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Disney/Pixar’s Cars 2 in a lower gear; Bad Teacher: Class dismissed

by Mark Burger

This week’s sequel is Cars 2 , the follow-up to Disney/ Pixar’s 2006 boxoffice smash. Unlike a number of Pixar’s previous films, many of which were not designed as franchises regardless of how successful they were, the original Cars lent itself easily to continuation.

After a spectacular opening sequence that lays the groundwork for the James Bond-type thrills to follow, in which British agent Finn McMissile (voiced by the invaluable Michael Caine) uncovers an international conspiracy and barely escapes by the shine on his fenders, it’s back to Radiator Springs, where champion racer Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is coming home after a successful stint in professional racing.

At which point, the film diverges into two directions: The spy business, which allows for some amusing puns on the James Bond business, and the international World Grand Prix, sponsored by one Sir Miles Axlerod (voiced by Eddie Izzard), which involves stopovers in Tokyo, Paris and London. Needless to say, there’s some sabotage in store for the racing contestants, which is where Finn and his fellow agent Holley Shiftwell (voiced by Emily Mortimer) come into play. It’s their job to ferret out the saboteur and crack the case.

Cars 2 is very much a vehicle, no pun intended, for Larry the Cable Guy’s bucktoothed, rust-encrusted tow truck “Tow Mater,”

with Lightning McQueen very much in the background throughout. Moving the previous film’s comic relief to center stage is a risky move, and in the long run it doesn’t entirely pay off. Still, after the first film, was there much in the way of further character development for McQueen? (He’s just a car, after all.)

Other familiar voices in the cast include those of Joe Mantegna, Vanessa Redgrave, Franco Nero, Bonnie Hunt, Cheech Marin, Bruce Campbell, Pixar perennial John Raztenberger, Thomas Kretschmann, Jason Isaacs, real-life racers Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon and David Hobbs and sports announcer Brent Musberger, but they tend to be on and off fairly quickly. It’s nice having them around, but few have anything of significance to do or say. Wisely, the filmmakers have not re-cast the role of Doc Hudson, which marked the final screen role of the irreplaceable Paul Newman — although there is a nice nod to the character.

If Pixar is to be judged by a higher standard — and perhaps should be, given the phenomenal success enjoyed the last 25 years (as much critically as financially) — then Cars 2 is one of Pixar’s lesser feature films, if not the least to date. Indeed, the overall film is very much akin to eye candy. Mind you, the original Cars was not in the same league as other Pixar triumphs (WALL-E, Up!, the Toy Story films). It was a lark, albeit a very enjoyable and colorful lark.

Nevertheless, Pixar’s reputation precedes it, and Pixar eye candy is about as good as big-screen eye candy gets. Director (and Pixar founder) John Lasseter is singularly unable to bring the two threads of the plot — the auto race and the spy-jinks — into a cohesive whole, but in terms of visual spectacle alone (whether in 2-D or 3-D), Cars 2 is a breezy, colorful way to kill time in the summer heat. Here, presentation is everything.

It’s not a good movie, but it’s not a bad one, either: Bad Teacher is 90 minutes of Cameron Diaz behaving badly in the title role, imparting a full-tilt combination of reading, writing and raunchiness. It’s light, slight and passable.

Diaz’s Elizabeth Halsey finds herself in a quandary after being dumped by her fiancé and short on cash for a proposed breast enlargement operation (a laugh in itself, as Diaz is ever the cutie as is).

With amusing abandon, Diaz dives into the film’s lowbrow spirit, imparting non-shop mischief and misbehavior to her seventh graders, much of it completely ignored by her fellow teachers — with the exception of faculty foe Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch, quite the scene-stealer), and easy-going gym teacher Russell (Jason Segel), who’s got Elizabeth pegged from the start.

There’s never any doubt who’s going to come out on top at the end. The script, by Gene Stupnitsky and Lee Eisenberg, doesn’t deviate much from its one-note concept. Jake Kasdan’s direction is serviceable without being particularly inspired.

The kids, like the overall movie itself, earn some laughs here and there, but they’re mostly relegated to the sidelines unless a quick gag is required of them. The film gets some easy-going mileage from its enthusiastic cast, which also includes John Michael Higgins as the clueless principal, Phyllis Smith as an oblivious fellow teacher, and Justin Timberlake (Diaz’s one-time off-screen leading man) as the newest faculty member, whom Elizabeth would like to get a piece of — although her specific terminology wouldn’t pass muster in a family newspaper like this one. Molly Shannon and David Paymer appear in brief roles, leading one to believe that any additional scenes they were in wound up on the proverbial cutting-room floor.

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