NEW YORK - Three films in, it's time to ask some hard questions about the world of "Cars."
What are their interiors like? Brains and a heart or plush leather seating and cup holders? Do they pay life or car insurance? And where, good God, have all the people gone? Are they, as I fear, hidden away in the trunks?
While the cycle of life and death is movingly detailed in most every Pixar movie, particularly in the "Toy Story" series, the aluminum-thin world of "Cars" has always been the exception. The movies and their windshield-eyed cars have none of the existential soul of "Inside Out" or "Finding Nemo." They're fun enough — and still dazzlingly animated — but they're Pixar on cruise control.
Yet kids — boys especially — love them, and so Pixar keeps making them, even while reproduction, itself, remains a foggy issue in "Cars"-land. Thankfully, after the wayward European trip of the scattershot "Cars 2," there's more under the hood of "Cars 3." But despite all the colorful shine, this is still the used-car lot of Pixar's high-octane fleet. Lacking the magic of Pixar's more tender touchstones, "Cars 3" mostly makes you pine for the halcyon summers of "Ratatouille" or "WALL-E," an era that unfortunately continues to recede in the rearview.
Previous "Cars" director and Pixar chief John Lasseter cedes the directing to veteran Pixar storyboard artist Brian Fee for "Cars 3," which finds an aging Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) getting outraced by a new pack of metrics-optimized young racers like the arrogant Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). With retirement suddenly looming after a bad crash, McQueen endeavours to train his way back to the top, ala "Rocky III."
This is, at first, a fairly unpleasant ride. The movie is almost as loud as a NASCAR race; Wilson's McQueen — a confident winner, not a humble underdog — remains the most uninteresting of Pixar protagonists; and the whole thing, like previous installments, is nauseatingly male, without a female racecar in sight. (The first "Cars" film, while full of charming Route 66 nostalgia, sunk low enough to have twin girl cars "flash" McQueen with their high-beams.)
But redemption is belatedly, imperfectly at hand. After McQueen's old sponsor, Rust-eze is bought by a tasteful billionaire named Sterling (Nathan Fillion), he's assigned a trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who works him out like a motivation-shouting spin-class instructor.
This, at first, begs an eye roll from wiper to wiper. Cruz is blandly yellow, over-eager and named like a celebrity baby. But as "Cars 3" chugs along, her story fuses with McQueen's and eventually speeds away. Her latent, untapped racing dreams emerge just as McQueen is making peace with getting older.
Pixar, a high-tech digital animator predicated on old-school storytelling, has long made calibrating progress with tradition its grand mission. Think of WALL-E and the newer, iPhone-like model, Eve; the threat of Buzz Lightyear to a rootin'-tootin' cowboy; or the fear Riley experiences moving from rural Minnesota to San Francisco.
Now it's Lightning McQueen's turn to face a new chapter in life. "Cars 3" is at its best, narratively and visually, when the story brings McQueen to a long forgotten dirt track in what appears to be the Smokey Mountains. There, he encounters a handful of old veteran racing legends (Chris Cooper, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Junior Johnson, Margo Martindale) who school McQueen not just on racing but on the joys of mentorship. They are old friends of Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), whose posthumous Obi-wan-like presence still steers McQueen.
"Cars" (2006) was Newman's last movie, and one of the best things about this sequel is hearing the actor's majestically gravelly voice again. His words from the original are called back numerous times, and they lend a gravity these movies otherwise lack.
Still, I'm not sold on Cruz's story line, which ultimately depends less on her own drive than the permission of the males around her. And even while rooting for her, I wished she was a more dynamic character, defined by more than her insecurity.
Yet the left-hand, gender-flipping turn that "Cars 3" takes is the most welcome and surprising twist yet in the "Cars" movies. Pixar, as ever, has some moves left and fuel in the tank.
"Cars 3," a Walt Disney Co. release, is rated G by the Motion Picture Association of America. Running time: 109 minutes. Two stars out of four.
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