Cars has always been the runt of the Pixar litter. The series has never been as emotionally insightful as Up or Inside Out; and its fictional world of cars-as-people is neither as inventive nor as consistent as the worlds of Toy Story or Finding Nemo. Cars 3 does little to rectify this. Pleasingly, though, it is a better sports film than its predecessors, and is probably the best of this automotive trilogy.

Cars 3 picks up a number of years after the first film (the pseudo-spy shenanigans of the second seem to have been forgotten). Hot rod Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is at the top of his game, winning race after race. It seems the victories will never end. But then a new generation of precision-made high tech racers appear to steal McQueen’s thunder. Lightning must find a way to compete with these souped up youngsters if he wishes to continue racing. It’s basically Rocky Balboa, but with talking cars instead of aging pugilists.

Rather than look to the future, by using his sponsor’s state of the art training equipment (treadmills and simulators), McQueen looks to the past. It turns out that Doc Hudson, McQueen’s late mentor, was once a young upstart himself, and McQueen, along with his trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), sets off to learn what he can of Hudson’s old tricks.

McQueen’s search takes him to the famous racetracks of yesteryear, one of which now hosts a demolition derby, into which McQueen and Cruz accidentally enter themselves. The Crazy 8 scene is the highlight of Cars 3, a wonderfully tactile and anarchic sequence of mud, collisions, and a demented schoolbus. There is a real physicality to the vehicles in this scene, a heft and weight that makes them look more like diecast toys being dragged through a muddy playground, than ephemeral images made up of wireframes and pixels. On a purely technical level, it’s the best thing Pixar has ever animated.

The rest of the racing scenes are enjoyable enough; exciting on their own way, but nothing we haven’t seen before. They are only slightly spoiled by the fact that we already know how all this will turn out – happily, and with a lesson learned.

The lesson here is a bridging of the generational gap; the older can learn from the younger, and vice versa. It’s a fine sentiment to have, but one that I fear will fall on deaf ears, as today’s youth becomes increasingly disillusioned with their elders and their increasingly reactionary decisions.

More appealing is the message delivered by Cruz. At one point she tells McQueen that she has always dreamed of becoming a racer herself. But when she turned up for her first race, she found that she didn’t belong; she “looked different” from the other racers. Cars 3 never comes out and states that this is because Cruz is female. In fact, the implication that one of Hudson’s contemporaries was black (cars don’t have ethnicities, but hey, whatever), endows Cruz’ struggle an antipathy towards prejudice and discrimination in general. That’s a sentiment that today’s youth can certainly get behind.

There is some amount of fun to be had in exploring the sepia-toned past of the Cars universe, and the jokes should please the young and the easily amused. Overall, though – and like its two predecessors – Cars 3 suffers in comparison to the rest of Pixar’s oeuvre. It is certainly better than the majority of animated fair; Pixar haven’t made a bad film yet, and it at this rate they may never. But it is still bottom-tier Pixar material. Make of that what you will.

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