There are two kinds of Pixar movies: the great ones and everything else. The amazing thing is how long there were only great ones.
The first not-great feature was “Cars” (2006). The anthropomorphic autos were cute. Pixar being Pixar, clever touches abounded (the late Tom Magliozzi and his brother Ray, the “Car Talk” guys, were among the voice talent). But its tale of race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) never got into high gear. It didn’t help that Lightning’s tow-truck pal, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), was Jar Jar Binks by way of “Hee Haw.”
“Cars 2,” which added a dollop of international espionage to the general vroom vroom, was an improvement — still not prime Pixar, but better. That was six years ago, and the series is starting to get long in the carburetor. In fact, the “Cars 3” plots turns on aging.
All those miles are beginning to catch up with Lightning. He’s getting beaten on the track by hot-shot racer Storm Jackson (Armie Hammer). With the help of racing coach Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) and wise old pickup Smokey (Chris Cooper), can he get back in the race? “It’s all about motivation, Mr. McQueen,” Cruz tells him. If only things were that simple. When the answer finally comes, it does so with an up-to-the-minute twist.
That answer comes after what feels like a very long time. The last great Pixar feature, “Inside Out” (2015), had so much going on it almost felt like too much. “Cars 3” has so little it feels like just that, too little. The characters have propulsion. They have to; they’re motor vehicles. The movie rarely does.
“Cars 3” marks Brian Fee’s debut as director and writer (he shares the latter credit with six, count ’em, six others). Fee did storyboard work on the first two “Cars” movies, “Ratatouille,” and “WALL-E.” Even for someone with a resume like that, the next step, to writer-
director, is an awfully big one.
This is the rare movie that might benefit from silence. Partly that’s because of the squeezed syrup of Randy Newman’s score. Even more that’s because it would eliminate distraction from the visuals. Movies, animated and otherwise, are about motion and light. Pixar makes a marvel of both, doing so with such seeming ease that we in the audience take it for granted. Big mistake! The race sequences are an internal-combustion ballet. And the gradations of light, in night-time scenes especially, have a subtlety that would defy belief — except that there they are up on the screen, presenting themselves for blissful inspection. No matter how slack the storytelling can get, the animation conveying that storytelling is borderline miraculous.
“Cars 3” is rated G. Parents might reasonably assume, hey, it’s Pixar, so no worries, perfect for the entire family. Nope. Those MPAA ratings dopes strike again. A harrowing car crash early on and a demolition-derby sequence featuring Miss Fritter, a fire-belching school bus (!), voiced by Lea DeLaria, are likely too intense for children under 6. PG, people, PG.
The short that precedes “Cars 3” is “Lou.” It’s about a . . . monster? a spirit? Let’s just say a something . It has baseball eyeballs and inhabits an elementary school lost-and-found box. Said something sees to it that a schoolyard bully gets his comeuppance. Said comeuppance is visually imaginative and neatly comic, if ultimately a tad saccharine.
Directed by Brian Fee. Written by Fee, Ben Queen, Eyal Podell, Jonathon E. Stewart, Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson, Mike Rich. Starring the voices of Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Larry the Cable Guy, Armie Hammer, Lea DeLaria. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 109 minutes. G (a car crash and demolition-derby sequence may be too intense for children under 6).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.