Lightning McQueen's racing career comes full oval in Cars 3, returning to his quasi-NASCAR roots after a not-so-Grand Prix detour.
Disney-Pixar's autos franchise isn't truly beloved like toy stories and fish tales before. The 2006 original did have a folksy quality in its desolate Radiator Springs setting that balanced Lightning's Piston Cup commotion. That goodwill was smoked by Cars 2 and Formula One, its Eurocentric nothingness making even Tow Mater less fun.
Cars 3 puts Lightning back on the right track although he isn't fastest going around it anymore. Director Brian Fee, a storyboard artist debuting in the driver's seat, gets under the emotional hood of its aging hero, being shoved aside by younger, tech-savvier models known as Next-Gens. Lightning will leave on his own terms, thank you very much.
Not sure if kids will catch Fee's drift, but their grandparents will. Cars 3 contemplates aging more than any animated feature since Up, seldom achieving that level of poignancy. Usually it's when the late Paul Newman voices Lightning's mentor Doc Hudson through fortuitous outtakes from the original. Mostly the feels are drowned out by vehicular din and peppy musical interludes.
Lightning is his chummy champion self until the dynamic Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) comes along, a state of the art racer designed for maximum speed and track efficiency. More Next-Gens arrive, Lightning's longtime rivals retire or get replaced. Jackson puts our hero on notice that he's too old to compete, goading him into a devastating accident.
Lightning goes into seclusion at Radiator Springs where Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and sweetheart Sally (Bonnie Hunt) begin the healing. Opportunities arise, leading to a deal with Mr. Sterling (Nathan Fillion), a racing team owner with Jackson's training technology. From there, Cars 3 veers in several directions, mostly worthwhile. Notably, Sterling introduces Lightning to Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a trainer viewing the veteran as "my senior project."
Lightning, Cruz and Mater decide their only chance at victory is getting back to dirt track basics as Doc would insist. This midsection is Cars 3's finest passage, a road trip away from the loud, shiny finale at Florida International Super Speedway. The passage also lays groundwork for a nice twist there, a rarity in any underdog's Big Game/Race/Whatever.
It's more interesting to see Lightning and Cruz trying to survive a backwoods demolition derby with a fire breathing school bus (Lea DeLaria) and steering through a herd of tractor cows. The Cars franchise is always better when thinking outside the speedway.
Cars 3 is a better time at the movies than Cars 2 led me to expect. Not exactly ringing praise but we take amusement from sequels where we can get it these days.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.