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'Cars 3' is a strangely sad movie about retirement — you know, for the kids!

If only it were funnier.
Cars 3
The Owen Wilson-voiced Lightning McQueen finds himself far away from the NASCAR track in "Cars 3." Credit: Pixar

‘Cars 3’
Director:
Brian Fee
Voices of: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo
Rating: G
3 (out of 5) Globes

Perhaps we’ve been too hard on the “Cars” series — the runt of the Pixar litter, the ones that, for mainstream animation’s most inspired and entertaining wing, seem curiously undercooked, beneath them, more like knock-offs made by the oft-dreaded Dreamworks. They’re the Pixars that sell the most toys, which may be why there are now three of them; each time they return to the franchise, it feels dutiful, like when a brainy website wearily pounds out dumb clickbait to keep advertisers happy. The initial entry, from 2006, was the first dent in their brand. It was short on laughs, too heavy on the sincere messages they’re usually better at couching in inspired chaos and jokes. It lacked the “Pixar touch.”

Still, it was beautiful to look at, its photorealistic realms peppered with loud car colors and cartoony car-people faces. And it was shockingly heavy. It was about the anxiety of always having to be “on,” and the fear that comes when one all of a sudden isn’t. By “Cars 3” — let’s collectively forget the Larry the Cable-guy heavy “Cars 2” ever happened — the end has come for our hero, blindingly red Nascar superstar Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson). He’s still fast, but not as fast as the new flocks of talking cars. His main adversary is an ass-kissing frenemy voiced by Armie Hammer — a souped-up speeder with cutting-edge tech that easily bests Lightning’s old school meat-and-potatoes style. He’s basically Ivan Drago from “Rocky IV,” only instead of Russia being the bad guys it’s the kids these days, ready to make the olds unemployed.

The “Cars” movies may be hated by the cool kids, and not without good reason. Still, there’s something badass about a movie aimed squarely at kids that’s all about the pains of getting old. It isn't quite "Inside Out" — a movie we really don't know how kids watch without becoming active depressos — but it is a brutally honest, often grouchy affair, complete with digs at shortsighted business tycoons, shameless media types, snake oil salesman-like number-crunchers who think they can predict races, even a brief and very welcome knock at that endlessly hyped tech that will never quite take off: VR. “Cars 3” has a happy ending, but only after some frank and honest discussions about what a superstar does after they’ve aged out of their profession. Lightning spends the movie exactly like Rocky: he goes back into training, trying to beat his new opponents with old tricks. But it actually goes farther into the brink than a “Rocky” entry; we know Lightning’s almost certainly lying to himself.

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Then again, if only it were funnier or more inspired. The aforementioned “Pixar touch” — that nimble balancing act between comedy and heart — is once again off in “Cars 3.” There are some dazzling races, plus a literally explosive mid-film smash-and-crash royal rumble at a backwoods dirt track. But the animators seem uninterested in finding jokes, or in writing dialogue that’s anything beyond expository. The characters, even Lightning, are colorless, the voicework uninspired. (As his alternately cucumber cool and insecure trainer, Cristela Alonzo simply does her best impression of spazzy Ellen DeGeneres.) There really is only one sight gag: a hotel billboard that reads “Time to Re-Tire.” It’s not a bad yuk, but it’s also depressing: It makes you realize if Pixar really thought more about their “Cars” wing, this bummer of a kid's movie would at least have more jokes.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
 
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