By Leah Greenblatt
June 12, 2017 at 02:55 PM EDT
Credit: Disney/Pixar
  • Movie

Animal, monster, mineral: If it can be found in the natural world—or summoned from a land of pure imagination—it must be fair game for Pixar’s pixie-dusted cinematic sorcery. More than two decades in, Disney’s once-scrappy computer-animation subsidiary (sprung, appropriately, from the house a mouse built) has become the 24-karat standard of all-ages movie magic: a gleaming, ergonomically curved wonderland of turquoise-furred beasts, enterprising ant colonies, talky plastic cowboys, and forgetful little tang fish.

And then there’s…Cars. Only the second Pixar property after Toy Story to be anointed an extraordinary three-picture franchise, the trilogy is both empirically, undeniably successful and oddly hard to love. But why, exactly? It’s not as if other unlikely subjects haven’t transcended their eh factor before: Ratatouille made thousands root for a rodent sticking his tiny, germy vermin paws into haute cuisine; WALL·E somehow turned a barely verbal trash compactor into a poster bot for anthropomorphized bliss.

Left-field endearment hardly seems like a priority for Cars 3’s returning hero Lightning McQueen; he’s the alpha of automobiles, a revving motorhead built strictly for speed. (Though he is voiced, perversely, by the laconic Owen Wilson, who sounds more than ever like a lightly stoned koala bear.) As the story opens, the formerly unconquerable McQueen’s raison de drive is fading, along with his lap times; next-gen upstarts like Jackson Storm (an effortlessly condescending Armie Hammer) are coming up fast in the rearview mirror, and the industry is already beginning to treat him like last year’s model, soon to be headed for the elder-statesman scrap heap.

After a spectacular flameout on the track, a humiliated Lightning retreats to the garage, trading in his candy-apple gloss for a dull coat of gray primer and a lengthy man-cave mope session. It falls on his pragmatic better half, Sally (Bonnie Hunt), to intervene, forcing him to bootstrap his midlife crisis and make his way to Sterling (Nathan Fillion), a canny CEO with mud-flap millions and major plans. Sterling is a longtime fan, and willing to help rehabilitate him for one more race—quid pro quo, of course, for future product endorsements. The deal also comes with an ambitious young trainer, Cristela Alonzo’s Cruz Ramirez. (It is essential here, apparently, to have the name of either a daytime soap villain or a very special guest on Baywatch Nights.) Cruz believes in Zumba-style warm-ups and EKGs; Lightning prefers the torque of true grit to spinning his wheels on a treadmill. Can he show her how to ride outside the lines? Can she teach an old Dodge new tricks? And so the sensei-grasshopper journey begins: to dirt derbies, juke joints, and beyond, with a few detours along the way to check in with old friends like Larry the Cable Guy’s dentally challenged Mater and the wise, tail-finned cohorts of McQueen’s late mentor Doc Hudson.

Once their axels hit gravel, the script finally begins to settle into something less mindlessly metallic and more recognizably human. The pair’s bonding sessions—and obligatory “just dream it!” life lessons—are hardly revelatory, or even especially engaging. But they have a folksy, loose-limbed ease that feels like stark relief after the ­sterile dazzle of the high-octane stadium scenes, which are played for such straightforward NASCAR action that they seem almost documentary—a faulty cable box flipped to an ESPN highlight reel. In the midst of those technically impressive but narratively numbing stretches, the mind inevitably begins to wander, and wonder: Where do Cars babies come from? Why do all the doors have handles if they don’t have hands? Are their hearts under the hood, or is that where the brains are? (The vehicles on this seemingly people-less planet have no visible interiors, literally or figuratively; make of that what you will.)

First-time director Brian Fee, whose résumé is stacked mostly with art-department credits, feels like a farm-team substitute for in-house superstars like Andrew Stanton (A Bug’s Life, WALL·E, Finding Dory) and Pete Docter (Monsters Inc., Up, Inside Out), the Pixar auteurs whose signature mix of visual wizardry, comic whimsy, and tenderhearted storytelling has come to define the company’s best films. Instead, Fee steers Cars 3 like the sleek piece of movie machinery it is—a standard ride with a half-full tank, a gorgeous paint job, and not much at all under the hood. B–

Cars 3

  • Movie
  • G
  • 109 minutes
  • Brian Fee