'Cars 2': The sequel is out of gas

Pixar is famous for a tough-love in-house creative committee that makes harsh criticisms and drastic revisions, hewing to a ruthless goal of perfection.

I wonder, though, if the committee took a year off while Pixar chief John Lasseter was making "Cars 2."

This sequel seems a few rewrites short of Pixar's usual standards. "Cars 2" hardly seems like a Pixar movie at all - it lacks the studio's usual emotional ambition, it settles for the gag-a-minute style of its commercial rivals, and is by far the studio's least original movie.

Of course it's unoriginal, you say. It's a sequel. Yeah, but it's also a lazy spoof, adopting a spy-movie framework to spin an action-comedy yarn while dropping a few 007 jokes along the way.

In the prologue, an Aston Martin (voice of Michael Caine) infiltrates a gang of AMC lemons trying to prevent a Grand Prix sponsor from introducing a line of environmentally friendly fuel.

The Aston Martin, of course, was James Bond's car, and the action sequence is pitched as a Bond caper, scored with the twangy Bond guitar, the kind of obvious and tired quotation common to "Cars 2" (how about a race announcer named Brent Mustangburger).

The original "Cars" gang joins the plot when Lightning McQueen agrees to compete in the international Grand Prix, taking his pit crew with him, along with the until-recently lovable Mater (Larry the Cable Guy).

In a twist like something out of a Martin-and-Lewis movie, clumsy and clueless Mater is mistaken for an American agent, and throws a wrench into everything - the race, the conspiracy, his friendship with Lightning.

Animators and editors work desperately to give "Cars 2" energy and movement, but it doesn't feel punchy. It feels stale - the spy-jinks, the racing, the characterization.

A subplot of McQueen being taunted by a sneering Italian Formula 1 car is lifted straight out of "Talladega Nights," and is about one-fifth as funny as the Will Ferrell, Sacha Baron Cohen riffs.

And then there is the suspiciously commercial nature of the plot, which takes the crew to races in Tokyo, Rome, and London - the same major-market, global box-office playbook that all summer blockbusters seem to be running.

Also suspiciously commercial is the movie's opening featurette. In the past, Pixar used the introductory shorts to make classical, lovely, and nearly silent visual tone-poems.

This time, we get "Toy Story 3.5," a forgettable cartoon that seems designed to remind us that "TS3" introduced a new character, little Bonnie, thereby opening the door to another movie.

It feels like business. So does "Cars 2," a fading franchise with fart jokes.

The studio makes what is to my knowledge its first flatulence gag, then moves on to other bowel-control comedy, even a reference to porn.

It will go safely over the heads of kids unfamiliar with hotel-room skin-a-vision, so they won't be asking why you're laughing.

Another reason: You won't be.

Cars 2

Directed by John Lasseter, Brad Lewis. With Peter Jacobson, Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, Bonnie Hunt, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, Owen Wilson, Jason Isaacs, Joe Mantegna, Larry the Cable Guy. Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures/PIXAR.

Running time: 1 hours, 53 minutes.

Parent's guide: G ().