This image released by Disney shows Lightning McQueen, voiced by Owen Wilson, left, and Cruz Ramirez, voiced by Cristela Alonzo in a scene from “Cars 3.” (Disney-Pixar via AP)

Reeling it in: ‘Cars 3’ back in the ring

“Cars 3”

Pixar Animation Studios

1 hour, 49 minutes

In the years since the original “Cars” came out, I’ve become a kind of apologist for the film that many seem to consider the low point in Pixar’s storied collection. I’ll admit, the movie seems, on the surface, to be a little more “pedestrian” than other Pixar films, but it’s got a sweet message, beautiful visuals, and endearing performances, Larry the Cable Guy notwithstanding.

Maybe it was having kids that really turned me on to “Cars,” but after the 12th viewing I realized that the movie has a lot to offer. I can’t say the same for “Cars 2” which is, in my opinion, the worst of the entire Pixar catalog. That movie hasn’t sweetened in my memory, and is the only one of those movies I’ve refused to buy my kids later. (OK — I also didn’t buy “The Good Dinosaur,” but they pointedly didn’t ask for that one.)

“Cars” also spun off a few of those terrible “Planes” movies, which don’t go on Pixar’s books since Disney just co-opted the general idea for some quick cash sequels. So, when I heard they were making another “Cars” movie, I was less than thrilled. I needn’t have worried.

“Cars 3” is not the best movie I’ve seen in a while, and it’s not quite as good as the original “Cars,” but it is definitely a good movie and brings back the thoughtful sweetness of the original, while moving the characters’ arcs forward significantly. The film begins with a series of race montages where we see our old pal Lightning McQueen, voiced by Owen Wilson, tearing up the track and winning trophies.

But now he is no longer a rebellious outsider, but one of a community of racers. He and his friends trade successes back and forth throughout the season, each happy and content. McQueen, though on the road a lot, still resides in Radiator Springs with all his friends. Doc Hudson is gone, but his memory and example still guide our hero’s actions. It’s a good life, that is until the day Jackson Storm joins the race.

Rookie racer Storm, though not really a villain, shakes up the racing world with a series of easy victories, cruising past the older cars like they were standing still. He is a product of the latest technology in racing, everything data driven and tested to the nth degree. Remember Ivan Drago’s training montage in “Rocky 4?” That’s the same thing, minus the oppressive Soviet iconography and creepy steroid stuff. Lightning and his friends are the old school and Jackson Storm is the new. And he’s not alone.

Before long, the entire track is consumed by these hot young racers, and the old guard is seeing the writing on the wall. One by one they begin to retire, but McQueen isn’t ready. Much like Rocky Balboa in “Rocky 4,” “Rocky 5,” and “Rocky Balboa,” Lightning embarks on a training regimen designing to put him back on top.

This training leads him on a cross country road trip where Pixar animators get to show off their talents on some of the most amazing varied landscapes you’ve ever seen. Eventually, McQueen begins to see in his young trainer what Doc Hudson saw in him — heart and potential. Cruz Ramirez is young, young enough to compete with the rookies, but has never been taken seriously. McQueen, much like Rocky Balboa in “Creed,” sees a way to give her her shot.

If you noticed a general theme in the last few paragraphs, it’s not an accident. “Cars 3,” much in the same way that the original “Cars” did, hews to the “Rocky” underdog story line pretty closely. In that way, these films are really Pixar’s versions of the classic sports film.

I like sports movies, when they’re done well, and at least two-thirds of this series are done very well. The voice acting is pretty top notch, though it doesn’t require a lot, and the plot, though straightforward is effective.

Naturally, the animation is pretty ground-breaking. It actually veers a little bit toward the uncanny valley, as the backgrounds are so photo-realistic that they jar a little with the cartoony looking vehicle characters. It’s only a slight issue, however, unlike the tonally jagged “Good Dinosaur.”

“Cars 3” is a major course correction after the silly and confusing second film in the series. Movies are often criticized as being formulaic, but in this case, the formula works.

Grade A-

“Cars 3” is rated G.

Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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