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Cars 2 (2011)

Family Rated PG

I’m not quite sure how to do this, but it must be done. I have to give a Pixar movie a bad review.

Since 1995′s Toy Story, Pixar Animation Studios has produced an unprecedented and unbroken string of stellar family films, more than a few of which will go down as all-time classics. So if Cars 2 is an overly plotted, thinly imagined diversion, shouldn’t we cut the studio some slack? Not when our other family option in theaters is Mr. Popper’s Penguins.

Truth be told, the first Cars was one of Pixar’s lesser efforts. Evidence of this is the fact that the people behind Cars 2, including returning director and Pixar founder John Lasseter, felt the need to go so far afield in terms of story this time around. Instead of a racing backdrop, Cars 2 has a spy theme in which Mater, the tow-truck friend of hero Lightning McQueen, gets caught up in an espionage plot while traveling with Lightning on the world racing circuit.

The new setting allows for one clever new character: British spy Finn McMissile. A James Bond sports car who has no need for 007 (and is voiced by none other than Michael Caine), Finn anchors the movie’s single arresting set piece: a chase scene on an ocean oil rig, in which a detonating circular ramp makes you feel as if you’re looking inside an exploding firecracker.

Still, most computer-animated movies these days are visual firecrackers. Where Pixar has truly excelled is in the realm of story, and Cars 2 doesn’t have one. Oh, there is plot – oodles of it – but no emotional or intellectual connection to anything that’s happening. Lightning and Mater have a misunderstanding that leads to some preachiness about friendship, but this thread is nowhere near the level of story sophistication we’ve come to expect from Pixar.

For adult fans of children’s movies, Pixar has been our knight in shining armor. On a nearly annual basis, the studio would swoop in, rescue us from the mindless drudgery of so much family entertainment and remind everyone – parents and other studios alike – that kids deserve better than what they usually get at the theater.

Given the studio’s track record, it would be easy to forgive Cars 2 as a swing and a miss. The movie is more disconcerting than that, however. It’s not only a sequel, but also a sequel to one of Pixar’s more valuable merchandising properties. A swing and a miss would be if the studio tried something new and ambitious – say, a comedy about a rat who longs to cook or a drama about a grumpy widower- and failed. Cars 2 is something else. It’s Pixar swinging and missing while playing Wiffle Ball.