Cars 2 Two and a half stars (out of four) Rating: G.
“Embrace your inner lemon!” an evil automobile squeals to its minions in the spy-themed Cars 2, and Pixar boldly follows the same path.
The ’toon factory motors on with a sequel to its 2006 clunker, squeezing extra juice out of a property deemed by most critics to be the citron of the Pixar corral.
Cars 2 finds traction with a 007-style saga, but juvenile antics of Larry the Cable Guy’s Tow Mater keeps the flick more for kids than adults.
Cars was a rare slip for the firm behind such all-ages gems as Toy Story 3, WALL-E and Ratatouille.
It chafed John Lasseter, the Pixar chief and Cars co-director, that critical huzzahs were muted when his auto-themed amusement rolled out more like an old Wacky Races cartoon than a top-gear film.
Rather than junk his creations, Lasseter and his Cars 2 co-director Brad Lewis seek to energize them with a thriller plot — coincidentally the path profitably followed earlier this summer by Fast Five in reviving The Fast and the Furious, another stalled car franchise.
Cars 2 busts out of fictional Radiator Springs, and its predecessor’s story rut, for a story that combines espionage with a dizzying world tour of Grand Prix races, some more realistic than others.
The movie opens like a James Bond picture, with an Aston Martin (of course) named Finn McMissile, voiced by Michael Caine, seeking to infiltrate an oil rig in the middle of the dark-and-stormy Pacific Ocean.
Some international skullduggery is afoot, which Finn aims to thwart with the aid of his Tokyo contact, Jaguar-shaped Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), a spy in training.
Meanwhile, in their desert retreat of Radiator Springs, race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and his tow truck sidekick Tow Mater are preparing for their own international adventure.
McQueen has accepted the challenge of billionaire SUV Sir Miles Axelrod (Eddie Izzard) to compete in his new World Grand Prix.
A reformed oil baron, Axelrod has created the race to promote Allinol, his new clean-and-green gasoline substitute.
McQueen needs some persuasion to join the race, and even more of a push to bring along his accident-prone pal Mater.
Strands of the busy plot are pulled together as McQueen and Mater travel through brilliantly rendered animated versions of Japan, France, Italy and England, making the usual cultural yuks with an auto theme — such as sumo-wrestling minivans in Tokyo.
While McQueen concentrates on racing, and beating his new top rival Francesco Bernoulli (a Formula One car voiced by John Turturro), Mater finds himself playing a hayseed Cary Grant in an automotive version of North by Northwest.
He’s mistaken for a fellow spy not only by Finn and Holley (whom Mater is sweet on), but also by evil genius Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann), a monocle-sporting Trabant who has sinister intentions for the World Grand Prix.
Prof. Z’s henchmen include two real motorized lemons, an AMC Gremlin (Joe Mantegna) and an AMC Pacer (Peter Jacobson of TV’s House).
Mater gets so much screen time, Lightning seems a distinct also-ran. (At least we don’t hear his irritating “ka-chow” yell as often, which must also be a relief for Wilson.)
By this juncture, the tread begins to fray for Cars 2. The constantly shifting scenery and the over-reliance on Mater’s idiocy combine to produce a fatigue not common to better Pixar efforts.
Multiple jokes about toilets and bodily functions cheapen the laughs, and so do the strenuous efforts to have cars doing things that normally only humans could achieve.
But at least a few of the jokes are subtle, like the addition of a Cars tune on the soundtrack (You Might Think, sung by Weezer).
The spy narrative of Cars 2 works OK, but the green-fuel subplot resolves to leave us wondering whether we should fight Big Oil or just learn to live with it.
It all raises the question of why Lasseter is so partial to this franchise.
His life-long fascination with cars is probably the answer.
Whatever the reason, he seems happy to accept Cars and its spinoffs as a Pixar product aimed primarily at younger kids, especially since it sells an awful lot of toys.
When money trumps art, sometimes it’s good enough just to spin your wheels.
Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.