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‘Cars 3’ runs a good race

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Pixar sequel offers simple, unchallenging fun.

There’s no disputing that when it comes to combined critical and commercial success, there is no animation studio that outshines the work done by Pixar in the last two decades-plus. Ever since 1995’s “Toy Story,” they have consistently produced quality films.

But with 18 features to their credit, the reality is that some of these movies are going to be better than others. The “Cars” franchise has taken up residence at the lower end of the critical spectrum, though there has been ample commercial success – particularly when merchandising is taken into account.

The latest installment is “Cars 3,” where we once again get to watch anthropomorphized cars move through a world confusingly both largely designed for and utterly devoid of people. And while it doesn’t create anything close to the narrative complexity of Pixar’s most accomplished work, it doesn’t have to. While all the studio’s movies are for children, these films are the most unabashedly kid-oriented of all their offerings; “Cars 3” continues in that lucrative vein.

Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson, “Masterminds”) is back on the track, winning Piston Cup races and celebrating the memory of his departed mentor Doc (the late Paul Newman). But times are changing, and a new breed of advanced racers are making their way onto the circuit, led by the imposing, arrogant Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer, “Free Fire”).

It’s not long before Storm is a Piston Cup sensation on a historic winning streak; he and his high-tech brethren are pushing old-school racers out of the game. Not even Lightning’s old friends from Radiator Springs – Sally (Bonnie Hunt, “Zootopia”), Luigi (Tony Shaloub, “The Assignment”), Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and the rest – can help him. So he figures if he can’t beat ‘em, he’ll join ‘em.

Lightning starts to train at a new high-tech racing center under his new sponsor, a billionaire mud flap maven named Sterling (Nathan Fillion, TV’s “Con Man”). But despite the best efforts of his enthusiastic trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo, “The Angry Birds Movie”), Lightning appears washed up.

In a last-ditch desperate effort, he tracks down the mentor of his mentor, an old truck by the name of Smokey (Chris Cooper, “Live By Night”) who reminds Lightning that what he may lack in high-tech speed, he makes up for in racing experience.

With one last chance to prove himself or fade into a retirement of product endorsement and race commentary, Lightning heads to Florida with friends old and new at his side in hopes of finding a way to take down Jackson Storm and the rest of the new wave of record-setting racers.

Let’s be real – the “Cars” franchise is never going to reach the heights of Pixar masterworks like “Wall-E” and “Up” and “Inside Out” and the “Toy Story” trilogy. And there’s nothing wrong with that. The truth is that the bar is set so far up that you can miss it by a fair amount and still reach great heights.

No, “Cars 3” isn’t particularly sophisticated – no film featuring Larry the Cable Guy ever could be – but it is sweet and fun. And while it’s a simple story, there’s also a surprising poignancy to it as well. It doesn’t have that deep well of emotional intelligence that the best Pixar films have, but the feelings it does elicit are honest ones.

And kids LOVE these movies – this one will be no different.

The vocal work is, as always, exceptional. Wilson’s aw-shucks vibe is almost never utilized as perfectly as it is by this character; it’s no wonder kids line up for Lightning McQueen swag. And as infuriating as some might find the aforementioned Mr. The Cable Guy, the kids in my screening shrieked in delight at Mater’s every utterance. Alonzo is delightful and sweet, while Fillion brings his classic high-octane smugness to the table. Meanwhile, Cooper comes off as treating this role as seriously as any Oscar-bait offering he might do … and it’s awesome. The rest of the supporting cast is solid as well, including turns by a number of NASCAR notables past and present.

(It’s worth mentioning that these movies are unashamed in their affection for NASCAR. Not only do they include famous drivers like Darrell Waltrip and Kyle Petty in the voice cast, but racing legend Junior Johnson (seriously, look him up) is here as well. They have fun, but they never make fun – it’s a small but crucial distinction.)

Obviously, the movie looks fantastic – it’s a Pixar movie, after all. This is director Brian Fee’s first foray in the director’s chair, but he’s a longtime studio stalwart, having worked as an artist on the previous two “Cars” films as well as “Wall-E” and “Monsters University” and a handful of Disney offerings. He clearly gets it, and while there aren’t that many spectacular moments, there aren’t any that fail to pass the high standard of Pixar quality control.

“Cars 3” isn’t great, but it’s good. It’s definitely lower-tier Pixar, but that still makes it better than almost any other animated fare out there. It might not be a Ferrari, but it’s definitely worth taking for a spin.

[4 out of 5]

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