It’s time for the annual offering from Pixar and disappointingly, it’s another Cars sequel. Apparently, I reviewed Cars 2 in 2011 and besides remembering the vague outline of a sort of European espionage plot, I’ve luckily blocked most of that experience from my memory. Besides the honestly great — and legitimately heartbreaking — Up (2009), I’ve never really gotten behind Pixar’s hype. And while I can’t say I’m exactly bummed with the idea of another Cars movie, I do understand that it is the worst thing the studio’s put out so far, a big, noisy excuse for a whole lot of merchandising deals.
With all this being said, Cars 3 is surprisingly better than it has any need to be. It follows the basic Pixar formula, taking a concept and building something vaguely mature — here, it’s a lot of commentary on aging and overcoming odds and such — and at least somewhat heartfelt, with an emphasis on character. Perhaps it’s the diminished expectations of the mess that was Cars 2, but this third installment feels more honest and entertaining than it has any right to be.
This, unfortunately, doesn’t mean a whole lot, since the movie still feels like a family-friendly version of your general uplifting sports movie. Cars 3 is very much a case of being watchable in spite of being a cliche-riddled film about anthropomorphic cars (I’ll forever be creeped out by the unspoken fact that you can open the hood on one of these things and literally see inside its face). It’s the type of movie where every beat feels expected and obvious, never even flirting with a surprise or twist.
The story focuses on Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), who’s simply out in the world enjoying racing and occasionally winning. This quickly fades once a new breed of high-speed racer comes onto the scene and McQueen has a difficult time keeping up. Facing retirement, McQueen asks for one last shot to go out on his own terms, a decision that puts him in the hands of a neophyte trainer named Cruz Ramirez (voiced by Cristela Alonzo, The Angry Birds Movie), who once dreamed herself of becoming a racer.
The movie becomes about the relationship between Lightning and Cruz (thankfully, Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater the tow truck has a diminished role this time around) but doesn’t get much deeper than that. It’s all because of a very serviceable and unexciting screenplay that drags at times but does little to rock the boat. Despite a couple of dynamic scenes (like one set inside a demolition derby), Cars 3 takes no risks. It gets by, which is more than you can say about a lot of movies, but hardly a hearty endorsement. Rated G. Now playing at AMC Classic, Carolina Cinemark, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande.