Cars 3 (G) ★★★

Review Date: June 19th, 2017

In 2002, Paul Neman made his final live-action film, The Road to Perdition. Following that performance, he retired, making only a few TV appearances. He made one exception, providing the voice of Doc Hudson in Pixar's 2006 animated feature, Cars. Newman died in 2008 and, when Cars 2 came along in 2011, the decision was made not to recast the role. Laid to rest like the man who portrayed him, Doc was mentioned in passing but the character's absence was more of a footnote than a plot point. With Cars 3, the filmmakers have corrected this in a major way. Using repurposed vocals and new images, Doc and his legacy are a big part of Cars 3, which serves as a belated Valentine to Newman.

The storytellers and animators at Pixar have always had a warmer spot for Cars than the general public. The first film, although successful at the box office, wasn't the mega-blockbuster some had expected. The widely criticized sequel, Cars 2, failed to crack the $200 million domestic bar, becoming the only summer-release from the studio to miss that mark. The announcement that the franchise would get a third entry didn't elicit much excitement but the creative minds have (thankfully) changed direction for Cars 3, taking as much inspiration from the Toy Story series as from the film's immediate predecessor. However, although this third (and final?) venture into the world of Lightning McQueen gamely tries to make a profound statement about accepting the changes that come with age, it never achieves the emotional impact of Toy Story 3, which delivered essentially the same message.

At one point during Cars 3, a roadhouse band plays Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days", a tune that could be considered the movie's theme song. Rather than taking the road traveled by some of the early Rocky sequels (number 3, 4, and 5 in particular) and having the aging protagonist return one last time to compete against a bigger, better opponent, Cars 3 moves more in the Rocky Balboa direction. Cars 3 starts out looking like a big comeback movie then pulls a switcheroo. It morphs into a more thoughtful film that explores how no one, not even a great hero and champion, can defeat time. Rather than trying to recapture past triumphs, the key to living a meaningful life is to move forward. Cue reminiscences of Doc Hudson, whose role as Lightning McQueen's mentor ultimately meant as much to him as his own period of track dominance.

Although it's refreshing to see a Cars movie with intentions beyond filling up the shelves of toy stores, the movie spends too much time on racing. The filmmakers' love of the sport is obvious but they go overboard in their desire to put it on screen. While the cars and races are beautifully rendered, they're not very exciting. Car racing isn't inherently cinematic, even with anthropomorphic vehicles, and I could feel the level of restlessness growing among the children in the audience during some of the extended racing sequences. There are times when it feels as if there's a creative tug-of-war going on between exploring Lightning McQueen's life-changing realization and crafting a series of dream races. Too much of the latter detracts from the former and the overall running time is probably about 10 minutes too long.

As Cars 3 opens, Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) is still dominating the racing circuit…then everything changes. The status quo is interrupted by the arrival of hotshot newcomer Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), the first of a new breed of "tech" cars. He wins, handily beating McQueen in not only his first race but every subsequent contest. Following a fiery crash, McQueen realizes he has to try something different. Backed by a new sponsor (Nathan Fillion), McQueen is introduced to a trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), and begins a program designed to increase his speed from 198 mph to 210 mph. When that doesn't work, he goes in search of Doc Hudson's mentor, Smokey (Chris Cooper), hoping to figure out what he's missing.

Newcomers join old friends in doing the voice work, with Owen Wilson reprising his part. Most of the original Cars characters have small parts, including Bonnie Hunt as McQueen's girlfriend, Sally, and Larry the Cable Guy as the buck-toothed tow truck Mater. Doc Hudson, appearing in memories and dream sequences, doesn't talk a lot but, when he does, the voice is Newman's and it's impossible to tell that the late actor didn't record lines specifically for Cars 3. Of the newcomers, Armie Hammer and Cristela Alonzo are the standouts.

With John Lasseter, the man behind the camera for the first two Cars movies, stepping aside, the director's chair was left empty. Enter Brian Fee, the veteran storyboard artist and animator, making his feature debut. As might be expected from someone with Fee's background, the visuals pop. Whatever its narrative flaws, Cars 3 consistently looks great. It's often the little details that make the difference, like reflections in puddles of water. Pixar has always been at the top of the pyramid when it comes to the look of their animation; Cars 3 will only enhance that reputation.

As has become traditional for Pixar films, Cars 3 is preceded by a seven-minute short. In this case, it's something called "Lou", about a schoolyard bully learning lessons. Among the weakest of the Pixar shorts (some of them have been excellent), this will be remembered neither for its story nor its visuals and serves to pad out the amount of time viewers will spend in the theater.

The gap between Toy Story 3 and Cars 3 highlights the difference between a classic and something that's "merely" well-made. The former has the capacity to bring tears to the eyes. Its message resonates with immediacy and touches every viewer on a deep, personal level. The latter, however, tells the same truth but without the power. There's something missing in the presentation. Perhaps it's that we care more about Woody and Buzz than Lightning McQueen. More likely, it's simply that everything about Toy Story 3 works better than everything about Cars 3. Still, following in the wake of a flawed Cars and an even more flawed Cars 2, the final chapter of the trilogy has saved the best for last and will at least deflect the most serious concerns of those who think this series has taken too many extra laps.

© 2017 James Berardinelli