Cars 3 (Photo: Disney-Pixar)

★★½ (out of four)
STARS Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo

The latest installment in Pixar’s NASCAR-approved franchise, Cars 3 owes almost as much to Rocky III as it does to the previous two entries in this lucrative series. In fact, Rocky III’s Oscar-nominated theme song, Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” reverberates through the mind at such a high pitch during the viewing experience that the band might as well have been contacted to provide an updated version (“Eye of the Tiger In Your Tank”?).

The previous pictures are perhaps Pixar’s most underrated offerings — 2006’s Cars offered a lovely look at Route 66 mythology while 2011’s Cars 2 was an engaging espionage caper — but I daresay this one will probably be rated about right. Resolutely sweet-natured and marked by some compelling visuals, it’s still the weakest of the trio, with Lightning McQueen (again voiced by Owen Wilson) and other old-school race cars finding themselves becoming obsolete with the emergence of newer and sleeker models. Chief among the upstarts is Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who usurps Lightning’s position as the sport’s reigning champion. Combatting both injury and depression, Lightning falls into a funk during the off-season, requiring his friends (including Bonnie Hunt’s Sally and Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater) to talk him off the mental and emotional cliff. With his optimism and enthusiasm restored, he undergoes a vigorous training regime, aided by his new coach Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo).

Cars 3 spends too much of the early going in idle, repeating familiar beats about how it sucks to get old (a sop to aging adults in the audience?) while fetishizing shiny new cars and accessories that will look great on Target shelves. Still, the movie is always agreeable if rarely exciting, and it does kick into high gear for the final stretch, which offers a pleasing plot pirouette that’s right in line with the usual Pixar philosophies of solidarity and self-worth. If this turns out to be the final Cars film – only the studio bean counters know for sure – there are worse ways for the franchise to ride off into the celluloid sunset.

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