Pixar head honcho and "Cars 2" director John Lasseter pushes the credo "Story is king," but the sequel to the 2006 hit "Cars" unwittingly abdicates the throne.
To be sure, "Cars 2" demonstrates technical perfection, and for nearly two hours, the picture maintains an objectively crisp pace and a striking visual busyness. Kids will no doubt continue to be enthralled by the exploits of race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and his BFF tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) in the equivalent of "Hot Wheels: The Movie." (Meanwhile, a legitimate live-action "Hot Wheels" movie is currently in Hollywood development.) But Pixar's appeal for adults has never before reached such a low ebb.
Ironically, the franchise becomes duller by embracing the action-adventure genre. If "Cars" was a kiddie-friendly "Days of Thunder," "Cars 2" is a James Bond spoof by way of "Deliverance." The admittedly dazzling opening sequence finds British secret agent Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) discovering a terrorist plot to disrupt the first-ever World Grand Prix, then making a spectacular escape from an offshore oil rig. Meanwhile, Mater ropes Lightning into participating in the race, hosted by alternative-fuel advocate Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard).
Mistaken for a spymaster of disguise, the buck-toothed, Southern-fried Mater begins working (and culture-clashing) with McMissile and first-time field agent Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). This new pursuit makes the less-than-smart Mater more distracted than ever, causing him to cost Lightning a race to narcissistic Italian hotshot Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro). Can this friendship be saved? Will the evil plot of German-made Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann) be foiled? Does a junker leak in a garage?
The most appealing aspect of "Cars 2" is its recreation of scenery, from Tokyo to the Italian Riviera to London. Still, despite the photorealistic backgrounds, "Cars 2" lacks a realistic texture. The sequel maintains a certain invented logic for the world if it belonged to cars, but Ben Queen's script, jokes notwithstanding, fails to take its characters seriously. Here, audiences must laugh at Mater's incredible stupidity, then pretend he doesn't deserve to be called an idiot, then marvel at his suddenly astonishing deductive skills. And when it comes to tolerance of Larry the Cable Guy, well, your mileage may vary.
In thematic terms, "Cars 2" never runs deeper than this observation from mechanic Luigi's Uncle Topolino (Franco Nero): "Everybody fights now and then, especially best friends." The vast majority of the picture's effort is devoted to the dully perfunctory spy plot, "Flintstones"-style car puns (Victor Yugo, Brent Mustangberger, et al.) and making cars go zoom in spic and span 3-D CGI.
If "Cars 2" isn't bad, exactly, this mildly amusing G-rated adventure for the first time makes family film leader Pixar fall behind the pack.
(Note: If you go, don't be late. Preceding the feature is a cute new "Toy Story" short called "Hawaiian Vacation.")