Pixar's 2006 release "Cars" is widely regarded as among the less dazzling of the animation house's dozen sterling titles, so it's fair to imagine that John Lasseter and his pit crew felt motivated to use a little extra elbow grease in order to deliver an improved new model.
On the whole, they have, as Lightning McQueen and the loyal pick-up truck Mater quickly vamoose from sleepy Radiator Springs to join the Grand Prix circuit in a succession of world capitals, where they become entangled in some related international spy intrigue. Featuring cooler cars and more action than "Fast Five," "Cars 2" is notably less refined and more rambunctious than Pixar's recent run of artistic gems. But commercially, it'll be off to the races this summer, with even bigger international prospects assured on this lap than on the first spin.
No special knowledge or memory of the original is required to get one's bearings, as this beautifully designed sequel stands easily on its own four tires. A self-professed car nut from his youth, Lasseter takes advantage of the global locations to jam the cast with an auto show's worth of vintage international motorcars, from an amply armed Bond-style Aston Martin to the humble East German Trabant; in the bargain, he even further adorns Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower and, in the end credits, Pixar's own campus to charming effect. Perhaps as much as in any animated film one could cite, there's always something beautiful or clever or funny to look at and, as often as not, to listen to as the anthropomorphized automobiles zip about in high and determined spirits.
The story, cooked up by Lasseter, co-director Brad Lewis and Dan Fogelman and scripted by Ben Queen, is both simple and not always entirely discernible on a moment-to-moment basis. At the outset, in fact, the coordinates are geographically and dramatically inscrutable; physically, the action begins literally at sea, amidst an ocean of sinister oil rigs infiltrated by British spies Finn McMissile (an Aston Martin voiced by Michael Caine) and Miata-like Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), who make use of all their special extra-automotive endowments — wings, heavy weaponry, underwater capability — to make a nocturnal escape with their dignity and paint jobs intact.
A world away in the American desert, the spiffy red Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is hot-rodding around with tow-truck buddy Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) when he's persuaded to enter an upcoming series of races in which big shot Land Rover Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard) hopes to prove the viability of his revolutionary clean fuel Allinol as a substitute for gasoline. Here, as elsewhere, the visual, verbal and musical jokes practically exceed the speed limit; one blink-and-you-miss-it gag shows the marquee of the local drive-in promoting "The Incredimobiles."
First stop is Tokyo, where cars engage in sumo wrestling and the lights of the Ginza district look so bright you're glad for the slight dimming effect of the 3-D glasses (Pixar typically amps up the brightness of its images to compensate for the darkening).
During a pass through Paris, the old Les Halles is wondrously reconstituted as a spare parts bazaar, Gusteau's from "Ratatouille" is part of the cityscape, the tops of the Eiffel Tower and the Arch de Triomphe are automotively reimagined and Mater, who went home after Tokyo, makes a too-soon return. Inoffensive in small doses, Mater's "Hee-Haw" routine gets old pretty quickly and comes to excessively dominate the film with his saddlesore witticisms.
Next stop is fictional Porto Corsa, an Italian seaside jewel that resembles a theme park version of Monaco. The Italian champion, Francesco (John Turturro), intends to assert his dominance over Lightning McQueen here, while a disguised Mater tries to infiltrate a gang of low-end Euro cars working on behalf of unknown bosses out to discredit the Allinol vehicles so as to maintain the demand for oil. The message is clear.
The in-fighting becomes downright vicious during the final race in London in front of the Queen, while the picture itself becomes rather more antic and frantic than it needs to as the ultimate villain is exposed, the British spies are vindicated and the Americans, while happy in their achievements, typically decide that there's no place like home.
Even as recent Pixar films have benefited from increased simplicity and modulation of mood and effect, Lasseter keeps "Cars 2" running at close to the red line from start to finish with nary a pit stop to refuel. On balance, it's more exhilarating than exhausting, but there are moments when sensory overload threatens to set in. More is better seems to be the byword, but a bit less aw-shucks humor and Looney Tunes-like madness over the long haul would have made for a more agreeable balance.
The vocal talent assembled for the voices is impressively varied and deep; even for small roles one finds enlisted such estimable actors as Vanessa Redgrave, Jason Isaacs, Jenifer Lewis, Franco Nero, Katherine Helmond and Paul Dooley, not to mention Cheech Marin, Brent Musburger, "Deadliest Catch" star Sig Hansen and race car drivers such as Darrell Waltrip, David Hobbs and Jeff Gordon. Michael Giacchino's score has the effect of a supercharger on the film, as if it needed one.