"Cars 3" Is Middle-Of-The-Pack Animated Fare

When Disney•Pixar’s “Cars” rolled out in the summer of 2006, packs of critics wrote it off as pablum; bright, squeaky-wheeled filler aimed squarely at the elementary school set. Despite mammoth box office success, its cool critical reception was the first sign of trouble in the studio’s everything-to-everyone model of new animated classics. The movie’s truth, however, was much sunnier, especially compared to what would come next for Lightning McQueen and company. “Cars” was cute and cozy and sweetly nostalgic; its sequel would feature a Larry the Cable Guy character being knighted by the Queen of England.

The 2011 follow-up, Pixar’s first non-Toy Story sequel, was and remains its worst film to date, also having the dishonor of ushering in a wave of unnecessary follow-ups that have tainted the outfit’s once interstellar track record. But the “Cars” franchise remains a commercial juggernaut – and a property well beyond concerns of artistic preservation – which brings us, inevitably to a third film, a movie that is, for lack of a better word, fine.

In some ways, “Cars 3” is an ideal of franchise life extension, presenting a stable of reliable characters and their voice acting counterparts with a warm but sleepy story and just enough moments of silliness to keep the kiddos awake for 100 minutes. Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is now an old racecar, consistently outpaced by younger competition like Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), forced to confront the idea of life after racing by way of a return to his roots. Themes of retirement and aging might seem an odd fit for a children’s film – and they are – but there’s something uniquely universal therein, allowing screenwriters Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson, and Mike Rich to tell a classically Disney tale of mortality without getting into the guts of what it means to get old and die.

For all of Owen Wilson’s career one-noted-ness, the inimitably talented actor is perfectly suited to tell this story at this point in his career, when he faces his fiftieth birthday accompanied by a slate of unnecessary sequels (“Shanghai Dawn,” “Wedding Crashers 2”) in the pipeline.

As the story softly takes McQueen back to Radiator Springs to find himself after a devastating crash, and then to Thomasville to find the car who trained the car who trained him, the voice cast, led confidently by Wilson, consistently elevates the material. (This is, in no small part, thanks to a drastic reduction of screen time for Larry the Cable Guy’s tow truck character, Mater.) In addition to the return of series regulars Tony Shalhoub, Bonnie Hunt, Cheech Marin, and John Ratzenberger, the late Paul Newman briefly reprises his role as Lightning’s mentor Doc Hudson via flashback, recalling the homeyness of the original film while rebuffing the garishness of the second.

Two new additions to the cast are more than welcome. Chris Cooper voices Doc’s mentor Smokey, sure to leave many wondering why Cooper hasn’t done more voice acting, while stand-up comedian Cristela Alonzo plays Cruz Ramirez, Lightning’s initially unwanted trainer designated by new Rust-eze Racing Center owner Sterling (Nathan Fillion). Although initially unclear, Cruz’s place in the story eventually takes center stage and the movie is better for it, giving Alonzo a surprising but deserved time in the spotlight.

Although the “Cars” films have never been known for pushing the visual envelope, the animation here ranges from impressive to extraordinary, particularly during a demolition derby setpiece whose visuals eclipse all of Pixar’s previous work. For a decidedly cartoonish world to at times approach photorealism without breaking the illusion borders on revolutionary. It’s a shame it comes packaged with such a stock story.

In the end, “Cars 3” is most definitely for children, coming up surprisingly short in laughs for anyone older than ten. But between its wonderful voice performances and eye-popping animation, there isn’t too much to complain about, especially as a follow-up to Pixar’s nadir. If gratuitous sequels are the name of the game, families could do worse than “Cars 3” – a lot worse.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: June 16, 2017
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios
Director: Brian Fee
Screenwriter: Daniel Gerson
Starring: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy, Cheech Marin, Kerry Washington, Nathan Fillion, Armie Hammer, Tony Shalhoub, John Ratzenberger
MPAA Rating: G