“Cars 3” not only becomes Pixar’s animated tribute to stock-car racing, but it represents a return to the emotional core of the original 2006 film.
Before describing the plot about humanized cars, Route 66 aficionados should know the fictional town of Radiator Springs makes several appearances in “Cars 3,” along with the town’s original characters (including Michael Wallis as the sheriff, who is seen and credited but not noticeably heard). The Radiator Springs footage adds up to only a few minutes, but it’s substantially longer than “Cars 2” and becomes more critical to the plot.
Jackson Storm, a rookie fueled by youth and high-tech analytics, upends Lightning McQueen’s racing world by dominating the sport. McQueen’s longtime rivals are forced into retirement by faster, younger racers, and McQueen himself (voiced by Owen Wilson) suffers a catastrophic crash. He goes back to Radiator Springs to heal and stew about his future, watching old racing films of his mentor, Doc Hudson. (Pixar used archived audio of Doc Hudson voice Paul Newman, who died in 2008, during several flashbacks in “Cars 3.”)
McQueen seems resigned to self-pity until Sally Carrera (voiced by Bonnie Hunt) uses cutting sarcasm to jolt him out of his funk. Anyone who’s gotten on the wrong side of Rock Cafe owner Dawn Welch, who inspired Carrera, would find this scene familiar. (More about the real-life inspirations to the “Cars” movies may be found here.)
McQueen’s sponsor, Rust-Eze, gets bought out by a corporate behemoth, and its CEO tries to nudge him away from the racetrack to hawk Lightning McQueen-endorsed products. McQueen persuades his new boss to let him try one last time on the racetrack, but not without a trainer Cruz Ramirez (voiced by Cristela Alonzo) trying to get him back into top racing shape.
The quest to get Lightning McQueen back on the track competitively leads to drama and amazing sequences, especially at a demolition derby and a scene reminiscent of the tractor-tipping sequence from the original “Cars.”
The journey leads to the ramshackle Thomasville Speedway in the Carolinas, where McQueen finds Doc Hudson’s original coach, Smoky (voiced by Chris Cooper), and other dirt-track old-timers. It’s here where McQueen’s training begins in earnest. There’s also a reference to moonshine-running, where many of stockcar racing’s earliest legends got their start.
As usual, Pixar’s attention to detail is awesome. Route 66 fans who’ve been lucky to see Tucumcari Mountain in Tucumcari, New Mexico, after a winter storm will get deja vu from the film’s snow-flecked Cadillac Range and Radiator Springs Mountain. It also was at times difficult to tell the difference between real life and the animation. You virtually could count the pebbles of gravel on the old speedway.
Without giving too much away, “Cars 3” proves to be about coming to grips with advancing age and passing time. It also wraps things up in a satisfying way that signals this likely will be the last film of the “Cars” franchise.
(Publicity image from “Cars 3” courtesy of Disney-Pixar)