Cars 2

What a fine thing it is to be Pixar, to have produced 11 computer-animated feature films, all of them beloved by audiences and critics alike. What a marvelous situation it is when the “worst” of your output, “Cars,” still merits a B- rating. We should all strive to do something that “bad”!

Unfortunately, the streak ends with Pixar’s 12th film: “Cars 2,” a tedious action caper that has only a handful of laughs and suffers from a dearth of storytelling magic. Except for the animation, which is typically state-of-the-art, the film is shockingly un-Pixar-like.

This time around, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is challenged to participate in a World Grand Prix by Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), a cocky Italian sports car who believes he is faster than Lightning. The race is being sponsored by Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard), a Richard Branson-like adventurer and entrepreneur who has converted himself into an electric car and has developed a sustainable new fuel, Allinol, that doesn’t rely on oil. The cars in the World Grand Prix will all run on the stuff.

With this as the backdrop, we get to the heart of the matter: international espionage! While in Tokyo for the first leg of the race, Lightning’s old buddy from Radiator Springs, the dimwitted tow truck Mater (Larry The Cable Guy), is mistaken by British spies for their American contact. These spies — the James Bondian Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and intelligence gatherer Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) — bring Mater into their mission, which has to do with stopping a conspiracy pertaining to the race.

It’s the classic dumb-guy-is-mistaken-for-smart-guy scenario, with Mater being quite slow to realize that Finn and Holley think he’s a spy, and with Finn and Holley being quite slow to realize he isn’t. Meanwhile, Mater embarrasses Lightning McQueen with his bumpkin behavior at the fancy Tokyo parties, and there is a rift in their friendship.

Here’s a sobering statistic: I laughed more times during the six-minute “Toy Story Hawaiian Vacation” short that preceded the film than I did in all of “Cars 2.” Now, that’s not necessarily a problem. Nobody ever said all Pixar movies have to be straight-up comedies; “The Incredibles,” for example, has several sequences that are more focused on action than laughs. The difference — and it’s a crucial difference — is that we care about the characters in “The Incredibles.” We’re invested in what happens to them. I feel almost nothing for the “Cars 2” figures, and perhaps least of all for Mater, a comic-relief sidekick character who was for some reason made the protagonist of this story. Every other familiar face, including Lightning McQueen, is relegated to secondary status as Mater spends most of his time with Finn and Holley.

If a sequel needed to be made at all (a questionable proposition to begin with), it was wise to avoid simply repeating the story from the first movie. But this screenplay — credited to Ben Queen (creator of the short-lived TV race drama “Drive”), from a story by director John Lasseter, co-director Brad Lewis, and “Cars” co-writer Dan Fogelman — assumes that the audience is far more interested in the further adventures of Mater the tow truck than is warranted. There are lengthy stretches where the film doesn’t even try to be funny, focusing instead on espionage action sequences that feel cold and tiresome. These sequences tend to be well-executed, but they involve characters we have little interest in, situations that mean nothing to us.

When the movie does go for laughs, it usually gets something closer to amused smiles. (When the cars travel by plane, they have to remove their tires at the airport security checkpoint. Amused smile.) Many of the gags rely on Mater’s idiocy, which is funny in small doses but hardly enough to carry a film.

The genius of most Pixar movies up until now has lain in their ability to efficiently create likable characters who are thrust into situations that are fantastical yet relatable. Even if you never played with toys as a child, you can relate to Woody’s fears of being replaced. Even if you don’t fantasize about being a superhero, you can relate to Mr. Incredible’s frustration over feeling unfulfilled. Even if you don’t have children and hate fish, you can relate to Marlin’s search for Nemo. You get the idea. In “Cars 2,” not only is the main character a dud, but so is his crisis: His feelings were hurt when Lightning got irritated with him, and now he thinks Lightning is better off without him. If “Cars” were a weekly TV series, that might work as the emotional core of one episode. It isn’t enough for a 100-minute feature.

Pixar head John Lasseter, who directed the company’s first few movies and is the chief creative adviser to the whole happy team, has spoken frequently about his lifelong love of cars. It was his enthusiasm for NASCAR and nostalgia for classic American auto-making that led to the first “Cars” movie. I think the problem here is that Lasseter thinks everyone shares his passion for automobiles, and that seeing them brought to life on the big screen is inherently delightful. For the first time in Pixar’s history, the storytellers have neglected the one thing they were always best at: telling stories.

C- (1 hr., 53 min.; G, with some mild potty humor and action violence.)