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CARS 2 (2011) (***)

John Lasseter's follow-up to his ode to car culture is the least like any other Pixar film. The spy spoof is an unabashed genre flick. WALL*E was sci-fi, but had a compelling love story at its core. Where the original CARS had an aww-shucks charm in its tale of finding pleasure in the simple side of life, this part two sets that aside for international intrigue, mistaken identities and fish out of water tomfoolery. It's of course done at the high performance quality level that Pixar has set since 1995.

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John Lasseter's follow-up to his ode to car culture is the least like any other Pixar film. The spy spoof is an unabashed genre flick. WALL*E was sci-fi, but had a compelling love story at its core. Where the original CARS had an aww-shucks charm in its tale of finding pleasure in the simple side of life, this part two sets that aside for international intrigue, mistaken identities and fish out of water tomfoolery. It's of course done at the high performance quality level that Pixar has set since 1995.

The new adventure puts well meaning, but unsophisticated, Mater the tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy, WITLESS PROTECTION) at the center of the story. He is eagerly awaiting his best friend Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson, THE ROYAL TENEBAUMS) to return to Radiator Springs after the racing season is finished. Lightning has turned down an invitation to compete in the first World Grand Prix in order to spend some time with his friends. But when the arrogant Italian Formula One car Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro, THE BIG LEBOWSKI) insults Lightning on TV, Mater calls in and pretty much leaves Lightning with no other option than to compete.

On the tour, the uninhibited rust bucket finds ways to embarrass Lightning with his cultural ignorance and buffoonery. As a result, he is mistaken as a spy deep under cover as a "typical American." The super-spy Finn McMissile (Michael Caine, HANNA AND HER SISTERS) and the rookie agent Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer, MATCH POINT) enlist Mater to uncover a plot by an organization of lemon automobiles to sabotage the World Grand Prix, which is exclusively using the new biofuel of Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard, OCEAN'S TWELVE). The devious plan is to make his Allinol look unstable therefore discrediting biofuels in general.

McMissile is featured prominently, especially in the thrilling opening sequence where he infiltrates the secret offshore oil facility of Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann, THE PIANIST). The quick paced section is a first-rate set-up to the spy elements. It finds quick ways to establish real danger for the hero and utilizes fun spy standards, with a CARS twist, to free the Aston Martin from the bad guys.

Mater's fish out of water elements are what one might expect from an uninformed person in Tokyo, Italy and England. He learns hard lessons about wasabi and international bathrooms. The mistaken identity element is handled with attention to the characters. Finn believes Mater is simply playing the fool, while the tow truck's superior knowledge of automobiles actually helps out their investigations. But the humor isn't anything we haven't seen in similar stories like THE MAN WITH ONE RED SHOE, AUSTIN POWERS or JOHNNY ENGLISH. The funniest elements are the witty car-ifed world. But unlike the first film, which had a slower pace to take them all in, this drag race will need multiple trips to take in all the funny scenery you're zipping by.

Not since A BUG'S LIFE has Pixar made a film so unoriginal. That sounds far worse than it is. Films like the TOY STORY trilogy or UP or RATATOUILLE are hard to compare to anything else. They don't show their influences on their sleeve. CARS 2 shows its all over its hood, roof and undercarriage. While it's not as inspired as the previous Pixar films, it's still something that any other studio wouldn't mind having in their showroom. It's slick, fast and has punch. Even emotional punch in Mater's revelation of how people view him. If the original CARS is like a classic Mustang running of nostalgia, CARS 2 is a new convertible Mustang, a fun take on the original with a suped-up engine so that riders can zip along on a virtual autobahn tour. I guess there are times to take leisurely drives down Route 66 and then there are times you put the pedal to the metal. Having a bomb strapped to you is one of them.

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