When kids – largely, but by no means exclusively, little dudes – lose their minds over the anthropomorphic autos of the animated Cars movies, it's simple math: Wisecracking racecars equals bright, shiny entertainment for the junior need-for-speed crowd and happiness for the shareholders. But if adults big-up the series for anything besides being a visual babysitter, it's for proving that yes, even the mighty Pixar is not perfect.
Since 1995, a.k.a. The Year That Toy Story Changed Everything, the company hasn't only revolutionized American animation – it's also had an insane hit-to-miss average, spitting out Oscar-nominated, list-topping gems with impressive regularity. The problem with permanently raising the bar, however, is you have to keep meeting your own standard. And while the Cars movies have been Pixar's most commercially popular (visit a Disney theme park if you don't believe us), they are the creative runts of the studio's litter. The 2006 original tacked a humility lesson onto a Route 66 Americana landscape lifted from a retro chain diner; the 2011 sequel threw some stock James Bond shenanigans into the mix. Frankly, anybody could have made these feature-length Chevron ads. But these are the folks that brought you Finding Nemo and Wall-E and Inside Out. Why, you wonder, are the heirs to Miyazaki's crown making the sort of Mouse Ears Inc. merchandising-first/movie-later mediocrity you can get in animated abundance everywhere else?
So when we say that Cars 3 is easily the best entry of the bunch, feel free to take it as faint praise. But when we tell you that this is the first one to genuinely deserve having the Pixar name attached to it – well, that's something else entirely. There's an emotional resonance to this story about growing old, chasing glory days and the joy of passing the baton that leaves the other two films choking on its digitally rendered dust. The end goal this time out isn't just to sell a few more toys and Lightning McQueen lunchboxes. It's actually tapping into something deeper than a corporate bottom line.
Oh, it's still a Cars movie – you still get Owen Wilson's McQueen whizzing past checkered flags, in racing sequences that look like a NASCAR enthusiast's nocturnal emissions. You still get Larry the Cable Guy's hillbilly towtruck Mater (a literal cartoon-redneck caricature instead of his usual figurative one), and Bonnie Hunt's revved-up voice of reason Sally, and the rest of Radiator Springs' cast of characters. Popular songs about, yes, driving and things that go vroom will indeed be covered. Viewers under the age of 12 will still yelp with glee. But in the middle of the opening winning montages, Lightning McQueen starts losing. There's a new hotshot in town, a next-gen hi-tech model named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) – think a cocky Ivan Drago as a car. And just like that, our hero becomes yesterday's news. He's losing his edge to the kids, whose tire-squeals he hears when they get on the tracks.
Luckily, a businessman – er, "businesscar" – and superfan named Sterling (Nathan Fillion, in full-smarm mode) wants to bring Lightning to his bleeding-edge training facility and get him back into qualifying shape. He's assigned a personal coach, a "maestro of motivation" named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) to help get his motoring mojo back. The former champ wants to get his chops back real-world–style, so he and Cruz hit the road.
And then, amid the backroads demolition-derby set pieces and flashbacks to Lightning's old father figure Hudson (it's a thrill to hear Paul Newman's voice again, even posthumously) and visits to legendary stomping grounds and lots of celebrity voices, something quietly remarkable occurs. Director Brian Fee, a Pixar art department veteran, and the six other writers who he shares a "story by"/screenwriting credit with, somehow manage to turn what seemed like another moving-violation blockbuster into something moving: a recognition of the moment when your sun is setting and someone else's is rising. On paper, this sounds like parent-trolling, particularly for any middle-aged dads sitting in the multiplex who still cling to the idea that your twenties apparently last forever. But the way the story builds up to the moment when Lightning finds peace in passing it forward, and the grace with which it makes that melancholy aspect seem majestic without diluting it, is slightly miraculous and somehow completely in tune with the movie.
The result is inspiring, which isn't something you associate with this series. It's enough to not feel bile rising in your throat watching a Cars movie; the lump you get there instead as the spotlight is ceded to the next generation is a bonus. And the notion that the same little dudes who thrilled to Lightning McQueen tearing it up may find themselves suddenly thinking there's nothing wrong with rooting for a female character – especially one named Cruz Ramirez, at this particular moment in time – is heartening beyond belief. This feels like a victory lap.