luxo Lamp title card reminds us, Pixar celebrates its 25th birthday this year, but it's 27 years since cutting edge animation studio The Graphics Group released its first short - The Adventures of André and Wally B - a two minute tale directed by John Lasseter, about a creepy, blue-nosed character called André who is awoken and then chased through the forest by an unconvincing bee. OK, so the rudimentary animation looks almost laughable by today's standards, like something a child could make on a DS in ten minutes, but this was perhaps one of the most important cinematic advances since the Lumière brothers ran celluloid through a projector. Since 1984 and The Graphics Group's schism from parent company LucasFilm, Lassiter has overseen its transformation into the most critically acclaimed production studio of all time and has become chief creative officer of Disney Animation in its entirety in the process, so it seems apt that he would direct the film that's release marks a quarter of a century of Pixar.
As a director, Lassiter brought us the early hits that defined Pixar as the guys to beat, with Toy Story, A Bug's Life and (after considerable political discord) Toy Story 2. After these, he stepped back; implementing Pixar's now famous, "promote from within" structure that was seen animators and editors such as Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich blossom into fantastic, Oscar winning filmmakers. It was seven years before Lassiter would put himself forward to direct again and then something happened that no one could have conceived of - Pixar produced it's first bad picture. 2006's Cars still performed at the box office, and still earned itself a Best Animated Picture Oscar nod, but it lacked the warmth and exemplary story telling that the studio was famous for and was expected to produce. It seems strange, then, for a studio which has for the best part resisted sequels to make one that no one asked for.
Cars 2 continues the story of Lightning McQueen (Wilson), an anthropomorphic racing car and his increasingly annoying but dim-wittedly loyal friend Tow Mater (Larry The Cable Guy) as they set off round the world for the World Grand Prix, a new global racing series set up by alternative energy mogul Sir Miles Axelrod (Izzard). Unfortunately for our heroes, and for audiences, things get complicated when Mater is mistaken for an American spy by British intelligence officer Finn McMissile (Caine). Therein lies the rub. Tow Mater is the most annoying character that Pixar has ever created. The charm of his garbled, hick cretinism wore off about a quarter of the way into the first movie, and half way through the second you'll be yearning for the scrap yard. The character is already drawing comparisons to Jar Jar Binks, which is almost as bad as being compared to a Nazi war criminal. The fact that he is irritating and completely unlikeable was not too much of an obstacle in the first movie, as he was playing second fiddle to Wilson's central role, but this time around he is centre stage: exposed, as a one-dimensional comic vehicle (pun intended) designed to make the kiddies laugh.
The film starts, as you may expect, with a dazzling chase sequence over land and sea and proves that aesthetically Pixar are still well ahead of the competition, but the storytelling is uncharacteristically clunky and ham-fisted. Lassiter loves automobiles, and there are moments where it feels as if he is making the movie for himself. The completely unnecessary amount of motor related in-jokes, puns and racing driver cameos descend into self-indulgence, not even attempting to explain who they are or why they are there. There is also a staggering amount of car related product placement for what is essentially a film whose main demographic will not be behind the wheel for another ten years, and one can't help thinking that there is a certain degree of unsettling, "catch-em-young" brainwashing going on. The mention of a Ferrari as a plot point I can handle, but the prominent use of the logos of Italian urban hatchbacks is as out of place as Bond driving around in his Ford Focus.
All that being said, there is a fair amount to like. Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer provide solid voice acting to balance the frenetic delivery of Larry The Cable Guy's Mater, and there is an important message about individuality for the younger audience members, but unfortunately, that's about it. The screenplay is completely devoid of laughs and Lassiter's depiction of the rest of the world is Americanised and stereotypical, squeezing landmarks into as many shots as possible and ending with a disappointingly drab climax inside the bell tower of Big Ben.
John Lasseter may be a visionary, he may be a fantastic writer and director that I admire more than anyone in Hollywood, but he has unfortunately shown none of these qualities in what is undoubtedly Pixar's worst effort so far. Brave is Pixar's next project, to be released next summer, and is seen as being a bit of a gamble for the studio, let's just hope it pays off and Cars 2 will in future be seen as an anomaly and not a sign of falling standards for the world's greatest entertainers.
Cars 2 is released in the UK July 22nd