Move over, James Bond. There’s a new spy patrolling the globe, and if his affectations seem comparatively pedestrian — he can’t handle a martini, shaken or stirred, and he sports a thick coat of rust where Her Majesty’s favorite sleuth prefers finely fitted Savile Row — he is, dents and all, more recognizably human.
He is Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy), a happy-go-lucky tow-truck whose best friend, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), happens to be the world’s fastest racer.
Swept up unwittingly (or, some might say, witlessly) in a complicated plot to discredit alternative fuel sources and keep cars slavishly reliant on gas, Mater — the relentlessly affable optimist of John Lasseter’s “Cars 2” — is uniquely unqualified to outfox a diabolical army of four-wheeled lemons, but that doesn’t stop him from tagging along for the ride.
Truth be told, Mater is more Austin Powers than 007 — as an international man of mystery, most of his triumphs are accidental, though his intentions are noble and his efforts tireless. But even if his best-laid plans never failed to fail, and his aspirations to daredevil heroism proved frustratingly ineffectual, it would take nothing away from Mater’s overwhelming decency, his loyalty to friends and his passion for life.
He is the emotional anchor of the “Cars” franchise, and the key to its success: Without the warm-hearted innocence Mater brings to screenwriter Ben Queen’s madcap espionage adventure, Lasseter’s sequel would be little more than a superior technical exercise, visually impressive but so slight as to seem superfluous.
The quality most striking about Pixar’s artistry is its subtlety; rarely do the studio’s animators unload their bag of tricks without a compelling reason. Here, as in “Up,” the 3-D is effectively unobtrusive, and the genius is once again in the details — stunningly lifelike waves raging in a swirling sea, and painstakingly precise recreations of London’s and Tokyo’s skylines.
This being Pixar, story is paramount, and though the high-concept caper that serves as the movie’s framework at times seems too busy for its own good, “Cars 2” spins a tight enough yarn to ensnare all but the most cynical. Its green politics are a negligible afterthought, but its heart, like Mater’s, is never far from its sleeve.
Whether Queen’s gentle spy spoof — which recalls equally weightless farces like 1997’s “The Man Who Knew Too Little” — is enough to sustain audiences weaned on more substantive Pixar adventures like 2008’s “WALL-E” and last year’s “Toy Story 3” remains to be seen, but it is sufficient to push “Cars 2” to the finish line in style.
Starring Larry the Cable Guy, Owen Wilson, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer
Written by Ben Queen
Directed by John Lasseter, Brad Lewis
Running time 1 hour 47 minutes