“Cars 2,” written by Ben Queen (screenplay), John Lasseter (story), Brad Lewis (story) and Dan Fogelman (story), directed by Lasseter and Lewis, 112 minutes, rated PG.
In the Pixar universe, Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) is kind of like what Jar Jar Binks is to “Star Wars.” To put it kindly, he’s polarizing. Many kids love him, while most adults are probably put off by his grating voice and dumbed-down sense of humor. Mater is, after all, an animated incarnation of Larry the Cable Guy.
It strikes me as a surprisingly poor choice by Pixar to thrust Mater into the spotlight of “Cars 2,” the sequel to the commercially successful, and mostly enjoyable, 2006 film. Here, Mater is the lead. Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) and his friends from Radiator Springs fall into the movie’s backdrop, taking part in a series of races spanning three countries to promote Allinol, an alternative fuel created by the adventurous mogul Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard).
The fuel has one major design flaw: A strong electromagnetic pulse causes it to combust, and a group of jealous lemons (Gremlins, AMC Pacers among others) look to exploit that weakness, putting the racers in danger. It’s a part of a grander plot to destroy the public’s faith in alternative fuel.
Meanwhile, Mater unknowingly teams with two British secret agents, Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), who are on the trail of the criminal ringleader and plan to put an end to the corruption.
Mater gets tossed around during chase scenes, inadvertently discharges hidden firearms and gadgets, alternates silly disguises using voice activation, and uses grammar like he’s back on the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. All of this would have been fine in a subplot of “Cars 2,” but instead it just leaves you wanting more of the racing, and to return to Lightning McQueen and his arch rival Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), an Italian Formula Racer. That’s where “Cars 2” is at its best.
The racing bears a surprising likeness to its real-world counterpart, so meticulous in its translation that you’ll forget you’re watching an animated movie. From the starting line to every corner and crash, “Cars 2” gets the racing action just right.
There’s also a Rocky-Apollo love-hate relationship between McQueen and Francesco that is left underdeveloped. A little more of that would have made for a vast improvement to “Cars 2,” maybe even aiding it in becoming a great sports movie. But Lasseter never gives the contention between the two racers any room to breathe. Instead, we’re left with drawn-out scenes of a tow truck pretending to be a spy. Go figure.