Admit it. You weren’t missing Lightning McQueen all that much. There are only so many times you can watch cartoon speed competitions between talking cars with eyeball windshields before they become rather draggy. “Cars 3” seems to be the limit for me. Viewing it is like watching 132 laps at a NASCAR speedway. It’s not the sort of additional chapter you would call “eagerly awaited.”
The 2006 original, which introduced that world of humanoid hot rods, was not the highlight of Pixar’s acclaimed track record. Its 2011 “autos go spying in Europe” sequel, more a sales pitch for Disney’s consumer products division than the usual Pixar commitment to polished storytelling, is universally regarded as the studio’s worst. Watching that clunker felt as if marketing executives took the concept, rolled it into a stiff rod and used it to mercilessly beat the American public into buying more of the characters’ images on kiddie sheet sets and backpacks.
“Cars 3” eases back from the brand boosting to thoughtful character drama with occasional sprinkles of peppy humor. It spends a fair amount of time in high-octane car races but more on its characters’ inner stories and adult themes around generational transitions.
Owen Wilson reprises his voice role as Lightning McQueen, who, you may remember, began his career as a famous go-getter West Coast race competitor before finding the gentle small-town life in the Route 66 Podunk of Radiator Flats. More than a decade after his first appearance, Lightning is still spiffy and shiny red on the outside. Under the hood, however, he’s got a lot of mileage on the old odometer. He’s gamely committed to showing a new generation of rivals that he’s still the best race car in the world, but their up-to-the-minute engineering is hard to beat.
Just as Lightning was the protégé of race veteran Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), here he shares his wisdom with an up-and-comer. The moral, as in the first film, is that winning isn’t everything and competition isn’t about beating others but bringing out your personal best.
The vocal performances are passable. There are more newcomers, including Cristela Alonzo as Lightning’s spirited race trainer, Cruz Ramirez, and Armie Hammer as Jackson Storm, a smug new racing hotshot, but they don’t bring much excitement to the game. Regular cast members Tony Shalhoub, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy and more appear, but they seem to be around mainly for old times’ sake.
The performers who leave the most touching emotional marks are those who have died. Newman left behind a collection of recorded dialogue used here for flashback memories. And audio clips of Tom Magliozzi, who teamed with his brother Ray as Click and Clack on NPR’s popular “Car Talk” and voiced Rusty in the original film, are edited into conversations with his brother, who reprises his role as one of Lightning’s original sponsors. It’s hardly depressing to revisit voices we haven’t heard for years, but it is a bit sad.
What you get here is what you would expect. There is a steady supply of smoking wheels, flipping race cars and even a dirty demolition derby, rendered in impeccable visual detail. The fine points of each setting are flawless. There’s an antiseptic gleam at the technical campus where billionaire mudflap mogul Sterling (Nathan Fillian), Lightning’s new sponsor, is training him to win his farewell race. The choppy editing in a projector’s old race newsreel flutters precisely right. The balance between streetlights and moonlight on a foggy evening is balanced with remarkable accuracy.
The vistas here aren’t as vast as the imposing desert backgrounds in the original “Cars,” however, and none of the scenes carries an awe-inspiring level of creativity. It provides pictures that no other animated film has managed, but nothing we can’t live without.
★★½ out of 4 stars