- HOT WHEELS: Disney gets it better, if not right, the third time around in "Cars 3."
Time was, we wouldn't be grading Pixar movies on a curve. In the days of the "Toy Story" trilogy and snappy one-offs like "The Incredibles" and "Wall-E" — both Oscar winners, both marvelous — the bar for a Pixar movie was higher than any other two hours in a multiplex. Soon after Disney bought the studio, quality sagged. Five years after the perfectly pleasant "Cars," for instance, we got 2011's wait-what-seriously "Cars 2," which later gave way to a spinoff called "Planes," because why the hell not, sure, those also come in cereal boxes. Aside from 2015's surprise masterpiece "Inside Out," the studio has been mostly flailing throughout this latest, um, decade.
So who's ready to brave rows of jabbering 6-year-olds to sit through ... wait for it ... "Cars 3"? Well, you wouldn't call this a return to form, exactly, but it does a few things right. It offers a satisfying conclusion to the "Cars" trilogy, if that's in fact what we have (alternate title: sprawling universe of toys and video games and merchandise anchored by three features, some made-for-TV shorts, and counting). It low-key rolls out some of the most convincing nature animation ever put to screen. It has exciting race scenes, dropping the camera into crevasses and angles impossible to match in real life. It's not particularly funny or well-acted or musically memorable, but what the hey. It's pretty and fast cars go vroom. C'mon.
Your star "Cars" car again is the cocksure Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), still running NASCAR-style races, still winning. Life is good! Then, almost overnight, a younger, sleeker racer named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) leads a new generation of super high-tech cars. The kids blow the older cars off the track one by one until it's just Lightning and a bunch of these bro-y, telemetrics-obsessed new rigs on the tracks. Going full-out in the final race of the season, he suffers a blowout, crashes spectacularly, and limps home to a dark shed to contemplate retirement.
Lightning got old! And don't we know it, once his racing team changes hands: Its new-school billionaire owner (Nathan Fillion) skittishly wants to put Lightning out to pasture to hawk oil treatments and mud flaps and air fresheners all bearing his likeness. (Hell in the "Cars" universe, presumably, is dying and crossing over into the real world as a "Cars" car.) Lightning gets one more shot to prove he can still race, on the condition that his young trainer, Cruz (Cristela Alonzo), be allowed to help whip him into shape.
What follows could've been every sports sequel you've ever seen. Instead, it veers more into "Creed" territory than a reprise of "Rocky 3," and gives us a twist on the washed-up jock tale. Director Brian Fee — making the leap from storyboard artist on the previous "Cars" films — manages to drill into the tensions of fading glory, dreams deferred and mortality all while pushing these gumball-shiny cars around dirt tracks that look like photographs of backwoods Tennessee.
The "Cars" universe has always been a strange one, in that it's not really clear how anyone builds anything, or what happened to all the humans. (An internet rabbit hole for you: tracking down the answer of whether there was a "Cars" Hitler, given that there was apparently a World War II.) The more questions you ask, the dumber you'll feel for enjoying it. The big questions for this (and any Pixar movie, maybe) are whether adults will dig it as much as kids will. Probably nah, is the answer. But the margin is smaller than you'd think.