Pixar’s 2006 “Cars” was one of the animation outfit’s weaker efforts, but it was remembered with affection when “Cars 2,” its grossly overloaded sequel, rolled off the studio’s assembly line in 2011, making its predecessor look better than it was. Now there is “Cars 3,” a series installment that falls between the two previous ones in terms of quality; if “Cars 2” took the model into reverse, this new entry can be said to come somewhere near idling.
That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t have lots of racing action; it does, both on NASCAR-level tracks and on a muddy Demolition Derby field. But in the last analysis the only real motion in the story is of a sort that’s become increasingly familiar in Disney animation product: a movement away from overemphasis on masculine heroes toward a more female-centric posture. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course; it’s nice to see girls move to center stage. It is, however, becoming a predictable motif, one that grows less and less interesting with repetition.
The main character, however, remains Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson)—now the confident champion on the racing circuit. His status is abruptly threatened by the arrival of arrogant newcomer Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who quickly outshines him and everyone else. Dejected, McQueen faces the possibility that he is on the way out, an idea that trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who’s been assigned to him by his profit-obsessed sponsor Sterling (Nathan Fillion), readily embraces.
Lightning realizes that he needs to regain his old mojo if he is to stay in contention—a situation exacerbated by his reluctant agreement to retire if Storm beats him in an upcoming race—so he goes off to train elsewhere, with Cruz reluctantly in tow. After a rather unproductive slapsticky session on a beach, they’re off to what McQueen assumes is a friendly local stock car event that turns out to be a rowdy demolition derby in which he has to face off, none too successfully, against an aggressive school bus named Miss Fritter (Lea DeLaria).
Feeling in ever-greater need of help—and with his erstwhile mentor Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), who appears here in a few flashbacks using the late actor’s outtakes (and apparently some imitators), gone—McQueen seeks out Hudson’s old pal Smokey (Chris Cooper), who had been a mentor to Doc. Smokey and others of his generation undertake to aid in Lightning’s training, in which it becomes clear that Cruz, once an aspiring racer herself, has talent that has so far gone untapped.
The big conclusion is the race in which McQueen faces off against Storm, with Smokey and Cruz in his corner. It takes a great many swerves, of course, one in particular that represents a decision by McQueen that could lead the “Cars” series down a rather different path should it continue. The biggest question posed by the Florida race, however, is why the huge track is surrounded, in this human-free world, by skyscrapers for which these anthropomorphic cars could have no possible use.
That aside, “Cars 3” is an amiable but instantly forgettable addition to the series, yet another sign that the Pixar brand is no longer the guarantee of high quality it once was. It should keep kids engaged, and will be less annoying to their parents than “Cars 2” was, not only because it’s less frantic and over-plotted but because it minimizes the role of goofy tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), who was a major player last time around. (He’s the perfect example of a character that’s amusing in small doses but deadly in large ones.) Oddly, Sally (Bonnie Hunt), Lightning’s girlfriend, is reduced to minor status this time around. Otherwise the voice work is good enough, though no one really stands out—Alonso, Cooper and Fillion prove pretty anonymous, though DeLaria and Hammer register quite strongly—and the animation is of the usual high standard. This is the first directorial effort by storyboard artist Brian Fee, and he does a solid if unexceptional job. Randy Newman’s score adds a jaunty feel.
Preceding the movie is a Pixar short, Dave Mullins’ “Lou,” about a playground bully who magically learns that it is better to give than to take—always a nice message to send to kids—and also carries the lesson that bullying begets more bullying. As usual, it’s beautifully made, but while engaging, it too shows a bit of a second-hand quality, especially in a “recognition” moment that comes across as awfully similar to the famous one in “Ratatouille.” It still works, but may be another sign that Pixar is beginning to repeat itself—and not just in terms of the sequelitis represented by “Cars 3.”