You know it’s coming, but it’s still shocking to see rendered 40 feet high and 20 feet wide in stunning 4k. From the earliest trailers for Disney/Pixar’s “Cars 3” (out June 15), we know there’s a wreck. Lightning McQueen, voiced again by Owen Wilson, is struggling to keep up with a new generation of hotshot racers when it happens. He gets angry, drops focus, pushes too hard and loses control.
McQueen bounces, shiny-side-down, off the pavement in a shower of sparks, spinning off parts in weightless slow-motion like an out-of-control satellite. It’s graphic. If cars could bleed, this scene might net the movie a PG-13 rating. Our hero is busted and broken down as the new class — led by the black-and-electric-blue bad-boy of racing, Jackson Storm — crosses the finish line.
Though told with anthropomorphic vehicles, it’s a sports story as old as time: Young, great player works their way up, takes out the established veterans with a mix of moxie and fresh blood, enjoys a period at the top of the game and then, due to the natural side effects of the passage of time or a freak accident, starts to lose ground to the new guys. The hardest decision a top-level competitor will ever have to make is whether to retire on top (Barry Sanders) or struggle through, knowing that the mind is willing but the body is weak (Daunte Culpepper, Cam Neely). Cocky and headstrong — and apparently blind to the fact that he’s an antiquated bubble now competing against aerodynamic futuremobiles — McQueen declares “I decide when I’m done.”
At this inflection point, the movie enters the predictable training sequence. Replace Rocky’s meat locker with a glistening mega-money training center that looks admirably like McLaren’s factory. Replace the hanging sides of beef and Philadelphia Museum of Art steps with positive meditation and a high-tech racing simulator. Replace Micky with the day-glo yellow, half-Aston, half-Camaro, half-GT-R, half-Challenger, half-Mustang Cruz Ramirez. Voiced by Cristela Alonzo (star and writer of the ABC TV series “Cristela”), Cruz is a trainer with next-gen views on racing and a theoretical understanding of the game. If McQueen wants to be as fast as Storm, he needs to train like Storm.
Cue the training montages.
Cue the realization that not all that is new is better and that not all change is bad.
Cue everyone learning valuable life lessons on the track and off.
But even with a tired and entirely predictable story arc, “Cars 3” manages to be an absolute joy. Car guys will find little to fault with the renderings, selection and even the mechanics of the vehicles. Even the inspiration used for the characters is a treat. Billioniare businessman Sterling is a play on the BMW 2000CS, TV analyst Natalie Certain is certainly a Tesla Model S, Formula One superstar Lewis Hamilton is an insufferable bore. “Cars 3” explains, without pandering, the car-guy gags necessary to follow the plot yet leaves the serious dorkiness to be found by the dorks.
The jokes are LOL funny; the pacing never disappoints, as 1:49 passes in the blink of a headlight; the characters are well-developed and relatable; the visuals impress even by Pixar standards and are perhaps the best we’ve ever seen.
It’s rare when the third installment of a trilogy is the best in the series, but “Cars 3” manages this trick with a heartwarming, brilliantly told story that can be appreciated by anyone at any stage in their lives or stock-car racing career.