If anyone makes sequels that actually seem worth the effort, it's the people at Pixar. Already they've produced "Toy Story 3," one of the best films of recent years -- with or without a numeral -- and now comes the breezily enjoyable "Cars 2." It's an example of what a sequel should, or at least can, be.
Returning from the 2006 animated hit "Cars" are the zippy red race car Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) and his tow-truck sidekick Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), though they unexpectedly trade spotlights as they steer off the beaten track and into James Bond territory. McQueen's race against Italian braggart Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro, in full ethnic fugue) is a mere backdrop to the central story, in which bucktoothed Mater joins an international spy team.
Mater's mentors are Finn McMissile (Michael Caine), a sleek coupe with a debonair pencil grille, and the prim but pretty Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). The villainous Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann) is of German design, of course; Eddie Izzard voices millionaire Sir Miles Axlerod, a cross between Richard Branson and a Range Rover.
It's classic spy-comedy stuff, with Mater as the bumbler mistaken for an undercover genius, but co-directors John Lasseter and Brad Lewis fill nearly every minute with elaborate comedy (how would you torture a car, anyway?) or split-second jokes (the Parisian mime-vehicle). Meantime, Larry the Cable Guy brings new depth -- that's right -- to his redneck shtick, while Caine and Mortimer are perfect as Brits whose chains are being Yanked.
Does this mean we'll see a "Cars 3"? To quote Mater: "Is the Popemobile Catholic?"
'Cars 2' director has auto motives
John Lasseter directed the first all-computer-generated feature film, 1995's "Toy Story," as well as 1998's "A Bug's Life," 1999's "Toy Story 2" and the original "Cars" movie in 2006. The boyish executive has changed little, longtime Pixar colleagues say, since taking on the key leadership role at Disney, which now owns Pixar.
"He loves telling stories, that's when he's happiest," said Sharon Calahan, who began working at Pixar on the first "Toy Story" feature film in 1994 and served as director of photography-lighting on "Cars 2." "The corporate stuff he's incredibly good at, but it's not fun for him. He's a big kid, and his playbox is Pixar. The 'Cars' characters in particular are his babies."
In fact, automobiles are part of Lasseter's origin story: His father, Paul, who died in May at age 87, managed a Chevy parts dealership in Whittier, Calif. As a teenager, Lasseter worked for his dad as a stock boy and truck driver, hauling auto parts around Southern California in the waning years of the muscle-car era. Today, Lasseter collects classic cars -- a favorite is his black 1952 Jaguar XK 120 -- and attends auto races at the Infineon Raceway near his home.
"I have motor oil running through my veins," Lasseter said.