In Cars 3, racer Lightning McQueen finds out his corporate boss thinks he's over the hill, with residual value merely as a merchandising brand.
In the context of this second-tier Pixar threequel, it feels like a cry for help on the part of writers scrambling to explain the movie's reason for being (three Cars movies, but one Wall E? What's Up with that?).
Certainly, the wistful tone and nostalgia-driven appeal of the original is now nearly gone, along with the visual ode to a bypassed rural America, and the prescient nod to the beginning of the end of the internal combustion engine.
There's just a hint of that thread here – Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) is old, getting beaten by a new generation of highly powered, better equipped racers. His new rival (Armie Hammer) has a sleek black menace and the electronic purr of a Tesla, the quiet growl of a George Lucas space vehicle.
Cars 3 plays around with a couple of themes, none with much initial success. There is an instinct-vs.-analytics angle that has go-with-his-gut Lightning losing out to new technology and more sophisticated training. To catch up, new owner (Nathan Fillion) brings a beaten Lightning to a new high-tech training facility, where he proves inept at learning new techniques. The movie's subject becomes Lightning's age and obsolescence, to a point that may alienate younger viewers.
Pixar is famous for making drastic changes to its story lines as projects evolve, and usually these changes are seamless and invisible. Cars 3, though, has a too-many-cooks feel throughout, and coheres only in the final minutes, when Lightning discovers he enjoys being a mentor to younger racer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo).
The movie is long for an animated feature, and expends a great deal of time trying to integrate original characters into a story that doesn't need them. Ditto some of the new characters — Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale provide the voices of veteran dirt-trackers and moonshine runners whose dramatic purpose fizzles.
The Big Race resolution is effective, but it has a generic and un-Pixarlike feel to it, drawing on standard sports-movies redemption themes (the kind satirized in Talladega Nights).
How do we know it's un-Pixarlike? Because of the lovely, quintessentially Pixar animated short, called Lou, that precedes it.
Directed by Brian Free. With Owen Wilson, Armie Hammer, Nathan Filion, Kerry Washington, Larry the Gable Guy. Distributed by Disney,
Running time: 1 hour, 49 mins.
Parent's guide: G.
Playing at: Area theaters.