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MOVIE REVIEW

Cars 2

Up to speed: Once again, Pixar puts pedal to the metal for ‘Cars 2’

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / June 24, 2011

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This feels like the review in which I’m supposed to report that it has finally happened: Pixar has belched out a disaster and expects us to call it art. That “Cars 2’’ is the animation auteurs running on fumes, that it’s stuck in neutral, that it’s a gas guzzler, that it’s wrapped itself around a tree, albeit a big, astonishingly real-looking, impossibly well-detailed tree. But Pixar already did that. It was called plain old “Cars.’’ “Cars’’ felt very much as if another company had followed a Pixar starter skit. It was what you thought DreamWorks would have done with access to all that rival visual wit but little of the vision. It was far from bad yet too close to ordinary.

By 2006, the company had no one to blame but itself. After the mountain range comprising the first two “Toy Story’’ movies, “Monsters Inc.,’’ “Finding Nemo,’’ and “The Incredibles,’’ how dare it add only a molehill! A story about the inner lives of automobiles feels like a cheap imitation of the inner life of Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head. The color and light had a pinball-machine pop. But cars with the teeth, tongues, and the sliding eyes of Pac-Mac hosts were not inherently appealing. Do you think more about carbon emissions when the vehicles are made to seem human? Or less? And couldn’t you feel Pixar rolling its eyes at its own formula? Another lost hero, another adventure, another Randy Newman song, another hit, another animation Oscar nomination.

With Pixar you don’t taste a formula until you do. Then you can’t taste anything else. “Cars’’ was the only time I’ve tasted formula, then thought, God, I’m not an infant. It’s worth noting that the following summer brought “Ratatouille,’’ a movie about the joys of not serving formula and one imbued with daring: a nominal children’s movie about a cooking rat! The next summer was “WALL-E,’’ loosely about junkyard life after the end of the world. The cars there were in a scrap heap.

It’s possible that Pixar thinks “Cars’’ is perfect. But the company isn’t based in Hollywood. It hails from Emeryville, Calif., which is just north of Silicon Valley and a philosophical universe away from Hollywood. That’s not a part of the world that rests on its laurels. It’s a place that specializes in sequels not because it can’t think of anything else but because it can think of nothing else. If Version One was good, wait until you see Version Two.

“Cars 2’’ isn’t “Toy Story 3’’ — my soul never got in on the action. Conversely, neither is it “The Hangover Part II’’ — I at least had a soul when I left. The original movie has been debugged and rethought. It’s funnier and sharper. It’s just as long, yet leaner and not anymore about the value of friendship over the thrill of winning. Well, it’s no longer solely about that. “Cars 2’’ is a summer movie about summer movies. It begins with a scene of espionage, in which a sky blue Aston Martin/Peerless superspy (whose voice belongs to Michael Caine) watches murky doings at a dockyard warehouse. Warehouse sequences always feel like a setting of either last resort or least creativity — it’s cheap to film there, and no one will ever complain about the noise of shootouts or explosions. The Jason Stathams of the world might call it home. How amusing to see a cartoon go out of its way to play up a desperate live-action cliché.

In any case, the car and the spying are new and suggest that something more dynamic will occur than watching a stock car that spoke in Owen Wilson’s drawl speed around racetracks and tour the open road. Indeed, the stock car, Lightning McQueen, shares the foreground as opposed to dominating it, and the movie widens its story. Lightning and his hick friend, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), a dilapidated, bucktoothed car-repair tow truck, have a falling out. Lightning is a superstar racer. Mater is the sort of embarrassment you can’t take anywhere.

At a party before a Grand Prix event, with races in Tokyo, London, and the Italian Riviera, Mater eats a bento of wasabi thinking it’s ice cream. In the men’s room, he winds up involved in one of those action sequences that is the only reason movie bathrooms exist. That leads to accidental field-agent work with the superspy and his partner (Emily Mortimer), a sleek purple car that looks like a Jaguar. They’re trying to foil a terrorist-level conspiracy to discredit an alternative fuel called Allinol.

It’s a clever reshuffling of priorities. The sidekick of the first film becomes the hero of the second. And it must be said that pairing the lugubrious Waffle House twang of Larry the Cable Guy with the accent of Michael Caine might constitute the bravest sound effect you hear all summer.

Pixar is a company that makes Crayola seem monochromatic. Why it continues to bother with 3-D is a mystery, since the films often look better without it. There’s a wonderful climactic scene set along the Thames that is so sleek and well designed that it feels criminal to watch it through cheap plastic glasses. The same goes for a late, lite-Hitchcock dream sequence. Really, though, as much as “Cars 2’’ is a coloring book colored better than anything in the history of crayons, it’s also pleasing to the ear. The director John Lasseter, with his codirector, Brad Lewis, and the screenwriter Ben Queen, has filled it with snazzy puns (a theater is playing “The Incredimobiles’’), pivotal homonyms (“shoot’’ versus “chute,’’ for instance), stunt accents, and language gags. Jenifer Lewis resumes her bit part from the first movie, and I promise that no one has ever said “coolant’’ in a way that makes you want to both smoke a cigarette and cover your child’s ears. The movie honors the senses by tickling them.

Perhaps I wasn’t entirely fair before. “Cars’’ wasn’t just a movie from a kit. It was the purest approximation of the experience some kids have with their Hot Wheels. It was a little boys movie. A lot of vroom, woo-hoo, weee. But the thing about that experience is that it’s truly fun only if you’re holding the cars. There’s more to “Cars 2’’ than that. It better conducts and disperses the fun.

This is an action movie that nods to Hayao Miyazaki and those sleeky dumb European chase thrillers with guys like Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson. There are lessons of self-acceptance (love your inner jalopy!), reminders of old Hollywood capers like “Charade,’’ and a knowing foray into bromance. If the references fail to delight you, if they strike you as merely derivative, the glee behind them is nonetheless palpable. Pixar seems to know that if it’s not broken, it shouldn’t be fixed — I, at least, don’t anticipate sequels of “The Incredibles,’’ “Ratatouille,’’ or “WALL-E.’’ But they also know there’s always an excuse for a tuneup. The star of this sequel isn’t the race car. It’s the mechanic.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com or followed on Twitter: @wesley_morris.

CARS 2 Directed by: John Lasseter and Brad Lewis

Written by: Ben Queen

Starring the voices of: Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Emily Mortimer, Eddie Izzard, and Michael Caine

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX Reading and Natick

Running time: 106 minutes

Rated: G (machine guns, explosions, female cars adrool over male cars)

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