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MOVIES: Cars 3 - Review

The Cars franchise may be the least critically acclaimed of Pixar's endeavors, but that didn't stop audiences from flocking to the theaters for the first two installments, which grossed a collective $1 billion worldwide. Factor in the merchandising revenue, and the series is likely one of the most profitable properties in the Disney family, so it was only a matter of time before we took another trip back to Radiator Springs.

Cars 3 finds the legendary Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) trying to maintain his position as the top racer in the world amidst a growing contingent of younger, faster competitors. Leading the pack of upstarts is Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), an arrogant rookie with a particular disdain for McQueen, eager for any opportunity to embarrass his rival and tarnish Lightning's legacy. After a series of defeats culminating in a devastating rollover crash, Lightning is forced to reckon with the idea that his racing days may lie in the rearview mirror.

Enter Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a trainer employed by billionaire sponsor Mr. Sterling (Nathan Fillion) to get Lightning back onto the track - even if it's just for a victory lap. With the latest in technological advancements and data analytics, Cruz has all the tools to help Lightning compete with the new breed of racers, but McQueen is convinced that he knows more than his trainer and doesn't need any help. It's a very pointed callback to the relationship between Lightning and Doc in the original film - indeed, Doc's influence is an important component of this new story - but viewers expecting Cars 3 to retread the same territory should be pleasantly surprised as it repeatedly defies convention.

Pixar has long been at the forefront of computer animation, and Cars 3 is certainly no exception to the rule. Lightning McQueen and his pals have never looked better, and the visuals are so impressive that it would be easy to mistake some of the film's aerials shots for footage of actual Nascar events. The action is also superbly staged here, particularly during a wild demolition derby around the film's midway point and the climactic race that closes the film, both of which are packed to the carburetors with excitement.

Director Brian Fee is wise enough not to overpopulate the film, and returning characters like Ramon (Cheech Marin), Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Sally (Bonny Hunt) are limited to a handful of scenes in order to make room for a more focused narrative about accepting the limitations that come with getting older. While it's difficult to view the inhabitants of this universe as living things, Cars 3 nevertheless feels like a meditation on mortality, a story about finding solace in one's accomplishments without trying to remain young forever. In true Pixar fashion, it's a delicate balance of humor and heart, and a poignant experience that should leave plenty of theater patrons reaching for a tissue before the credits roll.

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