Lightning strikes again

Pixar’s racecar hero is blindsided by a faster generation

Cars 3

** 1/2 of 5 | 109 min. | G

Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) has to train like a champ

Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) has to train like a champ

Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) has to train like a champ

Aging is inevitable, but to see it manifest in a talking car? That’s different. Not that Cars 3 is reinventing the wheel or anything, but its serious themes do suggest Pixar isn’t worried about the movie being too “grown up” for kids. Perhaps it should be.

Cars 3 is recycled adult drama mixed with action and flaccid attempts at humor. It reminded me of Rocky IV in that it features an aging champion who’s about to be overtaken by younger, faster entries in his profession. This leads to learning experiences, adapting, a meaningful talk with the significant other, training in a different way, and of course the climactic showdown. If this sounds predictable, well, it is, though there are a few (somewhat unbelievable) surprises toward the end.

There’s nothing inappropriate in terms of content, but the G rating seems generous; usually a movie like this gets at least a PG for “adult themes.” One wonders how well kids will relate to seeing racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) feel like he’s over the hill, suffer a horrible crash, and not know how he’ll get back on his tires.

Spurred by girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt) and best friend Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), Lightning decides to train in a brand new facility owned by mud flap entrepreneur Sterling (Nathan Fillion). Naturally Lightning doesn’t like the way trainer Cruz (Cristela Alonzo) is getting him ready for an upcoming showdown with the “fastest car in history,” Jackson Storm, so a muddy demolition derby excursion and soul-searching ensue.

The action is fine and plentiful, but doesn’t surpass the high bar set by the previous Cars movies. The animation, however, is stellar. The genius is in the small details. Note the condensation on Lighting’s hood in some early morning scenes, how accurately the tires rapidly rotate, and the meticulous attention to show the cars racing along the fence that lines the track. The effort to create these elements so effectively are tremendous achievements. If you see it, do so in 3D to really appreciate the visuals.

Too bad the humor and story don’t hold up their end of the bargain. There are two or three good laughs, and depending on your age the plot is either too mature or too predictable. It’s hard to believe that a studio capable of so much creativity could render something so bland. Remember how Monsters University (2013) was a typical college movie disguised in animation? This is the same kind of bad, only more ill conceived.

Aside from Toy Story” this is the only Pixar franchise to have at least three movies, and given the end result of Cars 3, could be its last. Unless, as Mater would say, they’re able to “git-r-done” in a better, fresher way.