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Cars 2 (Disney), directed (like several great Pixar films of the last two decades) by John Lasseter, finds itself in the unlucky position of the not-so-bright kid in a brilliant family. No matter if his performance in school is comfortably average; he'll always be seen as a disappointment compared to his stellar siblings. There's nothing really objectionable about Cars 2, although parents of young children should be warned that a few evil vehicles meet violently inauspicious ends. It's sweet-spirited, visually delightful (if aurally cacophonous), and it will make for a pleasant enough family afternoon at the movies. But we've come to expect so much more than mere pleasantness from Pixar that Cars 2 feels almost like a betrayal.
In an alternate world where motorized vehicles are the world's sole inhabitants, the tow truck Mater (voiced by the blue-collar comedian Larry the Cable Guy) welcomes his best friend, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) back to their beloved town of Radiator Springs. Lightning, having become a world-famous racecar in the interval since the first Cars movie in 2006, is returning home for some R & R. But when he's mocked on a sports show by a vain Italian racecar, Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), the outraged Lightning signs up for the World Grand Prix, an international race created by an oil tycoon who's introducing his newest alternate fuel.
Lightning, Mater, and the rest of the racing crew take off together for Japan, France, Italy, and other destinations, where they're pursued both by a pair of sleek British spies (Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer) and a gang of resentful junkheaps—Gremlins, Pacers—who have united under a mysterious and sinister leader to thwart the World Grand Prix from within. Their collective shenanigans make for a lot of plot. A little girl near me kept asking her dad, "Which cars are the bad guys? What are they doing?" Her father shushed her politely, but he would have done his fellow audience members a bigger favor by loudly and accurately answering her questions, since we were just as stumped.
So Cars 2 is incoherently plotted, loud, and overstuffed with big action set pieces—some of which, like the opening chase scene on an offshore oil rig, are spectacularly well-staged. That doesn't place it far below the average summer animated movie for kids, with a little added value for adults in the form of clever visual (and, less reliably, verbal) jokes. Pixar's ever-inventive designers have fun reimagining European landmarks for a car-based universe: the Notre Dame cathedral with sculpted automotive saints in its porticoes was a lovely touch, as was the kabuki show performed by Japanese subcompacts.
Maybe the biggest problem with Cars 2 comes down to the fact that the rustic rustbucket Mater, rather than the neurotic nice-guy sportscar Lightning McQueen, serves as the film's protagonist and dominates nearly every scene. Amusing enough as a sidekick foil in the first Cars, the buck-toothed, intellectually challenged Mater begins to grate when allowed this much screen time. Mater is a cheerfully subcompetent rube with a minuscule learning curve, not unlike Jim Nabors in Gomer Pyle. After being encouraged to spend the first three-quarters of the movie laughing at his negligible IQ and Amelia Bedelia-like propensity to take figures of speech literally, we're served a heavy-handed message about learning to accept our friends as they are. When we finally join Lightning McQueen again for the climactic last leg of the auto race, we've almost forgotten what his motivations are for winning or why we should care.
As disappointing as Cars 2 may be, I can't join the ranks of critics hastening to rend their garments over the imminent decline of Pixar. Maybe Cars, long acknowledged as one of the studio's lesser efforts, didn't need or deserve a sequel; maybe the screenwriter, Ben Queen, should have gotten an assist from the rugby team of writers who worked on the first film. But with 25 years of terrific films to their credit, and multiple projects in the works—including Brave, the first Pixar film to feature a female protagonist, Monsters University, a follow-up to the 2001 hit Monsters Inc., and an aviation-themed Cars spinoff called Planes—the Emeryville magic factory has earned the right to an off movie at least once every quarter of a century.