By Pixar's standards, "Cars," a scenic, animated amble down Southwestern backroads, was the company's worst film. Laugh-starved and lacking action, the movie marked the triumph of toy sales and product tie-ins over motion picture.
"Cars" also was rife with "Get off the fast track" mid-life crisis musings that seemed an uncomfortable fit for a children's film. Its sequel overcompensates for that blunder, and does so in a funny and action-packed "James Bond goes racing" comedy. Pixar turns more of "Cars 2" over to the franchise's comic relief - dopey tow truck Tow Mater - and gets a sillier, more kid-friendly movie out of it.
In a Bond-style "opening gambit," we see a scheme involving deep-sea oil rigs - a mystery pursued by Her Majesty's Secret Service. Agent Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) drags the inexperienced Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer, Caine's "Harry Brown" co-star) along on the chase.
Mater (amusingly voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) is still in Radiator Springs, longing for those occasional visits from his stock car racer pal, Lightning McQueen. He's a drawling hick of an embarrassment to McQueen (Owen Wilson), but at least he goads the Piston Cup champ into entering a world grand prix race series sponsored by Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard), who is promoting his new alternative fuel "Allinol."
But as McQueen and his road crew get into the racing - and a feud with a snotty Formula 1 champ (John Turturro with an outrageous Italian accent) - Mater is mistaken for a fallen American agent and sucked into intrigues with the Brits. "You obviously have plenty of experience in the field," McMissile observes.
"Well, I do live right next to one," Mater drawls back.
Somebody is plotting to ruin this racing series, and at every turn, infamously ugly "lemons" from the automotive past (AMC Gremlins and Pacers, Yugos called "Hugos" here) are car-napping our heroes and causing wrecks in "Tow-kyo," Italy and London. What might their motives be, and who could be their boss?
Bad guys must be foiled, Mater must figure out where his competence lies and Lightning has to realize that "whoever finds a friend, finds a treasure." Vintage Pixar messages.
And as in the first "Cars," "Cars 2" is jammed with homages to vintage motoring - from Mini Coopers to Fiats, a Rolls Royce to a NASCAR Monte Carlo. This is a cartoon for the "Top Gear" dad to drag the kids to. But unlike the first "Cars," the kids won't mind this time.
This Pixar product is better than the toys they sell along with it.
STARRING: Larry the Cable Guy, Owen Wilson, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, John Turturro, Eddie Izzard
DIRECTORS: John Lasseter and Brad Lewis
RATING: G (104 minutes)
REVIEWER'S RATING: 3 stars
FOR PARENTS: Rated G for general audiences.