Lightning McQueen (voiced by Dallasite Owen Wilson) still acts as if he's the precocious racer with which everyone fell in love when the movie Cars came out in 2006.
Problem is, in both Cars 3 and for the franchise, he shouldn't be.
It's tough to talk about character development after the 8-year-old critic says, "I thought it was fantastic." But here we are, applying this to anthropomorphic cars.
Lightning McQueen is now an old head, but still ruling the track.
That is, until young racers led by sleek Jackson Storm (voiced by another Dallasite, Armie Hammer) start running him down. Suddenly, the checkered flags belong to the "next gens," who train that way, look that way and race ... that way.
The movie lags as the scene is set ; one by one, McQueen's buddies retire, heh, or are fired.
Taunts the trash-talking Storm: "Hey, champ, where did all your friends go?"
And then McQueen is almost done in by his own hubris, with a dramatic score to boot.
Enter McQueen's old friends from Radiator Springs, who have sold their business to get him a high-tech training facility that comes complete with "the maestro of motivators," trainer Cruz Ramirez.
Ramirez (voiced by yet another Dallasite, Cristela Alonzo) calls McQueen her "senior project," adding more insult to injury. And is that Zumba they're doing?
You see, he has to win his next race or quit to hawk products for facility owner Sterling, the "mudflap king" (Nathan Fillion). Mater is a big fan.
The pace picks up in the second, more-interesting half as McQueen seeks help from his initial inspirations after he doesn't take to the "next-gen" way. That includes a fun scene in an old-time bar that makes nods to firsts on the track via voices by Isiah Whitlock Jr. (The Wire) and Texan Margo Martindale (The Americans).
Of course, McQueen gets his groove back just in time for an attempt to return to the throne from the primer paint to which he had relegated himself. And Ramirez learns a thing or two about how to train old-school.
What comes after that is actually a satisfying end and beginning to this story.
Even the 8-year-old critic knows Pixar doesn't do duds, so there was clapping at the logo before and after. The animation during the training scenes on the beach looks amazing, and the nods to actual racers is, as usual, inspired.
This series could go become a relay -- from Doc Hudson, a.k.a. The Fabulous Hudson Hornet, to Lightning McQueen to whichever car's got next -- and go into perpetuity.
One can only hope filmmakers catch Lightning in a bottle again, because the original is still the best. Even if I suspect fans could be cheering on a car from this lineage in 2037 ... and beyond.
Cars 3 (B)
Rated G. 109 mins. In wide release. Directed by Brian Fee.