To think in automobile terms, “Cars 3” is a gorgeous looking vehicle that has no pep in its step. On a visual level, this is as stimulating as anything that Pixar has ever done. Story-wise, it’s thematically similar to the first “Cars” and unlikely to rev anyone’s engine. Even with an attempt to be slightly more mature in its thinking, this is still very much aimed at children and designed to sell toys.
“Cars 3” is cute enough to avoid any charges of being a Pixar misfire, but it’s stuck on the lower tier with the previous installments in this franchise. There’s a potentially compelling world on display, but it’s never properly explored. Furthermore, this time around the pace is just so languid that boredom can threaten to set in. Expectations were low, so there’s no disappointment here. Instead, it’s simply a case of an iffy franchise continuing to struggle to find solid footing. “Cars 2,” this is not, though that’s damning with faint praise.
The plot looks back on the original fondly, while also potentially looking to pass the franchise’s torch, as it were. Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) is now the veteran on the racing circuit. An old man surrounded by faster and more high tech rookies, he’s slowly being pushed out of the sport. The big threat is Jackson Storm (voice of Armie Hammer), a racer who can leave Lightning in the dust. Not only does Jackson start beating him, but he gets in his head. At the end of a season, a dust up between the two leads to Lightning seriously injuring himself. A career is now in jeopardy, sending him home to Radiator Springs to lick his wounds and decide what to do next.
Facing retirement, Lightning has to look back upon his lessons from Doc Hudson (voice of the late Paul Newman), while looking to Doc’s own inspiration Smokey (voice of Chris Cooper) for guidance. Paired with a feisty trainer in Cruz Ramirez (voice of Cristela Alonzo), Lightning has one last shot at redemption. Along for the ride are old friends and new, including Lightning’s best friend Mater (voice of Larry the Cable Guy) and Sally (voice of Bonnie Hunt). Kids may not know where this is going, but adults sure will.
The voice work is solid enough here, though this is on the lower end of where Pixar normally sits for this sort of thing. Owen Wilson is a fine lead, though he never goes above and beyond. He’s low key, like much of the film itself. The same goes for the other central voices in Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, and Bonnie Hunt. Armie Hammer is wasted, Larry the Cable Guy annoys, while the rest wind up as just cameos, led by Paul Newman. On hand in this supporting cast are the likes of Nathan Fillion, Cheech Marin, Margo Martindale, John Ratzenberger, Tony Shalhoub, Kerry Washington, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and many more.
Filmmaker Brian Fee and his army of writers can’t quite crack the code here. Fee’s direction is solid, buoyed by those visuals, but that’s about it. The script he co-wrote with Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson, Eyal Podell, Ben Queen, Mike Rich, and Jonathan E. Stewart offers very little that’s new. It’s a mid life crisis sports flick, dressed up with state of the art animation. Randy Newman contributes a decent enough score, but he’s also done much better work in the past. Again, this is one of the best looking animated films ever, but audiences need more than just photorealistic environments.
Basically, “Cars 3” is just a visual treat with not enough else to offer in order to warrant a recommendation. It’s a step up from “Cars 2” and on par with “Cars” all in all, but Pixar is capable of better. If you enjoy this franchise, you’ll probably be pleased with what this one has to offer. If not, why bother? You likely already know if “Cars 3” is for you or not.
“Cars 3” is distributed by Walt Disney Pictures and opens in theaters on June 16.