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"CARS 3"
(2017) (voices of Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo) (G)

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Computer-Animated Dramedy: A famous anthropomorphic race car must contend with having grown older and not being able to defeat younger and faster competitors.
In a world populated by anthropomorphic cars, trucks and other vehicles, Lightning McQueen (voice of OWEN WILSON) was once the top race car in the tournament circuit, having been tutored by the late Doc Hudson. But as the years have passed by, so has Lightning been on the track by newer and faster models such as rookie sensation Jackson Storm (voice of ARMIE HAMMER). Following the retirement of some of his contemporary rivals and recovering from a bad crash in his last race, some wonder if it's time for Lightning to ease up on the pedal and likewise retire.

He wants no part of that, although his newest sponsor, mud flap king Sterling (voice of NATHAN FILLION), would rather have him promoting his products. Nonetheless, and giving him one last shot before entering the world of product placement, Sterling assigns his top trainer, Cruz Ramirez (voice of CRISTELA ALONZO), to work with Lightning and get him up to speed in order to compete with the likes of Jackson and other newer race cars.

When that doesn't work, Lightning eventually seeks out Smokey (voice of CHRIS COOPER), Hud's mentor from long ago. Utilizing old school techniques, he starts to whip the veteran back into shape, all while Lightning's good friend, Mater (voice of LARRY THE CABLE GUY), tries to keep him motivated and Cruz realizes her former aspirations of being a racer herself are starting to resurface. With the big race coming up, all concerned wonder whether Lightning has what it takes to compete in this newer, faster world of racing.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Without going back and actually doing a hard count, I can't tell you how many films I've seen that have started out well and then had the cinematic wheels come off somewhere and sometime before crossing the finish line. Some of that can be attributed to studios being slaves to test screenings and feeling they need to change -- based solely on limited viewer feedback -- what worked in the original script.

In other instances, shooting begins before the script is fully finished and thus what starts out strongly ends weakly. And with others, it's just that the screenwriter(s) ran out of creative gas and couldn't figure out how the third act should play out and be resolved.

Far rarer is a movie that starts out mediocre or even worse and then somehow manages to rally, gets its act together, and finish far stronger than it began. In fact, and just going off the top of my head, I can't think of a single example of that. That is, except now that I just sat through a press screening of "Cars 3," only the second time that famed animation studio Pixar has completed a trilogy based on an original work of theirs (the other being the superlative "Toy Story" films).

Perhaps my perception of the beginning of this film was based on the fact that the theater couldn't get its act together in showing the short Pixar film, "Lou," that precedes the main attraction (it started and stopped, and rewound and so on for literally 30 minutes).

In reality, though, it's more likely that I've always found the "Cars" films the weakest and least interesting of Pixar's offerings. The first film was little more than "Doc Hollywood" converted into a talking vehicle flick aimed at kids, while the second seemed like little more than a misguided and unimaginative cash grab.

I had that déjà vu feeling all over again as this third installment in the series began, especially with two lengthy montages appearing early in the first act, meaning it appeared lots of filler was going to comprise -- and compromise -- the 100-some minute offering. And then the strangest thing happened -- the pic slowly but surely started to get better. Not Oscar-caliber by any means and certainly not in line with Pixar's best, but certainly better than its start and definitely superior to what the second film presented.

The story -- by Kiel Murray and Bob Peterson and Mike Rich -- isn't terribly complex and it's fairly predictable, at least up until a pivotal point. Our hero, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson reprising his vocal work), no longer can keep up with the faster race cars he's competing with, such as rookie sensation Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer).

With other contemporaries retiring and following his own bad crash, talk is he should retire. Yet, Lightning is determined to keep competing, even if he can see the skid marks, so to speak, on the wall. Even his new sponsor (Nathan Fillion) seems to be humoring him in allowing him one last race -- under the guidance of young trainer Cruz Ramirez (voiced by Cristela Alonzo) -- before having him hang up the racing gear in favor of peddling the sponsor's auto-related goods.

The regular training goes nowhere and thus Lightning seeks out the mentor -- Smokey (Chris Cooper) -- of his own former mentor (that being the race car voiced by the late great Paul Newman -- seen in a few flashbacks) and they get down to some old-fashioned training.

And during all of this, the film starts to feel ever more like a classic Pixar offering, with some touching moments, homage to the past and so on. It's actually remarkable that a pic that starts off feeling so crass, cookie cutter and commercialized actually turns into something fairly good.

Speaking of the latter, all of the vocal work is solid to excellent, while the computer animation is nothing short of amazing to behold. The animators at Pixar have done tremendous work in their past offerings, but this arguably their best. Long story short, it's a visual feast from the race sequences -- of a number of varieties -- to smaller elements that simply look smashing.

This is a prime example that given some time, a standalone film as well as the trilogy in which it appears can get better. I was expecting anything ranging from feeling blasé to downright hatred toward this film, but ended up liking it the more it went on. "Cars 3" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed June 12, 2017/ Posted June 16, 2017

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