Pixar's animated films never fail to be about something -- story and theme integrated to have an emotional effect on viewers young and old in a way that sets the films apart from their many competitors. "Cars 2," released in 2011, was a notable exception, diverging from Pixar's winning formula to turn the burgeoning franchise into a dazzling but dopey spy adventure with next to nothing on its mind. "Cars 3" gets the franchise back on track with a story that U-turns to the heart of the 2006 original.
This time, champion race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) faces stiff competition from smack-talking Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a sleek, custom-built "Next-Gen" Piston Cup Racer. After a series of losses, Lightning begins to wonder: is it time to retire? With high-tech builds and training, the racing game has changed, meaning Lightning will have to sit it out, rusting away in Radiator Springs, or "try something new." Following a pep talk by girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt), Lightning repairs to his sponsor's Rust-Eze Training Center, ready to try out treadmills, wind tunnels, and virtual reality if it means a new lease on his racing life.
It's a bumpy road, and soon Lightning's being encouraged by Rust-Eze's new owner Sterling (Nathan Fillion) to "cash in" and become a "brand" through product endorsements. It'll all come down to the Florida 500: if Lightning wins, he can keep racing for Rust-Eze. If he loses, he's done. "Cars 3" sets up the expectation, then, that it is a latter-day "Rocky" story, a comeback journey for an aging competitor who's still got life left in him. That's not wrong, but it turns out that what "Cars 3" is really about -- other than (like "Up" and "Toy Story 3") the relentless passage of time -- is the role of a great teacher, or mentor.
The film's early passages will carry, for adults, an extra poignancy. The filmmakers pulled recordings from 28 hours of unused Paul Newman recordings to bring back Lightning's late crew chief and mentor Doc Hudson despite Newman's 2008 death, and there's a scene that allows the characters Tom Magliozzi and brother Ray (of "Car Talk") to drive into the sunset (Tom died 3 years ago). In surprisingly complex fashion, "Cars 3" explores the roles of teachers who care deeply for their students, the legacies of elder statesmen and the inspiration they left behind, even as the sequel introduces an important new character in "maestro of motivation" Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo).
Ably directed by Brian Fee (a storyboard artist on "Cars" and "Cars 2"), "Cars 3" expends plenty of time on the sports-movie formula and racing sequences (including a demolition-derby longueur), but it leaves a greater impression in its poignant stretches (like the regrets of the "those who can't do, teach" trainer) and its passages of cinematographic beauty (like those at the dusky old Thomasville Speedway), all scored by the great Randy Newman. The turns of the final race cleverly integrate both halves of the movie into a surprisingly satisfying whole, another entertaining and meaningful G-rated win for Pixar.