Cars 3 could be a hell of a lot worse. We know that. We already had Cars 2.

To avoid the fate of joining that film at the bottom pit of Pixar hell, the filmmakers made the very reasonable distinction of simply going back over the plot of the first Cars, a movie that was universally regarded as the studio's worst film in 2006, and which has (in my estimation) clambered closer to the middle of the pack with almost new Pixar release since 2011. Cars 3 is by no means the movie to reverse that trend: amongst the spectacularly unnecessary sequels that got made for some reason, I'd put it ahead of 2013's Monsters University and 2016's Finding Dory, but the whole cluster is rather distressing in its well-heeled mediocrity.

But as I was saying, Cars 3 is basically a do-over of Cars, with some different thematic emphases that don't do very much to actually change the experience of watching the thing. If we are to compare it to the classic sports movies of yesteryear - and we definitely should, as it will save us an awful lot of effort - Cars 3 is to Cars as Rocky Balboa is to Rocky, with an added scoop of Creed. The situation is thus: many years after his come-from-nowhere rise as the rookie star of the Piston Cup circuit, stock racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has turned into one of the much-loved elder statesmen of the sport. Which, in the due course of things, paints a target on his rear bumper, and as the film sketches out in a lengthy opening montage, the young hotshot looking to take over is a super-sleek, jet-black car named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), part of a new generation of precision-engineered racecars that rather effortlessly outperform Lightning & his era of racers, and if we start to dwell on the question of what it means for cars to be "precision-engineered" in a world where anthropomorphic cars are the dominant form of sentient life, we'll be here all day, so let's just skip ahead.

Lightning's attempts to outperform Jackson Storm results in a blown tire, a bad crash, and a sense of loss that goes beyond being beaten. Simply put, the aging car is haunted by the possibility that he's too old and outmoded to compete in this world anymore. Thus begins a spiritual journey that includes the next generation, in the form of upbeat trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), with her own broken dreams of being a racer, and the last generation, in the form of lingering memories of the great Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, returning to the grave in the form of outtakes from Cars) and a quest to find his old cronies from many years ago. For thus does Lightning hope to become not a better racer, but a smarter racer, able to use his own impending obsolescence as a tool rather than a limitation.

I've almost certainly made it sound richer and deeper than it is. We do know, after all, that a story of an aging hero discovering that the world is evolving beyond him, and that it's up to him if he's going to find a role in that world, can work like gangbusters in a animated children's comedy. We know this because when Pixar themselves made that film with a cowboy doll instead of a stock car, they called it Toy Story, and it is a masterpiece for the ages. Cars 3 is self-evidently no Toy Story, nor is it trying to be. It's content to be a simple, nice little movie, one that presents its themes of aging with dignity, respecting the great achievements of the past, and looking forward to the possibilities of future generations with such a gentle touch that it's not entirely clear if those themes are even there, or if it's just that it feels like they ought to be, based on the parameters of the story.

In fact, Cars 3 is maybe just about the most flawlessly neutral film Pixar has made; it neither gives nor takes, but merely exists, and after some time, it ends. It's pleasant enough during the span of that existence, certainly compared to Cars 2: instead of the dipshit comedy of Mater the tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy), the film eases back to the casual "enjoy the landscape of the United States" mood of the first film, and despite having more racing scenes than either of its predecessors, it feels infinitely more relaxed and no-big-deal-ish than either of them. The solitary exception: a muddy demolition derby that's the most exciting, well-choreographed part of the film (and a justification by itself for seeing the movie in 3-D), and presents car racing as a fundamentally thrilling event rather than the Zen-like act of self-reflection that it's pitched as throughout the rest of the movie.

The film tries to be nothing more than likable; for good or ill, it's the least-ambitious film Pixar has ever released. Perhaps this is because it's the first Pixar feature that's a directorial debut: every previous director has had at least a short under their belt, or co-directed a feature, before being handed the reigns, but Brian Fee comes straight from being a story artist. Maybe that's why there's no real storytelling urgency (it, in theory, is driven by a ticking clock, but that doesn't seem to have an impact on even one scene), or why the film is so content to be pretty in the way that other Pixar films have been prettier: the foggy woods are basically Brave-light, the deserts are little more than a more well-rendered re-creation of Cars. Hell, Cars 2 might have been crap, but it was crap that was trying real hard to push the envelope forward on lighting and design. Cars 3 just wants us to to enjoy looking at some well-done landscapes and enjoy the shiny texture of cars, and that's pretty much it.

Nothing wrong with that. It's a featherweight kids' movie, possible the most undiluted kids' movie that Pixar has yet made, despite its attention to aging and self-doubt. Honestly, all of that ends up reverting to basic "believe in yourself, even when the bullies say mean things" stuff, all the more so in the wake of the film's enormously predictable (but still warm and satisfying) twist, just more kiddie-flick boilerplate, though done with confidence and a measure of elegance. What it does all mean is that there's just not much there there; despite expanding the scope of the series' universe, and pulling in the likes of Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale, Nathan Fillion, and Kerry Washington for no apparent reason (Washington, in particular, gets nothing to do), it feels like the tiniest Cars yet, just a simple little fable that's easy on the eyes, pleasantly amusing without ever bothering to go for "funny", and quick-moving enough that it hasn't worn out its welcome before it wraps up. I truly despise the fact that this is the way we have to think about Pixar movies now, but at least Cars 3 has nothing to be ashamed of in the broader market of children's cinema.

Reviews in this series
Cars (Lasseter with Ranft, 2006)
Cars 2 (Lasseter with Lewis, 2011)
Cars 3 (Fee, 2017)