Dir: Brian Fee; Starring: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Armie Hammer, Chris Cooper, Nathan Fillion, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy (voices). U cert, 109 mins.
Insofar as it’s possible to feel sorry for a $600 million-grossing, corporately produced children’s entertainment franchise which has accrued a further $10 billion-plus in merchandise sales worldwide to date, and is about sentient vehicles, can’t you feel just a little twinge of pity for Cars?
The ongoing adventures of Lightning McQueen are often held up as the shabbiest thread in the otherwise lustrous Pixar tapestry: too corny, too cute, no conceptual muscle or mind-spinning subtext, set on an inexplicable and chilling humanless alternative Earth, and so on.
Whether the first Cars (2006) ever really deserved that reproof in the first place is arguable: the flaws in any film tend to show up after the thousandth viewing, which many parents found themselves chalking up a week or so after the DVD came out.
But there’s no question that Cars 2 (2011) – a noisy, sugary spy romp weirdly at odds with the original’s sun-baked, Route 66-coasting vibe – was the first Pixar film you sensed could have easily come from another studio. And that means this new instalment – the first not to have been directed by the studio’s chief creative officer, John Lasseter – begins at the back of the grid.
And things get trickier right away, thanks to an exquisite six-minute short called Lou that screens before Cars 3 in cinemas. It’s about the contents of a playground lost property box which come alive and playfully pester the bully responsible for parting them from their owners.
Written and directed by Dave Mullins, it’s ingeniously animated, almost instantly moving, and springs from an astute and precise observation of human nature: the only way to defeat our demons is to dismantle them in good faith, piece by piece.
Nothing in Cars 3 can quite equal that, although Brian Fee’s film often comes surprisingly close: both in terms of graphical innovation and its plot, which blossoms into something more profound than the Rocky sequel-esque comeback yarn you initially expect.
Distressingly, the old timer is Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) himself: now a fading champion of the racing circuit, he’s bustled back to boot camp by the younger models snapping at his wheels – not least the blisteringly high-tech Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who looks like a cross between a Bluetooth speaker and a stealth jet.
After humiliating himself at his sponsor’s training facility, Lightning makes for the American backwoods with Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a peppy, bright yellow personal trainer who embraces the challenge of restoring Lightning’s ailing chassis to full match fitness. (For the avoidance of doubt, Cruz is also a car.)
The empty beaches and tumbledown speedways that serve as Lightning’s practice ground are rendered in a wispy photorealistic style that’s almost indistinguishable from real life – and against those backdrops, the cars themselves somehow look even brighter, cartoonier, more expressively Crayola-doodled.
These landscapes have an emotional undertow, too: they’re where Lightning’s late mentor Doc Hudson once trained. The suave old sedan was originally voiced by Paul Newman in his last film role, and some old recordings allow him to make an encore appearance in flashback. It’s here that Cars 3 modulates into a touching contemplation of legacies, passed torches and lives well-lived.
Cruz, it will come as no surprise, harbours her own ambitions to race, and one of the film’s sweetest scenes has Lightning and Cruz do nothing more than listen to some vintage models reminisce about their own long-past struggles for acceptance.
Naturally, these scenes are interspersed with enough antics to keep the pace varied, including a grin-inducing opening racing montage, and later, a demolition derby in a boggy hollow with a boisterous school bus (voiced by Lea DeLaria, from Orange is the New Black) and the most plausibly sticky digital mud yet seen in animations. Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), McQueen’s formerly trusty tow-truck buddy, is tucked away in the margins for most of this.
It’s a decision that feels right for this story – not only because it spares parents another hour and a half of cod-redneck burbling, but because the heart of Cars 3 is in Lightning and Cruz’s cross-generational friendship, with both characters reassessing their life plans with the benefit of perspective brought on by unfamiliar surrounds.
It’s not Pixar’s Lost in Translation (wouldn’t that have been great?), but it reconfigures the series’ GPS in a deeply charming way, then finds a sunset that’s worth driving off into, and teases the prospect of an equally appealing sunrise to come.