'Cars 3': Film Review

Back on track, but not quite up to speed.

The franchise returns to its core values, with Owen Wilson's Lightning McQueen joined by newcomers Armie Hammer, Nathan Fillion and Cristela Alonzo.

In the wake of the noisy misfire that was 2011’s Cars 2, the Pixar pit crew ran the diagnostics and were able to pinpoint the winning formula of humor, heart and action (along with an added dose of Route 66-informed nostalgia) that made the 2006 original such a sweet ride.

They all make a welcome return in Cars 3, but, while visually dynamic, Lightning McQueen’s newest challenge still feels out of alignment with a languid end result that lacks sufficient forward momentum.

Given the enduring good will generated by the first installment, the franchise, which has to date grossed well over $1 billion and sold countless billions more in four-wheeled merchandise, should expect similarly strong, school’s-out business, even with the picture’s less-than-zippy performance.

Wisely not alluding to his previous espionage-fueled World Grand Prix adventure, Lightning McQueen (again voiced by Owen Wilson), the pride of Rust-eze, returns front-and-center to pole position only to discover a new generation of sleek, state-of-the-art vehicles nipping at his wheels.

He ultimately proves no match for one of them — Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who takes Lightning’s title and forces him to reassess his racing future, especially when his longtime sponsor has been purchased by the smarmy Sterling (Nathan Fillion), who views McQueen’s retirement as a merchandise-branding gold mine.

After seeking solace back in Radiator Springs, where he’s eventually spurred on by the words of his gruff late mentor, Doc Hudson (the late Paul Newman, in flashbacks), as well as by girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt) and loyal tow-truck pal Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), McQueen agrees to hi-tech rehab with some guidance from gung-ho race technician Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo).

Taking the wheel from John Lasseter, who directed the first two films, Brian Fee, who served as a storyboard artist on both, opts for a leisurely, unhurried approach to the pacing, which, while agreeably allowing emphasis on character over action, occasionally gets stuck in neutral.

As in the first film, the themes of youth vs. old age and change vs. heritage once again play a prominent role in the script, credited to Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson and Mike Rich, which does a nice job retaining the warmly regarded original characters (although in much smaller roles) while introducing engaging new ones — most notably Alonzo’s spunky Cruz.

While on the subject of change, over the decade since the first Cars there have been some noticeable shifts on the voice-casting front. Among them, aside from the deaths of Newman, who looms large here, and George Carlin, who originated the character of blissed-out VW van Fillmore (now played by Lloyd Sherr), the voice of McQueen rival Chick Hicks, formerly provided by Michael Keaton, is now handled by Peterson.

Like its predecessors, the film is visually quite splendid and, especially for an animated feature, stirringly well lit, most notably in a racing sequence set along a photo-realistic beach during golden hour and another on a vividly moonlit night.

But despite its many winning characters and good intentions, Cars 3 functions mainly as a tenderly rendered, wish-you-were-here picture postcard to Newman, whose absence, while affectionately noted, ultimately serves as a reminder why Lightning can never truly strike twice.

Production company: Pixar Animation Studios
Distributor: Disney
Cast: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Armie Hammer, Larry the Cable Guy, Bonnie Hunt, Chris Cooper, Nathan Fillion, Tony Shalhoub, Lea DeLaria, Paul Dooley, Kerry Washington, Guido Quaroni, Cheech Marin, Jenifer Lewis, John Ratzenberger, Paul Newman
Director: Brian Fee
Screenwriters: Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson, Mike Rich
Producer: Kevin Reher
Executive producer: John Lasseter
Director of photography (camera): Jeremy Lasky
Director of photography (lighting): Kim White
Editor: Jason Hudak
Music: Randy Newman
Casting directors: Natalie Lyon, Kevin Reher

Rated G, 111 minutes