This time the former hotshot, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson ), is a faded champion who yearns to win one more race. An unlikely hero for young audiences, Lightning is also an intriguing one—a living legend and incipient geezer struggling to compete against a new breed of race cars represented by Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a high-tech marvel with a formidably low drag coefficient. The computer animation is remarkable, just as we’ve come to expect from Pixar features—all those gorgeous colors and hurtling objects going round and round—and round and round and round. Yet the film’s drag coefficient starts to climb when Lightning’s story is intertwined with that of a gifted young rookie, Cruz Ramirez ( Cristela Alonzo ). Having missed her own shot at racing, Cruz is determined to inspire Lightning as his trainer.
There’s more to the relationship than that—a process of mutual inspiration, reciprocal support and, sometimes affectingly, a passing of the baton from one generation to the next. (And from Anglo to Hispanic, although Lightning is painted cherry red and Cruz is a lovely mustard yellow.) But the script is full of Disney -esque motivational slogans—don’t fear failure, be afraid of not having the chance, seize your chance when you can, look for new opportunities you never knew were there. And, paradoxically, the story slows most noticeably when the emphasis is on speed at a cutting-edge training center. That’s where Cruz helps her aging student sharpen his rusty skills in a program that differs little from countless other training sequences, and where we’re expected to thrill to the spectacle of Lightning coping, at a bizarre level of narrative abstraction, with the head-spinning challenges of a virtual-reality simulator.
That reference to the narrative should be taken loosely; it’s more like a succession of pit stops in a film that meanders all over the landscape to rural race tracks, and to one extremely muddy demolition derby. The script declines to explore Jackson Storm’s technology. In an era where race cars—and even passenger cars—are prodigies of complexity, Lightning’s ultramodern rival is seen entirely from the outside, with no sense of the soul in the elegant machine.
“Cars 3” does examine, albeit briefly, some of the strategies Cruz teaches her aging champ so he can compensate for slower reflexes and diminished fire in his cylinders. But much of the latter section becomes a trip down memory lane as Lightning searches for his old pal Smokey ( Chris Cooper ), and for further inspiration from the memory of his role model and mentor Doc Hudson. (It’s eerie to hear Paul Newman’s voice purring from the past.) The first film wasn’t bad, though it had its lapses. “Cars 2,” an aberration, was readily forgotten. This one feels like the series, at the end of the road, is running on fumes of nostalgia for its earliest self.
Write to Joe Morgenstern at firstname.lastname@example.org