One more lap

Old cars prefer staring contests to races.

Old cars prefer staring contests to races.

Rated 3.0

Cars 3 gives a comforting sense that Pixar Animation Studios is once again firing on all cylinders. It’s a relief after Cars 2 (2011), Pixar’s first out-and-out stinker. Almost anything after that would have been an improvement, and if this second sequel never quite reaches the gleaming heights of the original Cars, at least it corrects some of No. 2’s missteps.

The biggest misstep was shifting the limelight from hotshot race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) to the hillbilly tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy); Mater was too obnoxious and annoying to carry a movie all by himself, and this time he’s back to simple comic relief.

Better yet, the new movie brings back the late Paul Newman as Doc Hudson, Lightning’s wise old mentor. Doc, like Newman, is no longer with us (the actor died in 2008), but he appears in flashbacks from the original Cars (plus a few spots where the voice may be that of Corey Burton). In any case, seeing Doc again, and hearing Newman’s avuncular growl, reminds us how much the character and the actor added to Cars and how much both were missed in Cars 2, even if we couldn’t quite identify what was missing.

Ironically, Doc is on Lightning’s mind now because Lightning finds himself sliding into Doc’s status as elder statesman of the racing circuit. Younger, faster cars are coming along, including Lightning’s nemesis Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who deals Lightning a series of humiliating defeats, including a devastating crash, that leaves people—er, vehicles—wondering if Lightning is washed up.

Recuperating back in Radiator Springs, Lightning refuses to step aside for the new guys, but his sponsor (Nathan Fillion) pressures him to retire gracefully while his name is still marketable. They compromise on one more race, the Florida 500—if Lightning beats Storm in that one, then he’ll earn the right to retire when he’s good and ready. Along the way, he picks up a young trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who may be more hindrance than helper.

The seven-handed script (by Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson, Mike Rich, Ben Queen, Eyal Podell, Jonathon E. Stewart and director Ben Fee) sets up a showdown between Lightning and Jackson Storm, and we think we know where things are headed—so it’s no small thing that the movie still manages to surprise us. One surprise is the relationship between Lightning and Cruz, the little yellow car that became a trainer when she realized she didn’t have the stuff to be a real racer. Another is the climactic race, which keeps us guessing nearly all the way to the checkered flag.

It remains to be seen whether Lightning McQueen’s midlife crisis will resonate with the small children who make up Cars 3’s target audience, but director Fee and his writers deserve audacity points for bringing it up at all. Besides, there’s the customarily dazzling Pixar animation, especially in the race scenes, which sparkle like new toys under the Christmas tree. There’s no age limit on enjoying that.