Cars 3 Voices of Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Armie Hammer. Directed by Brian Fee. Rated G. Opens Friday citywide.
The Cars franchise has long been Pixar’s most blatantly commercial enterprise, a series of movies that seem to exist primarily to sell merchandise for parent company Disney. Despite its somewhat misguided efforts at mature storytelling, Cars 3 continues in that vein, introducing new characters and settings that will probably make for fun toys and backpacks for kids, but combine into a mostly underwhelming movie from an animation studio that still regularly produces brilliance.
After taking a regrettable detour into international espionage for 2011’s Cars 2, the franchise returns to the world of auto racing for the third installment, as race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) starts losing ground to younger, faster, douchier models, led by the cocky Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). It seems odd to build a kids’ movie around themes of aging and the passage of time, but that’s exactly what first-time director Brian Fee (taking over for Pixar founder John Lasseter) and the six other credited writers do, following Lightning’s efforts to reclaim his past glory with the help of younger race car trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo).
The world of anthropomorphic vehicles is still colorful and lovingly detailed, but the plot is slow-moving and dull, rehashing elements of the first movie (including using voice outtakes of the late Paul Newman as classic car Doc Hudson) as Lightning must once again train for a big race and rediscover his confidence. Annoying redneck tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) thankfully has a reduced role this time, but Cruz is a bit bland as Lightning’s new companion. Her journey eventually takes over the narrative, and while it has a nice inclusive message (which might resonate more effectively with the young audience), it’s a bit too understated. The story sputters out rather than building to a big finish, stalling out multiple times along the way.