Cars 3 Saved the Best for Last

Sideswiped by a new generation of blazing-fast cars, the legendary red hotrod Lighting McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) finds himself pushed off the track and out of the sport that he loves. Hoping to get back in the game, the anthropomorphic auto turns to Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), an eager young technician who has her own plans for winning. With inspiration from the Fabulous Hudson Hornet (Paul Newman) and a few hairpin turns, No. 95 prepares to compete on Piston Cup Racing’s biggest stage.

This installment explores the fast-paced, high-tech era we live in and how its speed of innovation renders even our once beloved, most treasured things obsolete. Out to prove the point that Lightning is ready for the scrapheap is a gleaming ebony muscle-car called Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). Storm easily hits speeds of over 200 mph thanks to the state-of-the-art technology under his hood – and his can-do attitude. Lightning puts up a good bluff, but he knows he needs a major overhaul if he wants to stay in the game. He goes to old-car rehab and even enters a demolition derby (which he loses), but it turns out the answer has been in front of him all along. One of the lessons learned is about the importance of mentorship (from both sides of the track) and how elders and youngsters can both learn from one another.

The Cars movies have been few and far between – debuting in 2006, then the overly ambitious sequel out in 2011 – but the quality is always high. Cars 3 is no exception: the imagery, vocal talent, comedy, and family-friendly story are all topnotch. The animation is delightfully deft and detailed, with the artists putting as much detail into the background as they do on the main characters. The stirring score and original songs are, as ever, by the legendary Randy Newman. The film is directed by newcomer Brian Fe, who also has a writing credit. Although Cars 3 is his first feature, Fe is a longtime protégé of Cars creator and Pixar/Disney wizard John Lasseter. Perhaps it’s because of this human backstory that the fictional mentor-and-understudy theme rings so true in the film. While Lightning is the focus, there’s a mild message of female empowerment here as well (perhaps thanks to the lone female screenwriter in the mix, Kiel Murray.)

It’s the vibrancy of the voices that really bring the movie across the finish line, though – we’re treated to Bob Costas, Kerry Washington, Tony Shaloub, Nathan Fillion, and the aforementioned late, great Paul Newman (who was an avid racecar driver himself). Newman’s stylings were gleaned from outtakes on previous Pixar/Disney flicks, and were augmented by impersonators. Wilson is fantastic as Lightning, bringing just enough gruffness to the gravitas, never letting things get too sappy.

While the Cars movies never had the emotional resonance of, say, the Toy Story franchise, Cars 3 comes closest to putting empathy over action. (But there’s plenty of action too – especially in the bang-up beginning and of course, the Big Race at the end when Lightning gets his motor-mojo back and helps the next generation find theirs.) While it’s not especially revelatory – we’ve seen these tropes in many animated kiddie flicks – it’s still well done and has heart. This is the one that shows the series still has some tread on its tires and fire in its pistons.

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