This time, the Pixar team -- led by director John Lasseter -- delivers a globe-hopping series of races and action sequences that leap from the U.S. to Japan and, then, to Italy, France and the United Kingdom. Building his picture around motion and commotion, Lasseter serves up a creative hunk of animation, but it doesn't come close to Pixar's best work, say all the Toy Story movies, two of which Lasseter directed.
I admit it: I still have trouble adjusting to the notion of an all-car universe in which the cars talk and give each other high fives by bumping front tires. The only thing my car has ever said to me is, "More gas, please!" OK, maybe one time it said, "You think replacing the water pump was expensive, wait until you have to redo my clutch."
Watching Cars 2 requires picking through the clutter created by an overly complicated plot that's built around espionage, racing, alternative fuels and the importance of remaining loyal to friends. It's an eight-cylinder effort where six might have done nicely.
The movie finds Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) returning to racing to face off against Italian rival Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro). An international Grand Prix has been set up by Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard), a car that claims to have invented a replacement fuel for gasoline.
Always eager to race, McQueen risks embarrassing himself by agreeing to allow the buck-toothed Mater (a tow truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) to tag along. Unfortunately, Mater does more than tag along. He begins to dominate the picture. In tow truck or human form, a little Larry the Cable Guy goes a long way.
In case racing fails to provide sufficient kick, the movie adds two British spy cars: Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). They're trying to discover who's behind a scheme involving an army of cars that have been tagged as lemons.
Mater probably is over-exposed because the character has been given responsibility for creating the movie's emotional tug. Early on, Mater and McQueen have a falling out. It takes the rest of the movie for them to reconcile.
Now, I'm not saying that Cars 2 is a dud. The overall arc of the movie isn't especially satisfying, but the detailing can be great, and Lasseter's backgrounds are nothing short of stunning, beginning with the splashy Tokyo sequences. He (and co-director Brad Lewis) do a terrific job creating the sights of Paris and London.
In general, the movie lets you visit a vividly realized fantasy version of Europe, and you don't have to worry about where the dollar stands against the Euro. Too bad this Pixar move into the fast lane also features an unfortunate amount of heavy artillery. Who needs automatic weapons in an animated movie aimed at little kids?
Well, not just little kids. True to Pixar form, Lassiter makes a valiant (if not entirely successful) attempt keep both adults and children happy. Cars 2 is a buoyant helping of middle-grade entertainment that's destined to do good business.
How do I know? The kid sitting next to me at a preview screening thought the movie was "cool." His assessment may not capture everything there is to say about the movie's quality, but it probably tells you something about its commercial prospects.