Lightning McQueen’s third time around the track is showing signs that Disney/Pixar’s reliable “Cars” franchise may, after two popular and original installments in the series of animated tales about talking cars, finally be starting to run out of gas.
To be sure, “Cars 3,” which centers on a cocky race car named Lightning (voice of Owen Wilson) and his fears of obsolescence in the face of more high-tech competition, still has enough fuel in the tank to drive the story across the finish line. But like Lightning himself, who roared into the hearts of vroom-vrooming children and their NASCAR-tolerant parents 11 years ago, there isn’t quite as much pep to the film’s narrative engine on this trip.
“Cars 3” opens with Lightning losing to a new, state-of-the-art rival called Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a hotshot who trains on a video-game-style simulator and boasts a host of technical improvements that give him an edge over everyone else in the Piston Cup circuit. The fictional racing series includes appearances, on- and off-track, by such real-life personalities as former drivers Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Gordon and Richard Petty (playing Darrell Cartrip, Jeff Gorvette and a character known as the King).
The film’s puns, once clever, are sometimes groaningly forced here.
Many beloved characters from the earlier films return, including vehicles played by voice actors who have since died. Paul Newman - as Lightning’s late mentor, Doc Hudson, appearing in flashbacks — delivers lines that were recorded before the actor died in 2008. So, too, does Tom Magliozzi, who, with his brother and fellow “Car Talk” host Ray, plays one half of Lightning’s sibling corporate sponsors, Rusty and Dusty. Aging hippie VW bus Fillmore (originally voiced by comedian George Carlin) has been played by Lloyd Sherr since the second film.
But these reminders of time’s relentless passage are not the real reason that “Cars 3” feels like it may be time for a trade-in. Nor is it that these reminders are underscored by a plot that explicitly addresses letting go of the past and the appearance of several old-timer car characters, notably an ancient pickup truck named Smokey (Chris Cooper), who becomes Lightning’s new trainer, offering the advice that the old ways are the best ways.
Rather, it is the film’s reliance on the underdog-victory formula that feels stale. OK, there’s a little kink in the plot where Lightning - always a bit of an egoist, despite receiving comeuppance in the earlier films - behaves in a manner that genuinely surprises, in the way he puts his needs behind those of an aspiring race car (Cristela Alonzo), who never achieved the success that he did. That twist offers a nice lesson about selfless gestures, but it serves only to juice up the plot before “Cars 3” settles back into a well-worn groove on the way to the checkered flag.
Jackson Storm may be the souped-up face of the future, but the movie feels more like a quiet ramble down memory lane.