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“CARS 3” Takes the Franchise a Step Forward

Leave the serious film analysis to the youngest member of your family, I always say. Actually, that’s what I’ve been saying since attending a private screening in Manhattan of “CARS 3” in the company of Kitman Mk.III — that is, eight-year-old son and third child, Milo. It was the week before the official opening of the third installment of the unlikely Pixar juggernaut about automobiles that talk and think like humans, and the lad, who’d not previously been a conspicuous fan of the franchise, thought after watching they’d it nailed. “They’re trying to introduce the new generation to the racing, Dad. With some young characters while the older ones have to step back.” He didn’t say “duh,” but he might as well have.

My, they do grow up fast. Not only did my boy remind us of youth’s fleeting nature, the precocious lad recalled what we already knew but had forgotten: if Pixar is to keep this franchise stepping lively, it needs to ring in generation after generation of new viewer. And if that means developing the story line out further than so many of the modern movie era’s most predictable and tedious sequels, so as to acknowledge the passage of time, so as to keep it fresh, so be it.

The “CARS” franchise is big — approaching $1 billion in combined box office receipts on the first two movies, with trailer-loads more in merchandising income. Which, it’s worth pointing out, doesn’t make it the mightiest cash-seeking arrow in Pixar’s quiver. Not even close. And yet somehow here we are on “CARS” installment number three.

Pixar works hard on all its movies — one of the reasons its success rate is so high. All this attention to detail may be a given, but in the fact of a “CARS” trilogy lies a simple truth: Somewhere at the heart of it all out in Emeryville, California, out there on the deluxe campus where the Pixar part of the Pixar-Disney hookup makes its spacious home, some real gearheads are in charge. Pixar boss Jon Lasseter chief among them, they love cars and intend to share car stories with the world, whether cute and fluffy animals might sell better or not. They’re on a mission from Mickey Thompson (Insert other preferred car fanatic name here.)

So here’s the latest story stripped down to its basics, along with your spoiler alert.  We first met protagonist Lightning McQueen in 2006 and now he is getting old. “He” is a red NASCAR race car that looks strangely like a variation on a ’90s Mazda RX-7. Still wearing No. 95 (the year of Pixar’s first release, according to Wikipedia) and voiced as always by a clean-cut- and atypically unstoned-sounding Owen Wilson. As the film opens, Piston Cup Challenge competitor McQueen is getting dusted by an up-and-coming racer, Jackson Storm. Representing a new breed of cold, clinical machine, and looking more than a little like a late model Corvette, Storm is rude to his elders and has to be defeated.

In jeopardy of losing his sponsorship, a seemingly washed up McQueen must make a comeback. He enlists the help of a trainer, Cruz Ramirez, played by comedienne Cristela Alonzo. Ramirez is a weird combination of a pony car and the pleasant-looking but ultra-obscure French sports car, the MVS/Venturi, finished in yellow. McQueen’s “girlfriend,” Sally Carrera, an older 911, returns but in a secondary role, as do the rest of the crew from Radiator Springs.

As McQueen plots his comeback, his sponsors, the folksy makers of Rust-Eeze — the Tappet Brothers, the late Click (Tom) and Clack (Ray Maggliozzi) — sell their company along with his contract to a slick entrepreneur named Sterling, (think 3.0CS BMW) whose sterile, high-tech premises confound McQueen and leave his new boss’ sincerity much in doubt. But McQueen’s mojo appears to return, with the help of Cruz, who has her own demons to shake, and thanks to visits with his late mentor, Doc Holliday — a ’51 Hudson Hornet whose role in “CARS 3” is made possible by years-old outtakes of the late Paul Newman’s gravelly tones — and Smokey, an old Hudson pickup meant to have been Doc’s trainer.Except, race day comes. And despite his best efforts, McQueen falls off the pace and is about to lose the race, when Cruz makes a startlingly appearance in his stead and goes on to vanquish Storm, with seconds to spare. Suspend your disbelief about the obvious rules and regulation non-starter that is. McQueen has grown as a person, I mean, car, and Cruz has an epiphany about believing in herself, and of course we all share in the joy of an all-around, life-affirming, girl-power moment. Moving forward, we are left to conclude McQueen will be the teacher like Doc was to him.

It’s a healthy twist that injects a sense of time and a dose of reality into a cinematic world that is at once completely fantastic and hyper realistic — in the 10-plus years since the original “CARS,” CGI rendering quality has improved considerably. Of course cars aren’t people and never will be. At least one hopes so. With self-driving cars and advances in robotics, who knows where it stops? When asked at a screening in Emeryville what the impact of autonomous cars would be on future audiences for the “CARS” franchise, Lasseter seemed more bemused than worried. Though I didn’t think of it at the time, it’s surely relevant that the cars of “CARS” are the ultimate in autonomy already. Look inside and there’s nobody home. And when you think about cars as people and them having boyfriends and girlfriends, it just gives you pause to think about things that happen between people and then you start thinking about it happening between cars — and then you think, I can’t believe I’m thinking this.

At every step “CARS” auteurs indulge their enthusiasm for cars, for racing and its details. In most every shot, their obsessive attention to detail and character is manifest, as they think through the tiniest questions, and add the most elegant touches, things that will fly by the masses but tickle the knowledgeable no end. A talk with Pixar creative director Jay Ward gives you a sense of the enthusiasm that drives them. In real life, they’ve immersed themselves in the history of NASCAR, met its stars and studied its legends, and consulted with historians and fans.

Contained within, for instance, is a fanciful pocket primer on American stock-car racing, with characters based on the legendary Smokey Yunick, the NASCAR and Indy crew chief, Junior Johnson, who at age 85 supplies the voice for Junior Midnight Moon. Also represented is Louise Smith, with Pixar’s Louise “Barnstormer” Nash recalling the first female NASCAR driver and her plight. So while “CARS 3” can scan as a touch bland and saccharine at times, the details, which color this as a labor of love, make all the difference. Like all the best art, it operates on multiple levels, entertaining people who like cars and people who love them.

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