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Review: “Cars 2″

Fun-for-all-ages, movie overflows with imaginative touches

By Carol Cling

After striking gold — in both box-office and artistic terms — with “Toy Story 3,” the wonderful folks at Pixar Animation continue their sequel streak with “Cars 2.”
Alas, it’s no “Toy Story 3.” Really, what could be?

Besides, 2006′s original “Cars” hardly qualifies as one of Pixar’s instant-classic standouts. So it’s a relief to report that its sequel zips along in genial, light-hearted style.

It’s colorful and clever, to be sure, with a heaping helping (or three) of down-home homilies, reminding us of what life’s really all about.

And in between, there’s enough pedal-to-the-metal action to make the “Fast Five” crew — or James Bond — jealous.

The James Bond connection isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds, given “Cars 2′s” extensive emphasis on spyjinks.

In the “Cars” universe, the vehicles themselves are the spies — and “Cars 2″ has a sterling British secret agent in Finn McMissile (voiced, with dry but undeniable wit by Michael Caine).

As the intrepid Finn (who looks suspiciously like James Bond’s trademark Aston Martin) investigates a mysterious conspiracy — and makes a suitably narrow escape — champion race car Lightning McQueen (once again voiced by Owen Wilson) is back in sleepy Radiator Springs after capturing another Piston Cup title.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFTfAdauCOo[/youtube]

Now that the racing season’s over, McQueen plans to downshift and hang out with his sassy girlfriend Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt) and his best pal, down-home tow truck Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy).

That is, until word of a new international racing series, sponsored by energy mogul Sir Miles Axelrod (voiced by Eddie Izzard), reaches Radiator Springs. Along with the promise by open-wheel racing champ Francesco Bernouilli (John Turturro, in hilariously overbearing overdrive) that he’s going to win Axelrod’s new World Grand Prix, proving once again that he’s the fastest race car around.

That’s more than McQueen can stand, of course, so he and his pit crew (voiced by, among others, Tony Shalhoub, Cheech Marin and Paul Dooley) hit the road for Tokyo, the first stop on the new Grand Prix circuit — along with the disaster-prone Mater, whose flair for foul-ups is in high gear.

Not only does Mater hamper McQueen’s fortunes during the race, he’s mistakenly identified as an American spy by none other than McMissile and his Tokyo-based counterpart, the alluring Holley Shiftwell (voiced by Emily Mortimer).

As the competition zooms from Tokyo to the Italian Riviera and finally to London, Mater and his new spy pals dodge danger while trying to figure out who’s sabotaging the race. McQueen, meanwhile, ponders his need for speed — and, inevitably, whether it means more than his friendship with Mater.

No Piston Cup points for anyone who doubts “Cars 2′s” bottom-line message: It’s not whether you win or lose, but who’s beside you when you cross the finish line.

The script — by Ben Queen (TV’s “Drive”), from a story concocted by director John Lasseter , co-director Brad Lewis (who produced Pixar’s “Ratatouille”) and Dan Fogelman (who scripted “Tangled” and worked on “Cars”) — lacks the character development and emotional heft of Pixar’s best movies.

You can tell that’s the case because it’s so easy to shift your focus from the characters and what’s happening to them to other artistic and technical elements.

The whimsical design, for example.

In creating its car-centric universe, “Cars 2″ (in 3-D and IMAX 3-D as well as regular 2-D) positively overflows with imaginative touches, from what’s playing at the Radiator Springs Drive-in (“The Incredimobiles,” naturally) to the auto-transformation of international landmarks. London’s Big Ben becomes Big Bentley, “Ratatouille’s” Paris restaurant, Gusteau’s, becomes Gustow’s and — well, you get the idea.

In direct contrast to the original “Cars’ ” life-in-the-slow-lane philosophy, this sequel maintains its joy-ride momentum at all costs. And, often, that cost is a deeper emotional connection with the characters.

They’re cute, they’re fun to play with — in short, they’re toys, far more than the toys of “Toy Story” ever were, or are. (It’s easy to compare the two, thanks to the charming, and heartfelt, “Toy Story” cartoon that precedes “Cars 2.”)

But “Cars 2″ provides so much uncomplicated fun that it seems downright persnickety to quibble.

Still, as a professional nitpicker, it’s my duty to share those quibbles.

Chief among them: the dominance of that means-well dim bulb Mater — and Larry the Cable Guy’s relentlessly good-ol’-boy voice work. A little of his aw-shucks routine goes a long way, and Mater figures in “Cars 2″ a lot more than is probably good for it. Or us.

But not even too much Tow Mater can keep “Cars 2″ from crossing the finish line in fun-for-all-ages style.

Carol Cling is the film critic for the Las Vegas (NV) Review-Journal.

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