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Three’s a charm for this charming ‘Cars’ sequel

'Cars 3' (Official trailer)

Lightning McQueen sets out to prove to a new generation of racers that he's still the best race car in the world.
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Lightning McQueen sets out to prove to a new generation of racers that he's still the best race car in the world.

After the disappointing chaos of “Cars 2,” it was hard to get enthusiastic about another entry in Pixar’s vehicular franchise. Would it make the same mistakes, tossing the original’s sweet-natured nostalgia in favor of empty visual flair? Was the studio succumbing to the allure of easy money for mediocre product?

“Cars 3” answers those questions with a very self-aware “no.” Everything about it seems calculated to correct the errors of the second film, starting with its devotion to back roads Americana. By returning to its roots, the series rediscovers its sense of purpose — and its heart.

Owen Wilson is still the only man who could voice Lightning McQueen, who has gone from hotshot to has-been on the racing circuit. Pumped-up supercars are taking over the sport, represented by the sleek Jackson Storm (voiced by Armie Hammer, appropriately). Lightning gets a chance to modernize with the help of a new sponsor (Nathan Fillion) and an enthusiastic trainer named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), but their high-tech approach is useless.

Lightning doesn’t need treadmills and simulators. He needs the kind of gritty advice he got from Doc Hudson (the late, great Paul Newman, in flashbacks), so he embarks on what you might call a very personalized route to the finish line.

The new regimen involves everything from dodging tractor “cows” to entering a wild demolition derby, and novice director Brian Fee brings the thrills. He understands the difference between pure technical skill and real creativity, and that lesson is clear in both the plot of “Cars 3” and the way it’s put together. You’ll certainly never look at a school bus the same way again.

Most of the original characters have been pushed to the sidelines, which will disappoint fans of the Radiator Springs gang. Their replacements are less interesting, despite the presence of KC native Chris Cooper as an old friend of Doc’s.

The one notable exception is Cruz. A gifted racer who gave up her dream of competing, she represents more than just rookie insecurity. She’s the voice of every girl who was told to lower her expectations in a man’s world. Sure, they’re all just talking cars, but Cruz joins Wonder Woman on the list of 2017’s blockbuster feminist role models.

She is likely to be the star of any future “Cars” entries, as Lightning eases into the role of mentor, and the new characters develop more distinct personalities. If Pixar chooses to continue this way, “Cars 4” will be driving in exactly the right direction.

(“Cars 3” is preceded by the short film “Lou,” which may be the most adorable anti-bullying PSA ever created. Make sure you get to the theater on time.)

Read more of Loey Lockerby’s reviews at suchacritic.com.

‘Cars 3’

Opens at 7 p.m. Thursday.

Rated G. Time: 1:49.

3-D or not 3-D: All Pixar films look spectacular in any format, so it’s probably a toss-up.

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