The most perplexing part of Pixar’s Cars universe is that while anthropomorphized automobiles are the sole living creatures, they clearly inhabit a world that’s either parallel or subsequent to our own. It’s full of landmarks we know, from Route 66 to the Eiffel Tower. Cities exist and crops are grown, all for no discernible reason. The American flag even appears at one point. Recently, Cars creative director Jay Ward offered a wholly unofficial explanation: the franchise takes place in a near-future in which the autonomous cars we’re developing now turned into something like the machines in Terminator, dispensing with their human creators while adopting their personalities and social constructs.
If so, their automotive appropriation clearly also included the cinema. Cars 3 intertwines plot elements of Rocky III and Rocky IV, minus the Cold War by proxy. Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is cruising through the Piston Cup circuit until the arrival of brash rookie Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a next-gen racer who threatens to render McQueen and his contemporaries obsolete. First, Storm puts a character named Cal Weathers out to pasture. Then, a frantic McQueen suffers a spectacular crash trying to compete with the new speedsters. All that’s missing is Storm muttering, “If he dies, he dies.”
After a brief convalescence, McQueen’s new sponsor (Nathan Fillion) offers the washed-up champ the same advanced training techniques Storm enjoys. Enter Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a spunky new age trainer whose zeal masks a secret desire to become a racer. But McQueen really just needs to get back to basics, chiefly the tracks of yesteryear. He begins by motoring down a beach (see Rocky III), followed by some accidental Figure 8 banger racing. His training culminates with a pilgrimage to the derelict Thomasville Speedway—located somewhere in “the Carolinas”—where Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, who appears via unused audio recordings from the first film) once dazzled the crowds with his automotive exploits. McQueen seeks out the sage counsel of Smoky (Chris Cooper), Doc’s old crew chief, to shepherd him through the Big Comeback and Climactic Showdown.
Save for a predictable plot turn in the last act, Cars 3 is a smooth ride because it mainly runs on cruise control. Longtime Pixar storyboard artist Brian Fee sits in the director’s chair, and he and the film’s writers wisely jettison the far-flung narrative of Cars 2 and return to the franchise’s nostalgia-laden roots. Larry the Cable Guy is back as lovable dolt Mater, whose more limited screen time this go-round embodies the axiom that less is more. The real star, however, is the scene-stealing Alonzo, whose dynamic voice acting enlivens an otherwise plodding second half.
At the heart of Cars 3 is a rather thoughtful mortality play that fits nicely in our sports movie canon, including, yes, the Rocky oeuvre. Even if the film isn’t peak Pixar, it follows the studio’s longtime aim to age with its audience—I was a thirty-something new dad when the first Cars came out in 2006, and last week my son finished his freshman year of high school. There are lessons here about generational change. Nonetheless, this joyride feels like it’s running out of gas.