Few studios have delivered as consistently as Pixar, banging out inventive, emotionally resonant films since starting with "Toy Story" in 1995. Occasionally they'll come up with one that falls short of their own high standards, and "Cars" in 2006 was the first of a handful of films that we shall politely describe as Pixar Lite. It's a subgroup that includes such underwhelming titles as "Brave, Monsters University", and "Cars 2".
But third time's the charm for the studio's most polarizing franchise, which appears to have finally found its groove with an installment that's less frantic and more thoughtful than its predecessors. Closely following the beats of that other memorable hit "Rocky III", "Cars 3" tells the all-too-familiar story of an over-the-hill pro out to prove himself against a world that's changed.
When we first meet him in the new film, former Nascar champion Lightning McQueen is still racing. But his status as an unsinkable superstar is challenged by a new generation of cars led by Jackson Storm, whose sleek, modern design and enhanced power threatens to send our hero into permanent retirement.
There are no major surprises in the way that the plot unfolds. This is a standard-issue underdog story, and director Brian Fee packs in all the tropes of a traditional sports movie. The formulaic arcs notwithstanding, it's McQueen's emotional journey that you connect with…from his reliance on his old mentor, to his equation with a young trainer who's been assigned to him.
As the trusted voice of Lightning McQueen, Owen Wilson nicely captures the insecurity of an ageing star who's on the cusp of redundancy. It's a genuinely moving performance that's full of feeling. There are some terrific set pieces too, particularly an explosive smash-and-crash rumble at a dirt track, and dazzling race sequences.
It's a tad long at 109 minutes, and the overarching theme of mortality feels unsuited for very young children. But it's a movie that has its heart in the right place, and ends in a bold, surprising climax that you probably won't predict.
I'm going with three out of five. "Cars 3" is no masterpiece, but it's worth your time.
Rating: 3 / 5