“It’s the comeback story of the year.” So says one announcer as the stakes go up in “Cars 3,” and while that may be hyperbole when applied to the movie itself, there’s no question that this latest edition in Pixar’s weakest franchise rescues it from mediocrity. Ironically, the first two “Cars” installments were shepherded along by Pixar guru John Lasseter, but traded the sophistication associated with the brand for hokey archetypes and surface-deep gags. Perhaps the setback came from the starting point: It was never a surefire bet that the travails of googly-eyed talking vehicles (in a world eerily devoid of other species) could muster much depth, but “Cars 3” finally gets there.
This time, Lasseter takes a backseat to new director Brian Fee (a storyboard artist on the first two films), who develops a richer scenario out of rusty parts — finding, along with screenwriters Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson and Mike Rich, that the material can finally reach for deeper possibilities in part because of that rust. Speed racer Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) rose to fame in the first movie and got sidelined by an ill-conceived espionage plot in the sequel, but now he’s reached a crossroads in his career. (The “Cars” movies set the stage for a lot of vehicular puns, but that’s the essence of a series steeped in heavy-handed metaphor.) No longer the state-of-the-art competitor of his early days, he’s marred by outsized expectations and dwarfed by sleeker, technologically-enhanced racers led by the smarmy Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a shadowy low-rider who whispers menacing threats to Lightning while speeding by. The anxiety gets to the older car’s head, and leads him to a devastating crash in the opening minutes that calls his future prospects into question.
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In sports movie terms, this is familiar turf, but that’s exactly what puts this unreliable series on steadier ground from the outset. If there’s one consistent variable in the so-called “Pixar Touch” that has sustained it over the years, it’s the ability to smuggle powerful cinematic tropes into the vernacular of a kid’s movie. From the pain of nostalgia at the root of “Toy Story” to the slapstick ingenuity of Tati that carries “Wall-E,” the studio’s finest entries show a profound reverence for sophisticated narrative traditions; the earlier “Cars” movies always slipped below that. But the latest entry cuts from a reliable cloth, mines for emotional depth and finds it — while unearthing a progressive vision in the process. From a storytelling standpoint, “Cars 3” has only a few fresh ideas, but it’s a largely satisfying entry in a series that has generally operated at, well, half-speed.
Before we get to all that, however, it’s worth noting the movie’s sheer visual intensity on display. Above all else, “Cars 3” is a satisfying racing movie, one that opens with jarring images of vehicles veering across a narrow track, interspersed with abrupt cuts to black. There’s an energizing quality to these sequences made all the more involving by the determined looks on the vehicles themselves. Earlier “Cars” lore hasn’t explored what happens when chaos breaks out on the track; “Cars 3” answers that question by showing that it’s just bad news all around. Lightning’s crash sequence is both terrifying and tragic even though he emerges mostly fine — it’s just harrowing enough to explain his ensuing psychological duress. Patched back up in the sleepy town of Radiator Springs, he looks mournfully toward the legacy of his late mentor, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, nicely resurrected with old audio files for a handful of flashbacks) while his friends lobby around him.
But it takes an unexpected new sponsor, the mysterious investor Sterling (Nathan Fillion) to push Lightning back into action. Rattling off plans for a whole franchise based on the racer’s earlier appeal, he introduces Lightning to a fancy training facility and places him under the guidance of an energetic young trainer, plucky newcomer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who harbors racing dreams of her own. It’s here that “Cars 3” finds a potent hook. The earlier movies had an inherently masculine quality by virtue of their focus — men and their cars, you know — but Cruz’s determination to pierce the boys’ club with her own ambition wrestles the narrative away from Lightning’s pity party with no less cultural depth than Furiosa taking charge of “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
While the usual assemblage of supporting types surface here and there, including Lightning’s ever-reliable bucktoothed sidekick Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Lightning’s supportive girlfriend Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), the bulk of “Cars 3” revolves around the developing relationship between Lightning and Cruz, and the way it begins to mirror Lightning’s own experience with an older mentor in Doc.
That dynamic opens itself up to the gentler, melancholic quality that percolated throughout the first “Cars” movie with less success. This time, it makes sense that, despite appearances to the contrary, the movie doesn’t really function as a comedy. Instead, it’s a keen window into the anxieties and frustrations of living in the confines of a legacy that has already peaked. Wilson, whose gentle vocal patterns make it sound like he’s always on the verge of launch into an indie rock ballad, endows his character with a soulful quality that elevates the material above its occasional sillier indulgences.
Notwithstanding the occasional cheeky one-liners engineered to wink at an older audience (“Life’s a beach, then you drive”), this is a sturdy, mature sports movie about the aging process that — if the anthropomorphized vehicles were swapped for humans — wouldn’t look out of place in Rocky’s oeuvre. (And by finding a new hero to supplement the older one’s frayed edges, it’s basically Pixar’s “Creed.”) It’s also a keen window into blue collar American life: Lightning’s trip to Doc’s small town finds him enmeshed in a corner with old fighting legends while a country singer dominates the stage, and the resulting banter hardly falls into stereotypical terrain. Instead, it finds a kind of spiritual quality to the land of aging vehicles, wooden barns and empty roads that results in the most definitely American movie in Pixar’s extensive filmography.
“Cars 3” still lurches through an aimless middle section and, yes, runs out of gas before the credits roll, but it never completely derails the sense of a sharper, intelligent version of this otherwise familiar routine. Notably, the movie finds Lightning at odds with the demands of an affluent sponsor keen on cashing in on his appeal. Considering that it’s a second sequel in a less-than-revered franchise, it’s a minor miracle that “Cars 3” hits the finish line with a fresh sense of purpose.
“Cars 3” opens nationwide on Friday, June 16.