For many moviegoers, “Cars” has been one of the rare missteps on Pixar’s stellar record.
A touch too juvenile, with one of their worst characters (see: Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater), the franchise went from a mediocre debut to a pretty horrible sequel — look for it on or near the bottom of many rankings of Pixar movies — that took the wholesome anthropomorphized racing movie and turned it into a spy fiasco.
“Cars 3” swerves more toward the original, getting back to the tone of the debut. But the film is inspired even more by “Rocky IV.” There’s even a car named Cal Weathers.
Racing icon Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), once at the top of the sport, finds himself lagging behind the new generation of race cars, starting with the flashy Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who uses all the latest techniques and technological tricks to push the speedometer a few extra ticks.
The old-school Lightning, with his traditional dirt-track training — think Rocky’s snowy wood-chopping and sled-pulling montage — just can’t compete.
After he gets a new sponsor, Sterling (Nathan Fillion), and trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), he’s whisked far away from Radiator Springs, which thankfully gives the added benefit of putting many of the secondary characters well into the background (again, see: Mater).
With his new sponsor, McQueen attempts to learn all the newfangled training exercises, but he really just ends up showing Cruz his old school techniques — turns out, she’s got some serious racing skills of her own.
Cruz’s narrative brings the movie a strong, empowering message that anyone can do anything if they work hard enough. The film also mines racing history, with some flashbacks to the late Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson, not to mention some other older racers.
Unfortunately, the plot is as predictable as an oval track and the majority of the jokes speed by with nary a guffaw. There are a few inspired, energized moments during the training sequences when Lightning and Cruz find their way into a demolition derby. And if you’re not a racing fan, the film is even more of a struggle to sit through as it sputters through those final laps.