“Cars 3” owes as much of a debt to the “Rocky” sequels as its own previous editions, built as it is around an aging fighter training for one last shot at a championship. The result is a nostalgic movie that’s entertaining only in fits and starts, which spends too much time idling to ever fully get into gear.
The tuned-up premise has more emotional heft than the last “Cars” six years ago, reaching back to the project’s beginnings, as racecar Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) faces the lot of any great athlete – namely, what happens when he’s past his prime and newer models begin to outshine him. In this case, it’s a snotty newcomer named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) who benefits from space-age technology and training.
Trying to find his groove after being sidelined by a crash, Lightning embarks on an odyssey of self-discovery, one that begins with a new owner for his corporate sponsor pushing him toward adopting Storm’s training regimen. Lightning’s guide through that endeavor is Cruz Ramirez (comic Cristela Alonzo), whose relationship with racing is more complicated than simply putting other cars through aerobic-style workouts.
Ultimately, though, in order to prepare for a comeback race in Florida and find his Eye of the Tiger (or Carburetor), Lightning must get back to his roots. That includes seeking counsel from a mentor to the late Doc Hudson (Paul Newman’s voice, assembled in part from vocal outtakes, is used in flashbacks), named Smokey (Chris Cooper), whose low-tech approach is closer to Rocky chasing chickens and hoisting logs than his opponents’ pristine, textbook exercises.
The depth of the theme alone, in terms of Lightning’s plight, represents a marked improvement over “Cars 2.” “I decide when I’m done,” Lightning says about the prospect of retirement, sounding like a surrogate for any star with, well, a few too many miles on him or her.
To be fair, the “Cars” movies have never really been anything special by Pixar’s lofty artistic standards. Unlike “Up” or “The Incredibles,” it’s a project heavily driven by the merchandising, one whose theme-park incarnation far surpasses what’s been put on screen. (Disclosure: My wife works for a division of Disney.)
Pixar has also caught a pretty serious case of the sequel bug, enhanced by the fact that kids can discover its films at home even if there are sizable time lapses between them, as “Finding Dory” happily demonstrated.
Still, this is basically little more than a tolerable experience for parents who chauffeur their kids to the movie – one notably eclipsed by the economy and spark of the short preceding it, “L.O.U.,” about a bully taught a valuable lesson by an unexpected source.
Pixar’s level of ambition has always gone beyond producing movies strictly for children, which makes the retread aspects of something like “Cars 3” feel a bit more deflating. Because while the box office and merchandising tally should deliver another victory lap, for admirers of the studio’s creative accomplishments, let’s just say your mileage may vary.
“Cars” opens June 16 in the U.S. It’s rated G.