Starring: Voices of Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Emily Mortimer, Thomas Kretschmann, Michael Caine
Runtime: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Bottom line: As good as the original
Pixar, the studio that brought us the "Toy Story" movies, "Finding Nemo," "Ratatouille," etc., has never released a "bad" movie. "Cars 2" doesn't change that.
But the days of every Pixar movie breaking new ground or becoming a classic are over.
That change is blindingly obviously after seeing "Cars 2," a sequel to the studio's least innovative, least meaningful feature that entertains but isn't much better than the first movie.
Director John Lasseter and his team made one very smart choice on "Cars 2," though, by taking Mater and Lightning out of Radiator Springs and thrusting them into a completely different kind of movie. There wasn't much else to explore in the small town where Lightning learned about friendship and humility, so the franchise needed to get out of Dodge.
We begin with British spy car Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) sneaking onto an oil rig in the middle of the ocean to rendezvous with a fellow agent and discover who is running this secret mining operation.
The James Bond fans out there will immediately recognize Finn as an Aston Martin DB5, which was Bond's trademark car for many movies.
Finn and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), both British Intelligence agents, are investigating an international conspiracy that centers around oil and alternative energy. Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann) is orchestrating it, but Finn and Holly must discover who the real kingpin is.
Meanwhile, Lightning (Owen Wilson) gets goaded into participating in a race series that will take him and his crew (his Radiator Springs pals) to Tokyo, Italy, Paris and London.
Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) gets to go on this trip, even though Lightning is afraid Mater might embarrass him (he does).
Finn and Holly mistake Mater for an American spy, and from the end of the first act on, the movie becomes a spy spoof. If it were a live action movie, Peter Sellers or the guy from the French "OSS 117" movies would be ideal for Mater's role.
"Cars 2" has very little in common with "Cars" other than Mater. One could even argue that the movie would have been better without the "Cars" brand or the franchise characters.
I doubt this sparks additional theatrical sequels, but it certainly opens up opportunities for TV and video game spinoffs.
I don't think I'm being too crass or cynical by suggesting that "Cars 2" might have been inspired mostly by those financial possibilities. OK, maybe that is a bit cynical, but I'm certainly no more crass than Pixar's parent company, Disney, who have set the bar when it comes to cashing in on established properties.
While "Cars 2" is a good but not great movie, these characters offer endless opportunities for toys and other tie-ins. Browse any retail toy store or website for proof - or maybe just look around your kid's bedroom.
Because of that, a sequel to "Cars" was inevitable, so I suppose Lasseter and company deserve credit for not telling the same story again, the way "Toy Story 3" did.
They also earn kudos for a scene in which Lightning pauses to remember Doc, which allows us to pay respects to Paul Newman, who voiced the character.
Take your young children to see "Cars 2." You'll both enjoy it. And afterward, while you're shelling out some of your paycheck for "Cars 2" toys, you can quietly start looking forward to 2012, when Pixar will hopefully remind us why they were once the undisputed premiere animation house in the world.
Next up for Pixar is "John Carter," adapted from the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel and directed by Andrew Stanton. Then "Brave," which will mark the first Pixar feature with a female protagonist.
After that it's a sequel to "Monsters, Inc."
This is the future for Pixar: churning out franchise sequels most of the time, with more ambitious projects here and there.
Oh, well. I guess even Pixar has to pay the rent, especially now that Disney is their landlord.
Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.