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‘Cars 3’ review: Swerves toward original, but still predictable

In this animated Disney-Pixar sequel, the smart-mouth race-car Lightning McQueen (the voice of Owen Wilson) finds himself outgunned by a new generation of hopped-up automobiles. (Credit: Disney Pixar)

PLOT Lightning McQueen tries to prove he still has what it takes.

CAST Voices of Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Armie Hammer

RATED G

LENGTH 1:49

BOTTOM LINE Predictable — but better than “Cars 2.”

“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.

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.

Four more McQueens

Lightning McQueen and his cohorts are ready to start their engines as “Cars 3” zooms into theaters. The cocky race car isn’t the only McQueen to make his mark on screen. Here are four others.

BUTTERFLY McQUEEN — The squeaky-voiced actress, who graduated from high school in Babylon, will forever be remembered as the slave Prissy in “Gone With the Wind” (1939). She also was memorable as Joan Crawford’s housekeeper in “Mildred Pierce” (1945).

STEVE MCQUEEN — Dubbed “the King of Cool,” the actor lived up to that moniker in a number of macho movies of the ’60s, including “The Magnificent Seven” (1960), “The Great Escape” (1963) and “Bullitt” (1968). He was also an avid motorcyclist and a trained pilot.

STEVE MCQUEEN — The London-born director earned an Academy Award nomination for helming the brutal drama “12 Years a Slave” (2015), which won the best-picture Oscar. He is now working on a documentary on the late rapper Tupac Shakur.

ALEXANDER MCQUEEN — The Brit fashion designer, who died in 2010 at age 40, directed three of Björk’s music videos. He is also the subject of Ian Bonhôte’s documentary “McQueen,” which was picked up by Bleecker Street for North American distribution rights earlier this month.

— DANIEL BUBBEO

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