The late businessman and philanthropist Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy’s fast-food chain, once said: “It all comes back to the basics. Serve customers the best-tasting food at a good value in a clean, comfortable restaurant, and they'll keep coming back.”  Apply that telling quote of ease and simplicity to Cars 3 as a perfect parallel.  The savvy creators at Pixar, second to none in animation quality, know how to package a quality product of staggering merchandising power with clean and clear values that gain brand loyalty from wide audiences.  By scaling back from the zany international scope of Cars 2 and returning to its Americana roots, Cars 3 rediscovers the franchise’s successful foundation of wholesome heart.

Former rookie sensation Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has aged to become a living legend in the Piston Cup series, a spitting image of the role model his mentor Doc Hudson (the late Paul Newman) knew he could become.  However, new advanced race cars, led by Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) and backed by oodles of technology and endless metrics, have surged forward to revolutionize the scene and push out the older and obsolete racers.  Vowing to return after a debilitating crash ends his season, McQueen leans on support systems both old and new to mount a comeback. 

Spencer (Nathan Fillion), the new Rusteze sponsor/mogul, brings McQueen to flashy new facilities and employs top-notch trainer Cruz Ramirez (TV star Cristela Alonzo) to whip the champ into shape and maximize his earning power as a brand.  When that doesn’t take mere days before the inaugural race of the new season, McQueen leans on his dedicated Radiator Springs compadres like Sally and Mater (Bonnie Hunt and Larry the Cable Guy) and seeks out Doc Hudson’s own original crew chief Smokey (Chris Cooper) for deeper grassroots training, improvement, and healing. 

One necessary complement must go to the strides of diversity included in the ensemble voice casting.  The film touts a Latino woman co-lead (Alonzo), an educated black woman (Kerry Washington as data analyst Natalie Certain), an openly gay lesbian (Orange is the New Black’s Lea DeLaria as the demo derby queen Miss Fritter), and a bi-racial Brit (Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton as a Siri-like program), in addition to the returning likes of Cheech Marin, Jenifer Lewis, and Tony Shaloub.  Mark those as continuously progressive steps for a NASCAR-like landscape typically dominated by white males.

Taking a step back, much of above narrative reads like a suspect vehicular blend of Rocky IV and Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.  Cars 3 borrows a page from the first act of Finding Dory last summer, taking time for a fast-forward version of callbacks, re-introductions, and establishing shots that mirror the 2006 original.  Furthermore, much of the film feels like cyclical collection of training montages backed by Randy Newman’s prime musical score.  No less than five extended set pieces serve the common purpose of presenting an unorthodox training method to be tamed by McQueen and his shadowing Ramirez, leading Cars 3 to feel repetitive in its 100 minutes.

Quite unexpectedly, all the chase and race of Cars 3 gives way to the signature Pixar Punch calling card in a momentous finale.  An endearing emotional swerve pays off the patience and lip service the film’s seven screenplay and story writers stuffed into demonstrably more mature themes (see my lessons at the end) than the original film’s golly-gee affability.  The sequel is an overdue love letter to Paul Newman, revitalized through unused audio recordings, and a positive moral exercise for all ages and genders.  When that heart gear hits, all of the repetitiveness washes away to a satisfying series of smiles that you’re going to have a hard time wiping off of your face.  Getting back to basics was exactly what was needed. 

LESSON #1: MENTAL HURDLES ARE LARGER THAN ALL OTHERS-- For the first time in his career, Lightning McQueen has a confidence problem.  Physically, he’s not the fastest anymore and has to develop new smarts and skills, but the greater conditioning at play is rebuilding his mindset to be a winner against his contemporaries and a winner defined by more than checkered flags and trophies.

LESSON #2: LEAVING YOUR LIVELIHOOD ON YOUR OWN TERMS-- Pinging the adults in the audience, this lesson of Cars 3 tiptoes through the landscape older adults face in accepting diminished skills, retirement options, mentorship, mortality, and legacy.  Do you graciously plan for closure and pass the torch willingly or do you fight the inevitable to crash and burn trying to keep up? 

LESSON #3: BE A RACER-- Before being beset by Lesson #1, Lightning McQueen knew he belonged among the best racers because he pushed himself.  This lesson’s line is Cars 3’s attempt to exceed “just keep swimming,” but aiming for the front of the pack.  This motivating mantra becomes about empowerment, pushing for your highest and loftiest goals rather than settling for smaller ones or quitting on your dreams and ambitions altogether.