At the same time, "Cars 2" panders to middle America by placing Mater, the rusty, aw-shucks tow truck, front and center. McQueen is flashier but this is Mater's time to shine, as it were; Larry the Cable Guy, who voices the character, even gets top billing over Wilson. But a little of the comedian's twangy shtick goes a long way — for the audience, and for McQueen, who gets annoyed with Mater's boorish behavior in all these refined settings. Still, Mater is there to teach us some lessons about valuing the underdog. Or not judging people because we think they're different or stupid. Or something.
But wait, there's more. "Cars 2" is also a James Bond spoof, with Michael Caine providing the voice of the elegant English sports car, superspy Finn McMissile. Finn and his rookie sidekick, Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), run into Mater, who has tagged along with McQueen on this globe-trotting journey, and mistakenly believe he's the American undercover operative they're supposed to meet during their latest mission. This ties into a whole `nother subplot involving alternative fuel sources and the German villain (Thomas Kretschmann) who has big plans to keep cars reliant on Big Oil.
With all these new characters and various narrative strands competing for our attention, there's not much room for fun. "Cars 2" is one thing a family-friendly summer blockbuster should never be: boring. Yes, it looks beautiful, lavishing in photorealism as so many Pixar movies do. In 3-D (because of course it's in 3-D), the chase scenes have their thrilling moments, and the many shiny surfaces do have a tactile quality. Young kids — at whom so much of this material is clearly aimed — will probably enjoy the bright colors and incessant motion.
But as the structure grows repetitive and Mater's corny puns and malapropisms become tiresome, we — like the anthropomorphized autos — feel like we're just spinning our wheels.
"Cars 2," a Disney Pixar release, is rated G. Running time: 114 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.