If you’ve perused the Arts section of many of the country’s larger newspapers in recent days, you might be tempted to avoid Cars 2 like it was an Edsel with two flat tires.

Big mistake.

No, it doesn’t have the depth and warmth of Pixar’s phenomenal Up and WALL•E, but where in the Pixar handbook does it say that everything that comes out of Emeryville has to be a poetic, heart-warming masterpiece? Heck, if I was at Pixar and had just spent the past three years as an emotional wreck, putting together Toy Story 3, I’d want to just kick back and have a little fun, too.

Cars 2 is a full-throttle, mile-a-minute thrill ride, jam-packed with enough lighthearted action and suspense to fuel the next three James Bond flicks. No, you won’t get weepy, but you will feel like you’ve been around the world in 80 minutes (actually, it’s 112 minutes). And in my book, that’s a pretty good way to spend a night at the movies.

The action starts in the Pacific Ocean as British Spy Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) is coming to the rescue of a fellow agent. After tripping on the bad guys’ secret base atop an offshore drilling rig, he returns home to launch a let’s-get-’em mission with fellow agent Holly Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). Meanwhile back in the now-booming Radiator Springs, Lightning (Owen Wilson) is cajoled into joining the inaugural World Grand Prix– a series of three races that pit him (and a bunch of forgettable cars) against the open-wheeled Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro).

The two storylines quickly merge, as Lighting’s un-trusty companion Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) is mistaken for an American covert ally by McMissile and Shiftwell while in Tokyo for the first race. Lightning’s got his tires full with Bernoulli, and Mater is off unknowingly saving the world.

Cars 2 is a veritable travelogue, displaying some of the world’s most picturesque cities as only Pixar can. And as a result of the studio’s decision to not just rehash the first flick, ol’ Radiator Springs is not much more than a distant memory. All the old gang is back (save for Doc Hudson, who had been voiced in the original by the late Paul Newman), but they only figure in the festivities marginally. (Yes, George Carlin has passed away, too, but apparently his Fillmore voice is lot easier to imitate than Newman’s.)

This is actually the Mater show first and foremost, and Larry the Cable Guy’s backwoods dopiness has never shined brighter; only he could mistake wasabi for pistachio ice cream, down a heaping pile of the stuff, and then attempt to cool his flaming mouth on the centerpiece fountain at a grand banquet. The rest of the cast, including Caine, Mortimer, and Eddie Izzard (as the Richard Branson-esque organizer of the Grand Prix) are also worthy additions to the fun.

The movie rarely slows down (it’s as frantic as Up was tranquil), but things never get out of hand. Written by Ben Queen from a story by Pixar honcho John Lasseter, along with Dan Fogelman (who wrote the original) and Brad Lewis, Cars 2 feels more like James-Bond-meets-Hot-Wheels than typical Pixar fare; the closest resemblance is to The Incredibles. There’s plenty of shooting, a bunch of explosions, missiles and torpedoes, and even a few off-screen deaths, but there’s nothing that younger Incredibles can’t handle. The anti-Big Oil storyline will sail right over kids’ heads, but parents will certainly get the message, and it’s never so blatant as to be preachy.

As for the critics who are blasting the film for being so terribly ‘un-Pixar’, I’ll make the case that’s the exact reason that Cars 2 works so well. It’s a fresh, high-octane jolt that shows that Pixar really can do anything it wants to, and that you don’t need Route 66 to get your kicks.

4/5 stars