“Cars” has been, for many, one of the few slights on Pixar’s stellar record. A touch too juvenile, with one of its worst characters (Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater), the franchise went from a mediocre debut to a pretty horrible sequel that took the wholesome anthropomorphized racing movie and turned it into a spy fiasco. In fact, “Cars 2” is on or near the bottom of many Pixar movie rankings.

“Cars 3” swerves more toward the original, getting back to the tone of the debut. But even more so, the film is inspired by “Rocky IV.” There’s even a car named Cal Weathers.

Racing icon Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson), once at the top of the sport, finds himself lagging behind the next generation of race cars, starting with the flashy Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who uses all the modern techniques and technological tricks to push the speedometer an extra few ticks.

The old-school Lightning, with his traditional dirt track training — think Rocky’s snowy wood-chopping and sled-pulling montage — just can’t compete.

After he gets a new sponsor, Sterling (Nathan Fillion), and a trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), he’s whisked far away from Radiator Springs, which thankfully gives the added benefit of putting many of the secondary characters well into the background (again, see: Mater).

With this new sponsor, McQueen is attempting to learn all these newfangled training exercises, but he really just ends up showing Cruz his old-school techniques — turns out, she’s got some serious racing skills of her own.

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Cruz’s narrative brings the movie a strong, empowering message that anyone can do anything if they work hard enough. The film also mines its own history, with some flashbacks to the late Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson.

Unfortunately, the plot is as predictable as an oval racetrack and the majority of the jokes speed by with nary a guffaw, though there are a few inspired, energized moments during the training sequences when Lightning and Cruz find their way into a demolition derby. And if you’re not a fan of racing, the film becomes even more of a struggle to sit through as you sputter through to those final laps.