“Cars 3” is a genial, easy-going throwback. Not just to the previous Pixar films in the series but to the early days of parent company Disney, when Walt walked the earth and sweetly earnest lessons about what’s important in life inspired movies that put smiles on faces all over town.
The directing debut for veteran Pixar storyboard artist Brian Fee, this warmly sentimental G-rated film about facing new realities and recapturing lost dreams has, despite its relatively adult story line, a beguilingly effortless feeling to it, as if it had nothing to prove.
But though it’s indifferent to pushing boundaries, that hasn’t stopped these further adventures of Lightning McQueen, the legendary Number 95, from subtly dealing with issues of equality and exhibiting deft plot moves that have some emotional heft to them.
As written by Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson and Mike Rich, this newest “Cars” takes advantage of the fact that the franchise is now a decade old, just enough time for McQueen, a racing legend if ever there was one, to begin to hear the automotive equivalent of footsteps.
Not that you’d know it at first. McQueen (voiced as always by Owen Wilson), uses the same “I am speed” self-motivation mantra against familiar rivals like Cal Weathers (racer Kyle Petty).
And he’s still got the same veteran team behind him, including lovable lug Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and the irrepressible Italian stallions Luigi (Tony Shaloub) and Guido (Guido Quaroni).
But a new wind is blowing on the track, the next generation of high-tech, metrics-obsessed racers who call McQueen “bro” (when they talk to him at all) are storming the track.
Leader of this pack, celebrated by numbers-crunching TV analyst Natalie Certain (Kerry Washington), is the confident, not to say cocky Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who oozes contempt for McQueen without even trying.
Though he won't admit it, McQueen is rattled, and when a mishap on the track sends him back to Radiator Springs to recuperate, he communes with the spirit of his auto guru Doc Hudson (the late Paul Newman, taped during production on “Cars”). This is this film’s first nod to the theme of mentorship, which is one of its key concerns.
More shocks are yet to come. McQueen's loyal sponsors Dusty and Rusty (“Car Talk” legends Ray and the late Tom Magliozzi) have sprung for a state-of-the-art Rust-eze Racing Center.
But they’ve also sold the firm to astute businessman Sterling (Nathan Fillion), the erstwhile mud flap king of the Eastern Seaboard, who worries about things like protecting the brand.
It’s Sterling’s idea to put McQueen in the hands of a young, tech-savvy trainer/motivator named Cruz Ramirez (stand-up comic Cristela Alonzo), who considers Number 95 “my senior project” and has her own ideas about what's needed to get him back on top.
Determined to improve but aware that he is not the racer he used to be, McQueen, with the increasingly involving Ramirez tagging along, takes some motivational detours of his own that amuse and enlighten in equal measure.
These include getting up close and personal with characters like dirt track legend Miss Fritter, “The Diva of Demolition” (Lea DeLaria), and the venerable Smokey (Chris Cooper), Doc Hudson's mentor, who sheds light on McQueen's past as well as his future.
Though the story is always paramount, "Cars 3" has paid lots of attention to the visual side of things, giving the vehicles a photo-realistic look and taking tips from real NASCAR footage in how it depicts its Piston Cup races.
There are also a lot of amusing visual references on screen, like a newspaper named The Daily Exhaust and an automotive tonic called Carbucha. Watching a forklift play pedal steel guitar in an automotive country western band is its own kind of treat.
The cars in “Cars 3” not only look spiffy, they’re so adroitly computer generated and so effectively voiced we really come to feel they’re people whose emotional issues we have no difficulty buying into more than one might expect.
Even when they were directed by Pixar major domo John Lasseter (as the first two were), the “Cars” films were not graced with the kind of critical favor many of the studio’s other releases, like “Wall-E” and “Inside Out,” received.
But it has become increasing evident that the kind of comfort and satisfaction these films offer is not something we can afford to take for granted. So, if you are inclined, start your engines and let the good times roll.
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Playing: In general release