Without giving anything away, I can tell you that, at its climax, this latest installment in a springtime of sequels the world doesn't need eases into a surprising new gear and takes a hard turn into becoming the movie that, during its earlier lulls, I’d idly longed to see. The final scenes surge as though Disney’s Pixar has huffed some Fast & Furious nitrous, but they also serve as an eloquent critique of the boilerplate franchise plotting to which the film has thus far seemed to adhere. There's even a moral, one that's as crucial in preschools as it is in our fan cultures: Let others take a turn sometimes, boys.
Of course, to get to that ending you need to get through Cars 3, but that prospect turns out to be much more pleasant than a summary of its plot might suggest. For much of its running time, it tells the too-familiar story of an over-the-hill pro out to prove himself one more time against a world that's changed. (Think four-fifths of all Sylvester Stallone pictures.) This time it's that zippy sentient race car, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), who is bested by young bucks. In the name of maintaining his dominance, he must train as never before, and director Brian Fee and his team tear into this story with such vigor that it might not occur to you to wonder why exactly we should care whether the one-time champ gets to win again. The propulsive opening thunders through a race season's worth of victories and defeats, staged with wit and verve, before launching Lightning into what plays at first like a standard-issue old-dude sports-underdog arc. Cue the training montages, the bristling about new techniques and the worries about obsolescence.
But Lightning’s misadventures — and a quick, marvelous road-trip sequence across an America that's bizarrely pastoral considering that its only inhabitants are internal-combustion engines — soon lay bare the meaninglessness of his quest. He's free to speed down dirt tracks and beaches, through mountain curves and over the Bonneville Salt Flats. What’s another trophy?
It takes Lightning and the movie quite a while to admit that truth. In the meantime, Cars 3 dedicates itself to another truth: To compete, the older model must work twice as hard. The billion-dollar Cars series, especially the dopey Cars 2, has often been derided by the Pixar cognoscenti as the production company’s creative nadir, more product than art. But the funny-dazzling set pieces here (a VR racing simulation, a demolition-derby smash-up) redound to the benefit of the assembly line.
The road to that big finish is smoothed by the arrival of Cruz Ramirez (voiced by Cristela Alonzo), a V-6 yellow sports coupe employed as a trainer at the conglomerate that funds Lightning’s racing team. She immediately razzes him, believing anger a good motivator: “These guys are great and all,” she says, indicating some newbies in training, “but I prefer a challenge.” Lightning sulks at that, then soon bails out of her high-tech regimen, dragging her to a beach to work out his way — and, not incidentally, to carsplain to her what her computer simulations miss. The sequence has a purpose, though, that will reveal itself in time, and it’s marked by a rare attention, for Pixar, to real-world physics. Brusquely, and then with surprising tenderness, Lightning teaches her practicalities of driving on sand and surf.
The two establish an uneasy friendship in the days before Lightning is due to show up for the big race that will make or break his reputation, even baring their souls in a stinging argument. Some of this is electric; some of this, as in the other Cars (and Disney’s Planes knockoffs), is flat and baffling. The series still hasn’t solved the problem of how to make compelling (or even non-ridiculous) scenes out of quiet conversations between big-eyed but inexpressive vehicles.
During a series of these, my mind wandered to the kind of questions it usually does during movies set in this vroom-vroom goof of a universe. Why have the makers of these thinking, feeling cars bothered to assign them genders? To get that trainer job, did Cruz have to fill out a résumé or just let them run her VIN? Cruddy old truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) is thankfully out of the action this time, but he does Skype in for a scene, which means he has a computer. Is the porn on it, by definition, auto-etorica?
Fortunately, the hushed car colloquies are few, and that climax is barreling down on us. As an ending, it’s perfect — unexpected but, in hindsight, inevitable. There’s no reason this guaranteed blockbuster had to be this smartly engineered. The thoughtful, thrilling finale retroactively complicates and improves much of the film that it caps, and it left me thinking something else impossible: I’d kind of like to see what happens in Cars 4.