DIRECTED by John Lasseter, Cars 2 is Pixar’s hard-working sequel to the studio’s animated Hollywood blockbuster released in 2006. And whatever you think of it — and I think it’s rather good — it may come to be remembered as the film that revived the flagging fortunes of 3-D. The process did little for Avatar, nothing for Alice in Wonderland, precious little for Gnomeo and Juliet and was pretty well useless in Pirates of the Caribbean. But in Cars 2 it has found its moment of truth. There’s nothing like the sight of hundreds of brightly coloured slabs of hot-revving metal hurtling towards the camera to give the 3-D process a new lease of life.
The original film had mixed fortunes. Lasseter is on record as saying that he visited the big-three Detroit auto-makers to gather material for Cars and absorb something of the culture of the US motor industry. Cars must have been worth millions in moraleboosting promotion for the industry, but the big three carmakers all went bust after the film’s release. Joe Ranft, Lasseter’s codirector on the first film, died in 2005 (the result, sadly, of a car accident). And I felt sorry for Paul Newman. Cars proved the highest-grossing film of his career. When Newman died in 2008, audiences had paid more to hear him as Doc Hudson in Cars than had paid to see him as Butch Cassidy, or as Frank Galvin in The Verdict or as Brick Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
In Cars 2, the hero once again is Lightning McQueen, a hotshot racing car voiced by Owen Wilson. The films are unique in having no human characters: everyone is a car (or a bus, or a truck) in a world wholly populated by automotive beings. (On a gridlocked Sydney freeway, this seems an entirely plausible scenario.) Lasseter’s idea was to combine folksy American values with a milieu much loved by car-crazy Americans — the motor racing world, with all its noise and futile violence. More than half a century earlier, Cecil B. De Mille had found a similar metaphor for American society in the world of the circus; for Robert Altman, the countryand-western music scene served a similar purpose in Nashville. Lasseter’s other famous idea was not to use headlights for the eyes of his cars but to put eyes on their windscreens. In that way, he discovered, cars looked more like people. In Cars 2 the eyes have it once again — and cars have never looked more lifelike. Or cuter.
The problem for the sequel was how to move on from Lightning McQueen and the desert world of Radiator Springs and give the racing formula a fresh twist. Lasseter’s answer is to throw in a Bond-style international spy chase with Michael Caine voicing a bigshot from British intelligence, a character called Finn McMissile. Finn’s only a car, remember, so Caine is never actually seen. But Ben Green, the screenwriter, more than compensates Caine fans for any disappointment by giving Caine most of the dialogue and many of the best lines. Even Lightning McQueen has to take a back seat and make room for an English-accented female spy, Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), who wins the heart of Mater, Lightning’s loyal towtruck buddy (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy).
Sinister plots are afoot. A villain is planning to make a fortune by destroying the biofuels industry with a secret weapon that will restore gas-guzzlers to their rightful eminence in a world rapidly being infiltrated by electric cars. Is this the end of gasoline as we know it? Along with an espionage thriller we get an environmental message as well, not to mention a romantic subplot and another subplot involving the revolt of the lemons. All those despised and neglected models of earlier days have rallied to capture the World Grand Prix and recover their selfesteem. As their leader exhorts them: ‘‘ Forget all those nasty names — rattletraps, jalopies, bombs, clunkers — and embrace your inner lemon.’’
Yes, it’s a muddle, and the story barely hangs together. But the animation is state-ofthe-art and Lasseter (with his co-director Brad Lewis) takes us on a grand tour of the world’s big cities and tourist resorts. So Cars 2 is not just a spy thriller, a romance, a racing drama, and an environmental crowd-pleaser. It’s an up-market travelogue as well, with tongue-in-cheek tourist postcard settings in Paris, London and the Italian Riviera. We even get to see the Queen (a silver-plated Rolls) in the final scenes. PEOPLE have complained that Michael Winterbottom’s comedy, The Trip, while very funny, is really only television, and since it began life as a six-part BBC miniseries, that’s not perhaps surprising. The show featured two British comedians, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, doing sketches and impersonations. They had appeared in earlier Winterbottom films 24 Hour Party People, about the Manchester pop scene and the rise of Factory Records, and A Cock and Bull Story, a heavy-handed treatment of Laurence Stern’s novel, Tristram Shandy. For The Trip, Winterbottom has recycled some of their original material and let Coogan and Brydon do pretty much their own thing. And yes, it’s really only television: tight close-ups, inconsequential chat, no fancy camerawork. Not much more than a couple of talking heads. And the result is joyously funny.
Both men play themselves. Coogan is hired by one of Britain’s posh Sunday papers to make a tour of restaurants in northern England and write about them. He plans to take his food-loving American girlfriend along, but she’s left him and returned to the US. The only companion he can find is Brydon, not his closest friend, but always ready for a free lunch. In between meals in Lancashire, Yorkshire and the Lake District, they sit in their car and talk. Winterbottom throws in the occasional shot of a culinary concoction or some mournfully beautiful north country landscape, and that’s all there is to it.
Who would imagine that a contest between two men to see who can do the best Michael Caine imitation would be enough to sustain any film for 10 minutes, or that so many hilarious variations could be wrung from a single line of dialogue from a Bond movie? Brydon even had me laughing when he read from a critical study of Coleridge by the English essayist William Hazlitt; not a staple ingredient in movie comedy.
The restaurant theme may be more than a linking device. Winterbottom could be poking fun at foodie pretensions with his close-ups of tiny morsels on drizzled plates, all looking vaguely unappetising. Coogan never makes notes about the food or discusses it with Brydon, and we wonder what impressions are being mentally filed away. Winterbottom’s trick is to give the characters similar backgrounds but different personalities: the more abrasive Brydon a foil for the insecure, womanising and unhappy Coogan, who craves recognition as a serious actor.
It’s hard to think of another film like The Trip. Jim Carrey starred in Man on the Moon, about the American TV comic Andy Kaufman, directed by Milos Forman. Kaufman did stand-up routines in a Long Island rock club in the 1970s and was famous for Elvis impersonations. He starred in a long-running TV sitcom and made his name in the clubs as a dumb, mousy-voiced character with a nervous sign-off line, ‘‘ Tank you veddy much’’. With two Andy Kaufmans you’d get something like The Trip — a double-barrelled English version of Man on the Moon. Winterbottom gives us more than a couple of funnymen: he gives us a touching study of contrasting personalities. The charm and tenderness of the film take us by surprise, a reminder that at the heart of the best humour is a lurking sadness.
Cars 2 is a true 3-D experience