Earlier this spring, Logan spun a beautiful yarn out of the cliché that says we all get old and die. Now Cars 3 picks up the same thread and, while the results aren’t quite as good, the movie points a better direction for the Pixar series than Cars 2 did. Instead of trying to expand the Cars universe, this third installment brings its cocky hero face to face with his sporting mortality and finds an emotional wellspring that brings up some good things.
As the film begins, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is suddenly staring down the twilight of his racing career. No longer blessed with the speed of his youth, the No. 95 car is now being beaten regularly by Jackson Storm (voiced by Armie Hammer), a hotshot rookie with up-to-date engine design and a full arsenal of passive-aggressive shade to throw at the old champion. With offseason rumors swirling about his impending retirement, Lightning decides to give it one last go, making drastic changes to his training regimen so he can go out on his own terms.
The story finds Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) and Lightning’s other friends in Radiator Springs pushed to the background, since they can’t really help him much with his current problem. That’s a good move, but I do wish the film had come up with more inventive ideas elsewhere in the script. Lightning gets a new billionaire corporate sponsor (voiced by Nathan Fillion) who’s so nice that he can’t possibly be a good guy. Chris Cooper is cast on the nose as the old coach of Lightning’s late mentor, and though Cooper’s a pleasure to have around anyway, we’ve seen this storyline before. The movie never quite reconciles its look at Lightning’s aging process with its “believe in yourself” mantra that powers about 97 percent of all sports films. That last bit applies to a predictable subplot involving Cruz (voiced by Cristela Alonzo), Lightning’s new trainer. As soon as you see her topping out over 200 mph on a racing simulator, you can tell where this is going. Defter handling could have made this so much more powerful.
Even so, the base material has a power of its own, with Lightning coping with the loss of his ability by digging into a veteran’s bag of tricks, and Cruz catching tips from a retired racer (voiced by Margo Martindale) about breaking into the sport’s old boys’ club. It all goes down easy because it’s mixed with little in-jokes (F1 champion Lewis Hamilton voices a Siri-like electronic assistant named Hamilton) and set pieces like Lightning disguising himself to compete in a race at a regional track that isn’t what it seems. For a series that I’ve never been as down on as most of my colleagues seem to be, Cars 3 takes an unexpected and happy turn.
Voices by Owen Wilson and Cristela Alonzo. Directed by Brian Fee. Written by Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson, and Mike Rich. Rated PG