By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

Cars 2 wants to be Cars, too.

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It’s not — and, given the masterful original that this sequel follows, it would border on the miraculous if it were.  But there’s still plenty to admire and enjoy in Cars 2.

The 2006 comedy-adventure Cars may have looked like little more than a bunch of animated cars racing around a track. But it turned out to be so much more.   The ultimate high-octane car-toon, it featured cleverly anthropomorphic automobile characters and awe-inspiring landscapes.

But it also surprised us and drove off with our affection by getting in gear with a thoughtful and emotionally resonant narrative about not just a car race but the human race — and the rat race as well — sporting a level of honest sentiment and poignancy that proved improbably affecting.

Wow.  Eye-popping visuals, laughs galore, and a nostalgia bath combined for one of the best movie experiences of that year.

The sequel adds international espionage to the formula as well, kicking off in the manner and style of a James Bond flick as it globetrots to London, Paris, Tokyo, and the Italian Riviera — all rendered with startling photo-realism.

Owen Wilson again provides the voice of star car Lightning McQueen, the racing legend from Radiator Springs who heads overseas to compete in the first-ever World Grand Prix to determine the world’s fastest car.

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This will give Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard) the chance to demonstrate that his revolutionary new clean fuel, Allinol, is a viable alternative to gasoline — a theme addressed unobstrusively in this never-slow-down enterprise.

Meanwhile, clueless tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), who has accompanied McQueen to assist him, is mistaken for an American spy and is thus tugged in two directions because he’s been invited to join a top-secret spy mission masterminded by vintage British sports car and superspy Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and high-tech coupe and spy-in-training Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer).

Director John Lasseter (Cars, Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life) and debuting co-director Brad Lewis keep things moving at a lightning-quick pace, their level of inventiveness admirably and absolutely unflagging.  But the sequel seems to depend much more on the audience’s interest in cars and racing, at times seeming more like Nascars 2.

Ben Queen’s screenplay has a lot of plot (far too much, when you come right down to it), as well as too much time spent in the company of the charmless Mater character, as Larry the Cable Guy’s aw-shucks line readings as the socially embarrassing Mater are embarrassing for us as well and vividly demonstrate the law of diminishing returns.  We’d be a lot happier spending more time with Francesco Bernoulli, the Italian champion wittily voiced by John Turturro.

But a bigger problem is that the emotional quotient never quite kicks in the way it did in the original — which is a big part of the reason why the climax falls rather flat.  The energy level never dips, to be sure — full throttle is the only speed this movie knows — but velocity is no substitute for emotional involvement.

All that said, this still represents a staggering technical achievement, beautifully designed and energetically sustained.  But the trifecta that Cars managed — superior story values, immensely appealing characters, and fluid thematic depth — remains elusive.

Still, we’ll drive 3 stars out of 4 for a slightly exasperating but still exhilarating animated adventure.  The souped-up Cars 2 isn’t Cars’ equal, but it still crosses the finish line as a respectable sequel.

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