The history of movies can't be written without a section on John Lasseter. The animator/filmmaker/studio-exec/theme-park overseer is one of the few figures who genuinely altered the course of cinema -- perfecting the use of state-of-the-art technology, combining it with a respect for character and story, and fostering a working environment at Pixar that allows disciplined artists the time required to create new and lasting works. With that in mind, Cars 2 is the point at which Lasseter appears to have been "Lucasized," meaning he's been a mogul and a producer for so long -- and he's so undeniably talented at it -- that his films feel just as much like a means to an end as they do an end unto themselves.
One of the few Pixar movies to have a rather jumbled plot, Cars 2 focuses primarily not on the first film's hero, champion stock car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), but instead his trusty but dim best friend, the tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). When entrepreneur Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard) sponsors a series of three races in order to showcase the viability his new environmentally friendly fuel, Lightning and his crew accept the challenge, mostly so Lightning can defeat the arrogant Italian F1 car Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), who runs on Miles' new concoction.
Soon Mater becomes accidentally involved with British spies Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), who are trying to get to the bottom of some nefarious activity surrounding the creation of this new fuel. When bad guys start rendering the competitors immobile with a giant electronic pulse, it's the clueless Mater who may be the only thing that can keep evil from seizing the day.
Cars 2 is the kind of movie that crystallizes the futility of assigning star ratings to a movie -- if it's "good" or not depends entirely on your frame of reference. For one thing, it continues the Pixar string of unquestionably brilliant-looking movies. They transplant these characters from the dusty setting of Route 66's Radiator Springs to London and Tokyo, trading heat and sunlight for sleek architecture without missing a beat. And there are visual gags, including Mater confronting a bidet, that are worthy of comparison to the looniest of the Looney Tunes directors, Chuck Jones. You can totally enjoy this movie with the mute button on.
Come to think of it, you might enjoy it even more that way because Cars 2 comes closer to failing at a basic storytelling level than any other Pixar movie. Storylines that seem important are dropped and never returned to, the plot is far too complicated for little kids, and there is a heavy reliance on Larry the Cable Guy's dumb-American-abroad schtick. The movie is so busy both visually and plot-wise that seemingly hilarious elements, like Turturro's comically thick Italian accent, aren't accentuated enough, and seemingly important story points, like the feud between Lightning and Francesco, never progress beyond their initial setup. Also, like the first Cars, it's that rare example of a Pixar film that's boring for stretches.
The biggest change-up for adults who've grown to anticipate a new Pixar film just as much as their kids is that Cars 2 abandons the heart-tugging emotionalism of their last several films (Up, Toy Story 3, WALL-E). There is lip service paid to the importance of friendship, but those expecting to be moved by the plight of the cars -- as we were supposed to be at the loss of Route 66 in the first film -- will be left cold.
That may or may not be a plus -- it depends on the viewer -- but truth be told, none of this is likely to matter. Kids will run from the theater dying to get their hands on the newest line of Cars-related toys because that's how Lasseter has designed it. There are reports that Disney expects the merchandising of the film alone to bring in over two billion dollars, and if Pixar's centerpiece franchise, Toy Story, is to be believed, the odds are good that those toys will get into better adventures at home than they do in this movie.