There’s more to life than winning races, a message that Cars 3 delivers to two-legged moviegoers through its four-wheeled protagonists.
However, it seems the 11-year-old franchise refuses to acknowledge its own platitudes about retiring with dignity, as this third installment in the animated series once again tries to recapture its glory despite being well past its prime.
As the film opens, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) finds his career as a NASCAR champion endangered by a new generation of cars, led by the cocky Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who are faster than ever thanks to breakthroughs in technology and analytics.
McQueen still has the passion for racing, but his title aspirations are slowing down. He tries to reinvigorate his success with a rich new owner (Nathan Fillion) — who has ulterior motives for signing him — and a young trainer (Cristela Alonzo) with racing aspirations of her own.
However, despite the support of his old friends back home in Radiator Springs, the efforts to teach an old car new tricks lead McQueen to rethink his priorities.
To a certain extent, Cars 3 puts the franchise back on track by dialing back the action on the asphalt — which overwhelmed the frenetic second film — in favor of a more mature and character-driven (for a movie starring anthropomorphic vehicles) examination of mid-life crises, legacies, and mentorship.
Those themes might not resonate with the target audience, which remains preteen gearheads who will turn the revved-up on-screen characters into an off-screen merchandising bonanza. They might better appreciate the silliness of the requisite high-octane action scenes, including one during a figure-8 race that’s especially high on spectacle.
As with the prior two films, this effort is visually striking, with crisp animation highlighted by vibrant character and background details.
Still, the vast majority of these characters are more familiar than fresh by now, and most of their shtick is recycled. The voice cast includes the usual assortment of real-life drivers in cameo roles, such as Lewis Hamilton, Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, and others.
Even if the story suggests otherwise, it’s time to trade in this batch of Cars films for a newer, sleeker model. The current series is running on fumes.