The Cars franchise has always been Pixar’s red-headed stepchild, unfairly lambasted for being nothing more than a way for the studio to make money at the toy store. But the first Cars movie is still among my favorites in the Pixar canon, and the second, though admittedly not even close to being in the same ballpark as Wall*E or Toy Story 3, is still at least mildly fun and entertaining.

So why do we need a third one?

Because when Pixar puts its mind to it, it can do some really nice work.

That’s not to say Cars 3 will go down in the pantheon of high-brow, exquisitely-crafted animated feature films, but it does smartly return to the original’s small-town roots and injects a little heart into the proceedings. This is the final lap forCars, and though the saga of Lightning McQueen and the gang in Radiator Springs won’t be lauded years from now in the way Up and Finding Nemocontinue to be, it’s had a decent run, and Cars 3 helps far more than it hurts.

Mirroring the opening scenes of the 2006 original film, Cars 3 starts with McQueen (Owen Wilson) getting ready for yet another big race, only now he’s the haggard veteran being left in the dust by next-generation rookies like the super-slick Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). At a subsequent race, McQueen once again finds himself staring at Storm’s rear bumper, and while pushing himself too hard, he crashes violently, ending his season and forcing him to return to Radiator Springs to recuperate.

After some time to ponder his future and also think back on the cut-short career of his mentor Doc Hudson, McQueen heads off to train for the upcoming season. His old sponsors, Rust-eze’s Rusty and Dusty, have sold their company to a rich businessman named Sterling (Nathan Fillion), who has opened a new multi-million dollar training facility. Sterling wants McQueen to retire and just make paid endorsement appearances, making room for the new blood, but McQueen makes a deal—if he wins the season’s first race, he can keep going. If not, he’ll retire.

McQueen trains for a bit with Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), but it doesn’t take long for him to realize he’s in over his head. At the suggestion of Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), McQueen and Cruz track down Doc’s old mentor Smokey (Chris Cooper) to see if he can offer some home-spun advice to keep McQueen’s career alive.

It’s a story heavy on nostalgia and charm and light on the flashy race sequences that dominated Cars 2. Returning to the themes that made the first movie a success, Cars 3 feels like a pleasant ride down memory lane. Of course the whole gang is here, including Mac (John Ratzenberger), Sally (Bonnie Hunt), and Ramone (Cheech Marin), but it’s the welcome return of the late Paul Newman as Doc that really seals the deal. Using a combination of flashback footage and voice recordings from the Cars cutting room floor, first-time director Brian Fee makes some nice magic happen.

He also continues the tradition of Pixar’s mind-melting art and visuals. From the minutely textured appearance of a gravel race track to the ripples in a puddle as a car speeds by, there are more than a few moments that will make you swear you’re watching live action.

Cars 3 is a solidly G-rated evening (or afternoon) at the movies. The kids will have a blast (particularly at the slam-bang, mid-movie demolition derby), while adults ride the wave of nostalgia all the way to the finish line.


4/5 stars

Worth the 3D glasses?

Oddly enough, not really. There are a few moments, especially as cars go whizzing by, that justify the extra couple of bucks, but by and large, the film is perfectly fine as is. Don’t worry about it.