If “Cars” was perhaps the least engaging of Pixar’s hugely successful animated features, John Lasseter and his team have hit the creative accelerator with the unexpectedly delightful “Cars 2.” The rare sequel that improves on its predecessor, this lightning-paced caper-comedy shifts the franchise into high gear with international intrigue, spy-movie spoofery and more automotive puns than you can shake a stickshift at, handling even its broader stretches with sophistication, speed and effortless panache. High-performance B.O. is assured, but as with “Cars,” ancillary/merchandising is where this expertly souped-up entertainment will leave others in the dust.As it recently reaffirmed with “Toy Story 3,” Pixar never ventures into the bottom-line-driven sequel market without the essentials of a good story and a clear artistic purpose. Working from a whip-smart script by Ben Queen (a relative newcomer with the salient TV credit “Drive”), Lasseter has not only invigorated his original concept but enabled the viewer to appreciate and share his passion for this unique corner of the Disney toon-iverse. With 2006′s “Cars,” the helmer fashioned a lovely, lackadaisical piece of Americana, evoking a bygone world of pit stops and open roads inhabited by anthropomorphized automobiles. This time, Lasseter abandons Route 66 nostalgia to deliver a giddily escapist action-thriller that moves too swiftly and assuredly for the viewer to do anything but sit back and enjoy the ride. Result may look like a more conventional assembly-line product than its soulful predecessor, but “Cars 2″ is nothing if not personal; not a frame goes by where you can’t hear Lasseter’s inner child squealing with pleasure. The adjustments are clear from the brilliant opening chase sequence, in which suave British spy Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine) outguns and outruns the minions of monocle-wearing German scientist Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann). It’s characteristic of the film’s cleverness that it never winks at the absurdity of enacting such a standard spy-thriller setup with cars; yet that unacknowledged element is what makes the pastiche feel so fresh and witty, and the deliriously inventive manner in which the sequence keeps topping itself sets a thrilling pattern for developments to come. But first, the story slows down for a quick stopover in Radiator Springs, the now-thriving home of Piston Cup-winning racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and his best friend, rusty-brained tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). When Lightning is invited to compete with arrogant Formula champion Francesco Bernoulli (a hammy John Turturro) in the World Grand Prix, he decides to bring Mater along, unaware of the trouble the easily distracted, socially embarrassing truck will stir up. “Cars 2,” in fact, is really Mater’s movie, expanding the first film’s friendship-driven themes from the moving perspective of a character whom others are quick to dismiss as a dumb sidekick. The first big setpiece in Tokyo offers marvelous fish-out-of-water comedy as Mater cluelessly chugs his way through this bewildering neon-colored metropolis; he also crosses paths with Finn and fetching associate Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), who mistake Mater for an American spy. Soon the hapless truck finds himself at the center of an international conspiracy to sabotage the race, which is being sponsored by Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard), chief proponent of an alternative fuel called Allinol. Super-fast cars, cosmopolitan settings, sustainable energy — what’s not to love? Critics and columnists should have fun parsing the deeper political messages of “Cars 2,” which never allows its gas-guzzlers-vs.-hybrids topicality to overpower its exhilarating sense of play. As the film zips from Tokyo to Paris to the Italian Riviera to London, Lasseter, co-director Brad Lewis and their crack team of animators unleash the sort of wizardly action sequences most live-action directors would envy, powered by the brassy James Bond-style riffs of Michael Giacchino’s score. Pic allows the viewer to relax into a pleasurable groove even as its abundant in-jokes and peripheral details encourage the mind to stay actively engaged. Set in a world where cars are outfitted with machine guns, rockets, parachutes, holographic displays and, in perhaps one innovation too far, insta-disguise mechanisms, “Cars 2″ is as close to a pure boys’ movie as the toon studio has yet made — though all boys’ movies should be so universal in appeal. More so than the Pixar norm, pic possesses a certain lowbrow streak entirely consistent with its vroom-vroom milieu, handily demonstrating that the often-aggravating staples of so much kid-friendly animation — nonstop banter, ethnic accents, goofy wordplay (mileage may vary), even bathroom humor — can be executed with wit and class. Larry’s vocal turn lifts Mater to the pantheon of endearing Pixar creations even as he gets occasionally gets on the viewer’s nerves, as he should; with their more elegant diction, Caine and Mortimer provide a wonderful contrast as his formidable new allies. Almost every member of the original “Cars” gang gets at least a line or two, with the poignant exception of Doc Hudson, wisely not recast after the death of Paul Newman. Pic will require frame-by-frame DVD scrutiny to fully appreciate the sheer number of creative choices that must have gone into its lensing, lighting and production design (informed by live location scouting), though the topnotch 3D treatment makes for an immersive experience best savored on the bigscreen.
Mater - Larry the Cable Guy
Lightning McQueen - Owen Wilson
Finn McMissile - Michael Caine
Holley Shiftwell - Emily Mortimer
Miles Axlerod - Eddie Izzard
Francesco Bernoulli - John Turturro