The talking autos are undeniably cute. The visual and verbal puns break all land-speed records. Cars 2, the sporty sequel to the 2006 release widely considered the lemon in the Pixar cornucopia, celebrates the little tow truck who could.
But despite the bucktoothed charm of the truck named Mater and a plot that pays lip service to alternative fuels, the John Lasseter-directed animation does not turn the lemon into lemonade. Speed can be a good thing in a car or a movie - but not when the scenery goes by too fast to understand where you are.
Mater (voice of Larry the Cable Guy), a bucktoothed, dented, and rusty tow truck with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things automotive, leaves the sleepy town of Radiator Springs, N.M., to be the pit-crew boss for his pal, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson).
The cherry-red racecar is favored to win an International Grand Prix that will take Mater and him to Tokyo, Paris, and London. Lightning's sponsor is Allinol, an eco-friendly gas substitute developed by Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard as the voice of a Land Rover), out to prove that clean fuel can win the race.
Unbeknownst to Lightning and Mater, British spies Finn McMissile (Michael Caine, voice of an Aston-Martin) and Holley Shiftwell (a snappy convertible with the voice of Emily Mortimer) are investigating the ownership of mid-Atlantic oil rigs that may have a sinister connection with the Grand Prix.
At the Tokyo meet, Holley mistakenly identifies the slow-talking, unworldly Mater as a brother spy. This has the effect of turbocharging the plot. The only sensible response is to fasten seat belts and not inhale the exhaust.
While the plot may be too twisty for most kids (and adults) to follow, the art of Cars 2 is as imaginative as anything Pixar has ever done.
The cars are anthropomorphically envisioned with front wheels as hands and rear wheels as legs (Mater and Lightning give each other wheel bumps rather than fist bumps). The landmarks of Tokyo, London, and Paris are reimagined with charming automotive details. (And tributes to prior Pixar films, with a Parisian mechanic called Gastow's, a nod to Gusteau's in Ratatouille.)
But what good are all these details and inside jokes when the filmmakers speed past them so quickly that viewers will have to wait for the freeze-frame on their home-viewing system to catch them?
Finally, this Pixar effort has an engine where its heart should be.
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or email@example.com. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http://www.philly.com/flickgrrl/.