Cars 2 opens Friday throughout the Triangle (see times below)

Our rating:

Cars isn’t among the most critically acclaimed Pixar films, but it is an entertaining and deservedly popularly entrée in the studio’s canon. It certainly influenced the gift-buying choices for my then-4-year-old son more than Finding Nemo, Ratatouille and The Incredibles combined.

As Cars 2 now races into theaters, there has been much treadwear on the stars who voiced the adorable motorcars five years ago. Owen Wilson’s personal problems led to a suicide attempt in 2007, while Larry the Cable Guy’s megastardom has inevitably receded into life as a successful niche performer. The late Paul Newman’s character, Doc Hudson, receives tribute early in this new film, but alas, the late George Carlin just gets replaced without fanfare as the voice of Fillmore, the hippie VW Bus.

Thus, Cars 2 feels like an embodiment of the nostalgia-soaked journey to yesteryear that fueled the first stopover in Radiator Springs. Instead of embracing the sort of life-informed story line that Pixar usually excels at, however, the film foists a muddled espionage thriller with enough CG racing sequences shoehorned in to keep the kiddies interested.

So it is that in June of the year 2011, a quarter-century after its founding, Pixar Animation Studios finally made an average, mundane movie.

Challenged by supercilious Formula 1 racer Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), Lightning McQueen (Wilson) enters a three-country World Grand Prix conceived and sponsored by Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard), an ex-oil baron-turned-electric car trying to market his brand of organic fuel named Allinol. Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) is an Aston Martin superspy who, with his partner Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), pursues a legion of lemons (Pacers, Gremlins, Yugos, etc.), vowing to derail Allinol’s development as revenge for decades of cultural ridicule.

As the racers globetrot from Tokyo to France to the Italian Riviera to London, McQueen has a falling-out with the real star of this sequel, his BFF and absurdly fish-out-of-water tow truck, Mater (Larry). Once exposed to the multi-culti world outside Radiator Springs, Mater suffers an inferiority complex and identity crisis; indeed, his struggle with a Japanese public toilet is sidesplitting. At the same time, the bucktoothed rust bucket becomes unwittingly embroiled in McMissile’s game of international intrigue. Unfortunately, when your plot revolves around an animated, gearhead version of a mediocre James Bond movie, you’re ultimately left with just a mediocre James Bond movie.

The conflict posed here between oil interests and alternative fuel advocates is a mere McGuffin, devoid of any broader environmental contextaside from a clumsy, politically correct tack-on explaining why the Allinol-fueled McQueen didn’t explode after getting shot with a ray gun that made every other racer blow its engine. While you wouldn’t expect to consult Cars 2 to inform your opinion about the global energy crisis, it is the most conspicuous example of the film’s numerous missed opportunities.

Co-director John Lasseter’s visual design (3-D or otherwise) is as brilliant as ever, and the film preserves its kid-friendliness despite a few detours into death, torture and tasing. Happy Meal buyers will also note the conspicuous addition of planes and boats to the kaleidoscope of anthropomorphized autos. It’s telling, however, that Cars 2‘s best parts are the Toy Story short preceding it and the glimpse of a Parisian eatery named “Castow’s,” an alt-universe version of Ratatouille‘s restaurant, both of which remind us of the superlative cinema we rightly expect Pixar to produce.

Cars 2 is not bad so much as it is, well, pedestrian. It’s guilty of being a prosaic, pun-filled film with lots of commotion but little sense or soul. In light of Pixar’s sterling track record, we’ll let them slide this time. Just don’t let it happen again.