It's Pixar Animation's 25th anniversary, and the studio has kicked back and given a present to itself and its ever-expanding audience with the genially entertaining "Cars 2."
A movie that loves autos and doesn't care who knows it, "Cars 2" is so close to the heart of John Lasseter that he carved out time from being the creative czar of both Pixar and Disney animation to direct it himself, the first time Lasseter's done that since, well, the original "Cars" five years ago.
But to expect simply a revisiting of the gang from Radiator Springs is to underestimate the Pixar philosophy. "Cars 2" takes the studio into unexpected new territory by bringing its familiar characters to a "Bourne Identity"-type spy thriller complete with secret weapons, sinister villains and clandestine agents calling frantically for backup.
Though it spends time in familiar Carburetor County, "Cars 2" also goes far afield geographically, unleashing racing whiz Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) and his best pal, Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), on the rest of the world as Lightning travels to Paris and competes in the World Grand Prix in Tokyo, London and the fictional Italian Riviera town of Porto Corsa.
More than visiting these metropolises, "Cars 2" is able to do what Pixar calls "car-ify" them. It reimagines these places in a remarkably detailed way, as if cars (the film boasts 145 unique car characters) were the people who built and lived in these cities, putting "car-goyles" on Notre Dame and turning London's Big Ben into "Big Bentley," complete with Bentley grills and hood ornaments.
"Cars 2" also makes entertaining and inventive use of 3-D technology. With a plot that includes life-and-death action sequences, thrilling auto races and panoramic scenic vistas, the opportunities for enhanced perspective are considerable and the Pixar team makes better use of them than most live-action films.
Despite all these technological wonders, "Cars 2" never forgets the heartfelt sensibility that is its dramatic heritage. Written by Ben Queen (the creator of Fox TV's "Drive") from a story by Lasseter and Brad Lewis, "Cars 2" teaches gentle kid-friendly lessons about the importance of friendship and being yourself and introduces some great new characters in its parallel spy drama and auto racing plots.
"Cars 2" opens in the middle of its spy drama and introduces suave, sophisticated secret agent Finn McMissile. Impeccably voiced by Michael Caine, McMissile is totally unflappable in all situations, even being pursued on the top of an oil platform by the dreaded Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann) and his merciless automotive minions.
Back in Radiator Springs, Lightning McQueen is looking forward to spending an off-season kicking back with best friend Mater and best girl Sally (Bonnie Hunt). But he gets drawn into that World Grand Prix, the creation of billionaire Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard), a reformed oil tycoon who now is pushing an alternative fuel called Allinol.
Also a factor in McQueen's decision to race is his irritation at the sky-high smugness of his chief rival, Italian Formula One car Francesco Bernoulli, hilariously voiced by John Turturro as a self-involved individual given to saying things like, "when I want to go to sleep, I watch one of McQueen's races."
At the instigation of Sally, McQueen takes Mater along on the world tour, and the clueless tow truck's bumbling, irrepressible innocence proves to be a problem from stop one in Tokyo, where he mistakes a dish of red-hot wasabi for a helping of pistachio ice cream.
Things get even more complicated when, in a "North by Northwest" case of mistaken identity, everyone, including McMissile and his inexperienced colleague Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), not to mention the nefarious bad guys, assume Mater is an ace secret agent with one heck of a cover. As if.
With engaging characters, a plot that ensures energy, and such a wealth of auto references (it even features a song originally performed by the Cars — "You Might Think," done here by Weezer), "Cars 2" has a smooth, easy way about it. These creations have become like family to Lasseter as well as to each other, and they never fail to make us smile.
MPAA rating: G
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: In general release