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MOVIE REVIEW: Very little vroom: 'Cars 2' lacks charm, freshness of first film

Special Photo: Pixar/Disney. Owen Wilson is the voice of Lightning McQueen in "Cars 2."

Special Photo: Pixar/Disney. Owen Wilson is the voice of Lightning McQueen in "Cars 2."

Cars 2 (PG)

2 stars out of 4

It took a while -- almost 25 years -- but Pixar Studios has finally stumbled. "Cars 2" isn't a total clunker by any means, but when compared to Pixar's near-perfect back catalog it is a relative catastrophe. It also keeps the streak of inferior summer 2011 sequels unbroken.

Like other retread duds of the past six weeks, "Cars 2" takes a formula that might have worked well once, but stretches it out and waters it down so much that any of its initial freshness and/or charm is mostly absent. Pixar got real lucky with the second and third installments of "Toy Story." The studio defied all artistic odds by actually making each sequel better than what preceded it. The "Toy Story" phenomenon was and shall remain an anomaly of movie franchises.

What's most surprising about all of this was Pixar's decision to make a sequel to what most folks consider to be its least popular feature. Sure, it made money -- they all do -- but wouldn't follow-ups to "Monsters, Inc." or "Finding Nemo" have made far more artistic and box office sense?

Bearing little in common with the original -- one that was centered on racing -- "Cars 2" is a fish-out-of-water spy adventure with obligating racing sequences tacked on. After a relatively low-key opening salvo featuring a thoughtful remembrance of the late Paul Newman's departed character, the movie abandons its quaint American western roots and begins globetrotting.

The first stop is in the middle of the moonlit Atlantic Ocean where the sleek vintage British sports car Finn McMissle (Michael Caine) stealthily sneaks aboard an international freighter to try to foil a plot overseen by the spectacle-wearing Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann).

The scene is superbly executed but has far more in common with the James Bond flick "You Only Live Twice" than the first "Cars." The Bond connection escalates with the introduction of Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), Finn's crafty assistant who might as well be named Moneypenny.

Making a Bond spoof with animated talking cars is a novel concept, but the Pixar brain trust only does so about half of the time. That's the good half of the movie. Rather than focusing primarily on Owen Wilson's Lightning McQueen -- the hero and lead from the first -- the two directors and four screenwriters regulate him to the background and give center stage to McQueen's sidekick Mater (Daniel Whitney, aka Larry the Cable Guy).

The Mater character -- a rusted tow truck steeped heavily in both positive and negative Southern stereotypes -- worked wonderfully in small doses as a supporting character. Bumping him up to a lead role provides a few chuckles, but nothing gut-busting and after a short while Mater's aw-shucks obliviousness goes from moderately endearing to downright grating.

Ask yourself this: does the average child have any knowledge regarding '60s Bond movies, Wasabi, Kabuki, Zen gardens or know what a car being labeled a lemon actually means? That's the rub. In an effort to snag their larger-than-usual adult demographic, the Pixar filmmakers overreach with references and site gags most children will not get, and worse, most adults won't find funny. The squirm and walkout ratios at the Saturday morning preview screening were inordinately high - especially for a Pixar movie -- and the roars of laughter almost non-existent.

The best part of "Cars 2" takes place before the film even stars. Preceding the movie is a new "Toy Story" short film -- one that picks up where the last film ended -- and more than hints that a fourth installment is on the not-too-distant horizon. (Pixar/Disney)