After rocky start, “Cars 3” comes in for a decent finish

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

Out of all the movies under Pixar’s belt, “Cars” least deserved a sequel. Though decent, it lifted its plot straight out of the Michael J. Fox comedy “Doc Hollywood” and simply substituted anthropomorphic automobiles for people. “Cars 2” could not justify its existence with its soulless spy story, and it ultimately wound up being an excuse for Disney to sell toys.

With “Cars 3,” Pixar avoids the mistakes of the previous sequel by raising the stakes through emotions and themes, rather than by expanding the scope. In the film, we find a Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) who has enjoyed a fruitful reign as a racing superstar. But even he can’t outrun time.

New racecars with advanced technology are taking to the track and consistently beating their aging competitors. Lightning finds a new rival in the arrogant Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a one-note villain whose obnoxiousness is the most artificial thing in the movie. In a desperate bid to win the Piston Cup over Jackson, Lightning suffers a serious crash and must work from the ground up to become the racer he once was.

In a stunningly contrived move, Lightning’s sponsors inexplicably sell their entire company to the billionaire Sterling Silver (Nathan Fillion) just because he can give Lightning the training opportunities he needs. Lightning’s new trainer is Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who gleefully refers to him as her “senior project.”

Lightning despises Cruz from the outset not only because her training regimen is slow and boring, but because she lacks the experience of an actual racer. The more time the two spend together, the more time Lightning spends as her mentor, instead of the other way around. Lightning eventually learns that Cruz once aspired to race, only to have her dreams crushed by self-doubt.

This premise shows a lot of promise, but Pixar partly goofs the execution. The writing in the first two acts often works, but it never quite brings the character’s melancholy into focus and retreads some of the first “Cars.” The story is further undercut because Lightning looks just as pristine as he ever was. Characters say he’s older, and yet he doesn’t feel older. He might not have the old timey look of a Hudson Hornet, but letting Lightning use gray primer instead of shiny paint would have been just as an impactful of an indicator that he is past his prime. It’s a shame they don’t show him same attention to detail as they did with the film’s gorgeous settings, from rustic towns to a beautiful pine forest.

Cruz is the most fun of the latest additions to the cast, and Cristela injects an authentic warmth that plays well with Wilson’s energy. With her presence, you’ll hardly notice Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) has taken a back seat. On the other hand, Smokey (Chris Cooper), a new character who also mentors Lightning, is a carbon copy of the late Paul Newman’s Doc.

It is in its final stretch that “Cars 3” finds its footing, stripped of the conventions of a comeback story as Lightning grapples with what it means to be obsolete. Do we become relics because of our own failures, or are we all destined to give way to the new? Lightning fights against his mortality with all his might, even as his diminishing returns prove again and again that his light doesn’t burn as brightly as before. Meanwhile, Cruz proves her mettle and surpasses Lightning at his own game, forcing him to confront a final choice: stubbornly burn out, or gracefully step aside.

With Lightning’s decision, “Cars 3” affirms a poignant truth – victory earns temporary glory, but compassion leaves a lasting legacy.

“Cars 3”

Running Time: 109 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

Score: 3/5 stars