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"CARS 2"
(2011) (voices of Larry the Cable Guy, Owen Wilson) (G)

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Animated Action: As Lightning McQueen competes in a three-city international racing competition, his good buddy Tow Mater gets mixed up in a crazy spy caper.
In an alternate world inhabited solely by sentient cars, trucks, and other vehicles, Tow Mater (voice of LARRY THE CABLE GUY) the tow truck is reunited with his race-car friend, Lightning McQueen (voice of OWEN WILSON) who asks him to tag along on a three-city tour in which McQueen will race the world's greatest cars. Lightning has been challenged by an Italian hot rod named Francesco (voice of JOHN TURTURRO) and he wants to set the record straight as to who is the fastest in the world.

Once in "Towkyo," though, Tow Mater gets caught up in a spy game involving British agent cars Finn McMissile (voice of MICHAEL CAINE) and Holley Shiftwell (voice of EMILY MORTIMER), who are hot on the trail of Professor Z (voice of THOMAS KRETSCHMANN) an enigmatic weapons dealer who intends to use an electromagnetic pulse gun that looks like a TV camera to wreak havoc at the car races. When activated, the pulse flashes ignite the alternative organic fuel that Sir Miles Axelrod (voice of EDDIE IZZARD) has developed to rid the Cars' world of its dependence on fossil fuels.

It's eventually up to Tow Mater, who Finn and Holley have mistaken for an American secret agent, to save the day as Lightning McQueen becomes the bombing target during the climactic third leg of the race. Tow Mater is horrified to learn that his friends from Radiator Springs -- Sally (voice of BONNIE HUNT), Luigi (voice of TONY SHALHOUB), Ramone (voice of CHEECH MARIN), Sarge (voice of PAUL DOOLEY) and Flo (voice of JENIFER LEWIS) -- are also in harm's way.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
It actually pains me to give a negative review to a Pixar movie. It's like reporting on a sports hero having failed in a big game. "Cars 2" is Pixar's air-ball at the buzzer, its strikeout with the bases loaded, its interception in the end zone with time running out. Everyone knows this company's track record. To continue the sports analogy, since 1995, they have been the Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, and Joe Montana of animation studios. They've hit it out of the park, slam-dunked it, lit the lamp, and thrown the 90-yard touchdown bomb almost every single time out.

But with "Cars 2," the studio has fumbled badly. This isn't even a close call, folks. "Cars 2" is a loud, obnoxious, carnival ride of a movie whose only redeeming value is that its merchandise sales - the chief reason for its existence - might help the studio fund three or four more worthy projects down the road that will be on the level of "Up" or "Finding Nemo" or your pick of the "Toy Story" movies. The fact that "Cars 2" has a five-minute "Toy Story" short film that precedes it just makes you long for the simple, soulful greatness of Woody, Buzz, and that gang.

And I'm not even one of those "Cars" haters. The original film from 2006 has a reputation of being Pixar's weakest film to date. But I liked the original's message of slowing down life, venturing off the beaten path, and re-discovering the traditions and adventure of the open roads of yesteryear. I think it still remains one of Pixar's most beautifully animated pictures, and it had the irreplaceable Paul Newman (who, you'll recall, was a noted racing enthusiast) among its voice cast.

"Cars 2" dispenses with any pretenses of delivering a message or making its audience members think or feel. It is content to throw the characters from the first film into a convoluted spy caper set against the backdrop of the World Grand Prix, a three-leg international race that Lighting McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) gets goaded into competing in by an Italian rival racecar (voiced by John Turturro).

The race is just backdrop to the spy junk, though, and McQueen quickly fades into the background after this sequel's first reel. There's no way to sugar-coat this, dear readers. Co-director John Lasseter and his team have made a major miscalculation in making Tow Mater, the dim-witted tow truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, the lead in this film. A little Mater goes a long, LONG way! He is a supporting character at best, meant to be taken in small doses. By making him the main character here exposes his limited shtick in a big way.

Look at it this way. Owen Wilson can open a movie. He's starring in a Woody Allen flick right now called "Midnight in Paris," and it's the first Woody movie that is making any money in years! By contrast, throw out the fancy Pixar animation. If this were a Larry the Cable Guy Movie in which the bumpkin gets messed up in a spy caper involving mistaken identities I'm sorry. That's a straight-to-video flick at best! AT BEST, ladies and gentlemen! And only those of you out who still guffaw at Jeff Foxworthy's "You Might Be a Redneck" bits would even think of renting it.

I am used to Pixar movies having a certain depth, a certain savvy. But that's not present here. "Cars 2" relies so much on mistaken identity and seemingly smart characters getting into painfully dumb misunderstandings, it's like Pixar thought it was animating a big-budget "Three's Company" episode. I kept looking for the Mr. and Mrs. Roper cars.

Now, of course, with this indeed being Pixar, the film is not a total loss. The company's level of visual detail is still second to none. It is astounding how intricate the animators have rendered the car-world versions of Japan, Italy, and England here. And in 3-D, the details they throw in really pop out at you and come alive. Some of the voice casting is also fun, particularly Turturro as the egotistical Italian race car Francesco and Michael Caine as British spy car Finn McMissile (although Timothy Dalton, who did a very funny turn in last year's "Toy Story 3" as Mr. Pricklepants, would have owned this). Oh yes, and the "Toy Story" short (sub-titled "Hawaiian Adventure") is probably the best five minutes I've spent in a theater all year.

If you have kids under 10 who are being sold on this film like you wouldn't believe, you'll at least marvel at the multiple car chases and car races this sequel delivers. But for everyone else, this is the first Pixar movie that you should skip entirely and save your money for other hopefully better summer movie fare on the way. "Cars 2" puts the brakes on the studio's win streak, and it rates no higher than a 4.5 out of 10. (T. Durgin)

Reviewed June 18, 2011 / Posted June 24, 2011

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