Pixar's Cars franchise takes a sharp turn from NASCAR mayhem and rural red-state-targeted '50s nostalgia to 007 espionage with this upgraded sequel, though in its delivery of Matchbox-machine superheroics for its young male demographic, it stays true to its prime function as an advertising vehicle for lucrative merchandise. Nonetheless, if this shift can't stave off monotony, it's still welcome, as the series at least dispatches with conservative cultural pandering in favor of be-yourself platitudes and—following WALL-E's lead—pro-environment messages, all delivered via high-octane chases over land, sea, and air. Those high-speed pursuits revolve around hot-rod Lightning McQueen's (Owen Wilson) participation in a globe-trotting world grand prix, during which his redneck tow-truck BFF, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), is mistaken for a spy by a British secret agent (Michael Caine), becoming embroiled in a plot involving outmoded auto "lemons" and alternative green fuels. Director John Lasseter's 3-D-enhanced animation sparkles, but it can't energize centerpieces lacking in suspense, and shoving bumbling sidekick Mater—here cast as a Southern-fried Inspector Clouseau—into the spotlight does little to offset the dullness of these cloak-and-dagger machinations. Notwithstanding John Turturro's amusingly smug Italian F1 speedster and a few lighthearted jabs at Japanese TV and technology, Cars 2 generally remains stuck in neutral.
Jason Isaacs voices the new Euro-villain Siddeley.
Opens at Metro and other theaters, Fri., June 24. Rated G. 112 minutes.