HAS PIXAR rendered itself into a corner?

Once an Oscar-strewn studio has soared to the emotional heights of “Up” and charmed with robot romance in “WALL*E” and masterfully tugged our heartstrings like a marionette with a “Toy Story” trilogy, must its every film be a transcendent digital symphony, wearing heart on its black-tie sleeve?

Sometimes, can’t virtuosic visionaries simply pick up their banjos, kick up some dirt and stomp out a lightning-fast, good ol’-fashioned barn-burner?

Because that’s precisely what Pixar’s new “Cars 2” is, really — a banged-up, twang-happy towtruck rattling along to a breakneck clawhammerin’ beat. The hurtling “Cars” sequel may move your shoes more than it moves the soul.

And the problem with that would be?

Simply put, the globe-hopping “Cars 2” is the cartoon equivalent of Jeff Foxworthy fronting a James Bond film. It may leave you shaken, but not stirred.

Not enough for some viewers? As Foxworthy himself might drawl: “You might be an animation snob IF...”

Does “Cars 2” belong near the top of the Pixar pantheon? Most pro critics and vocal first-wave moviegoers would certainly say not. Nearly 100 reviewers on RottenTomatoes.com cumulatively give “Cars” 2.0 a woefully low score of “36 percent” — an almost unheard-of figure for a Pixar release — and the public’s favorable rating has plummeted to 77 percent (not abysmal, but hardly Pixaresque).

Plus, “Cars 2” scores a middling “55” on Metacritic.com — notably more than 20 points lower than “Cars 2: The Video Game’s” reviewer index. It’s hardly surprising that the game scores relatively well, though, when you discover that the movie itself, at times, screens like a visually dazzling video game — the sheens and surfaces and photorealism and, oh, all that thundering speed and Dolby-rattling exhaust. There are entire swaths of the targeted tyke demographic that will eat up this film like a high-fructose snow-cone on a sizzling summer day. Bless ’em.

Based on early screenings, the ol’ “industry observers” have scaled their box-office expectations accordingly; “Cars 2” is reportedly expected to draw a $50-million to $55-mill domestic debut. That should be good enough to win the weekend, but that also means the G-rated spectacle wouldn’t even catch its predecessor; and the first “Cars” ($60-million-plus opening) didn’t have the benefit of elevated 3-D ticket prices.

So given all our “apologist” huffing-and-puffing, does that mean Comic Riffs would put “Cars 2” near the top of the Pixar heap? Well, no. My personal faves in the ongoing Pick-Your-Pixar Parlor Game are “The Incredibles,” “Up,” “Finding Nemo,” “Ratatouille” and anything with “Toy Story” in the title. Those masterpieces blend action and emotion and innovation like too few movies in the history of feature-film animation. Most of them also happen to benefit from strong female characters, which next year’s much-anticipated “Brave” should do, too. As silver-screen benchmarks, they are already enshrined in bronze.

Comic Riffs, however, would hardly assign “Cars 2” to the scrap heap, either.

That said, the most troubling scuttlebutt is the speculation in some quarters that Pixar greenlighted “Cars 2” motivated primarily by the global marketing and merchandising upside. That is, while Hollywood’s image is of a town largely driven by profits and points and percentages, that somehow up the road, the Northern California campus of Pixar would suddenly slough off artistry in order to be as commercially “crass.”


Pixar, of course, is owned by the worldwide superpower that is Disney, and “Cars 2” director John Lasseter heads up all Disney/Pixar animation. Yet my belief is that there is far, far too much talent on the Pixar campus — brilliant men and women fueled by ideas and experimentation and the free cereal bar — for the studio ever to rest on its artistic laurels. I’ve talked with numerous Pixar talents — including Lasseter and Bob Peterson (“Up” and ”Finding Nemo”) and “Cars 2” character designer Bob Moyer — and the passion to innovate and entertain roars like an unquenchable fire.

Which is why Comic Riffs hopes viewers go to “Cars 2” with realistic expectations. It is an artful film. It just happens to be a Southern-fried Bond film. One with few pit-stops for attempting emotional ploys. No hankies this time around — just oil rags.

So just know going in: “Cars 2” is a different machine than we’ve come to expect lately from Pixar. It’s racetracks and spies and light escapism — more open-wheeled racing than open-heart surgery.

You could call the genre “spoke-and-dagger.”

Just don’t call it Pixar’s first failure.

Frankly, it’s too good for that.