Review: “Cars 3” returns to its charming roots by looking back while moving forward

The wildly successful “Cars” franchise has been good to Disney and Pixar not just with two movies that combined to earn over $1 billion worldwide and several shorts but mostly with their brilliant merchandising. For the last decade, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), his best friend Mater (Larry “The Cable Guy”), and his friends from Radiator Springs have been featured on die-cast cars, backpacks, shirts, toys and just about anything else a child would want or need.

As McQueen becomes self aware of his own brand in the beginning of “Cars 3” as he is presented with a mountain of products that will feature his likeness (Lightning McClean, Lightning McGrill, you get the idea), he is encouraged by his new boss to preserve the legacy he is leaving behind to the racing world. The champion was so busy winning races and enjoying himself that he abruptly finds himself on the tail end of his illustrious career. The brash, ultra-competitive rookie we first met back in 2006 has been replaced with a veteran content to win some races but also mixing it up and enjoying the camaraderie with his fellow racers.

However, a new breed of high-tech racing cars have taken over the racing circuit and quickly outrace the veterans, despite the best efforts of McQueen who has been shaken up from his comfortable spot up top and most now deal with these rookies — notably Jackson Storm (voiced by Armie Hammer). Rejuvenated and motivated, McQueen is ready to train to become the best in his class again.

The problem is, how can McQueen truly compete with the new guys? Should he just quit while he’s ahead and “cash in”? That’s the crux of the matter as he quickly finds himself lagging behind despite the efforts of his new trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). In search of inspiration, Lightning and Cruz hit the road along with some familiar friends to see if he can get his racing mojo back.

No bullets or torture interrogation scenes here, “Cars 3” swiftly bypasses the odd spy movie theme of the mega successful but critically dismissed sequel and returns to its small town roots with just enough of Mater without having his bumbling presence smother the film as it did at times in “Cars 2”. Indeed, “Cars 3” takes a while to get going but it builds up nicely into a story of finding oneself that echoes the original with a fresh twist in the face of McQueen’s impending end to his racing career.

Pixar could have chosen to not age McQueen a day since the events of “Cars 2” if they had desired in order to make countless more sequels but much like “Toy Story 3” these popular characters are aging in real time and they must confront the reality of this. Though the Cars franchise skews more towards younger children then perhaps any other Pixar property, parents and older fans will appreciate these more mature moments in the film while still chuckling along with the kids at Mater’s hijinks. (And for the record, our two children were laughing throughout and wholeheartedly gave “Cars 3” a thumbs up.)

Even as McQueen tries to embrace the new next-gen training techniques, he’s driven even more so to look back to his time with his mentor Doc Hudson for inspiration. The makers of Cars likely did the same when setting out to reset the franchise by studying the original film. We get a little more time in Radiator Springs, though it has apparently (and confusingly) returned to being a ghost town in the background as the familiar gang go about their business. (Maybe it’s the slow season for tourists?) With McQueen’s quest the main focus, there is little time to develop the new characters apart from Cruz and much like the first sequel there is precious little time left to spend with Sally, Luigi, Fillmore, Sarge, and the rest of the original characters.

On a technical level, Pixar has once again outdone themselves with photo-realistic vistas and stunning racing sequences that will thrill anyone with a pulse, particularly a wickedly funny sequence at an off-road race out in the country. Watching it in 3D is highly recommended.

As McQueen finds his way, so has Pixar in returning to the love of racing that permeated the first movie and “Cars 3” is all the better for it.

“Cars 3” arrives in theaters on Friday, June 16, 2017.

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