What’s common to all Pixar films – whether they’re about toys, monsters, fish, or garbage-recycling robots – is their ability to get viewers to emotionally invest in their stories and their protagonists. The same unfortunately isn’t true of their latest film Cars 2, a fine adventure in the mould of James Bond films, but one that’s missing that indescribable something that pierces straight to the heart.

Cars 2 picks up a few years after the first film, which ended with race-car champ Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) realizing that there’s more to life than just fancy sponsorship deals and the celebrity lifestyle. The new film opens with Lightning McQueen returning to Radiator Springs to spend some time with his hometown buddies. Almost as soon as he arrives, he’s challenged to race overseas in the first World Grand Prix, a championship set to take place in Japan, France, Italy and Britain that will determine the world’s fastest car. This time he takes his pit-crew pals along and his best friend, rusty tow-truck Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy).

When exposed to the big, new world outside, Mater embarrasses Lightning McQueen with his ‘aww-shucks’ behavior and his small-town manners. This leads to a hurtful confrontation between the friends, soon after which Mater gets embroiled in a top-secret spy mission at the behest of British super-spy Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine) and his partner Holley Shiftwell (voiced by Emily Mortimer). Lightning McQueen meanwhile must face his arch-rival, Italian race-car Francesco Bernoulli (voiced by John Turturro), while simultaneously trying to reconcile with his best friend who he has upset.

There’s no place for moist eyes or lumps-in-the-throat in this fast-faced actioner that’s crammed with too many subplots all at once. Mater, who’s brought front-and-centre as the protagonist of this film, worked well as the sidekick in Cars, but doesn’t come with the personality of a leading man…or car.

But making up for the lack of emotional complexity in this film is its excellent animation and the thrilling racing sequences. As a spoof of James Bond films, there is some clever humor and the nifty use of gadgets and gizmos. The film addresses such basic themes as friendship and loyalty, and also glosses over a not-so-subtle pro-environmental message. Cars 2 may have less heart than Pixar’s earlier gems, but as an animated adventure it’s not bad at all. They’ve set the bar so high, anything short of excellent feels like a disappointment.

I’m going with three out of five for Cars 2, directed by John Lasseter. There’s no shortage of fun and thrills, but it’s missing a hero to root for.

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