Third entry shows Pixar franchise still has a little bit of gas left in its tank

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Everything that’s new eventually becomes old.

Just look at the iPod: The shiny toy that upended the music industry back in 2001 is now an ancient relic, a tiny piece of nostalgia that’s used as a gag prop or a piece of throwback tech (see the upcoming “Baby Driver”).

And so it goes for “Cars,” the Pixar franchise that was shiny and new when it was introduced in 2006 and is now taking its third lap around the track.

“Cars 3” is itself in nostalgia mode; its star car, Lightning McQueen (earnestly voiced by Owen Wilson), is no longer the champ of the racing circuit, and is getting lapped by newer, superior models like Jackson Storm (voice of Armie Hammer), a souped up, sleekly contoured piece of racing machinery meant to leave vehicles like Lightning in the dust.

It’s a bit of a self-aware commentary on itself. “Cars” was never the most beloved of the Pixar franchise; critics found it lacking the soul and artistry of the studio’s finest works, and the first film is only the 10th highest grosser in the Pixar canon. (The box office tally for “Cars 2,” released in 2011, fell below that of the original.)

As Lightning fights to hold his place on the track, to not become scrap for the junkyard, “Cars 3” is fighting for the franchise’s relevancy and legacy. And if it feels like a retread, it’s partly by design — there’s even a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” on the soundtrack — but “Cars 3” has enough gas left in its tank to get it over the finish line.

No longer the catchphrase spewing, “ka-chow!”-ing hot shot of the racing world, Lightning McQueen is put in his place early on by Jackson Storm. Storm is the Ivan Drago to Lightning’s Rocky Balboa; Storm trains in the latest high tech facilities and is surrounded by the newest technologies, while Lightning keeps it old school, ripping straightaways on the beach and kicking up dust on beat up old Western raceways.

But the old vs. new storyline is pretty tired, so the film introduces Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a would-be racer who never had the courage or confidence to become a racer herself. Director Brian Fee (who is also one of four writers with a “story by” credit) makes “Cars 3” a story about selflessness and passing the torch, a lesson with more resonance than a tried-and-true comeback story.

“Cars 3” works in flashback elements of Doc, the Hudson Hornet voiced in the first film by Paul Newman in one of his final roles. That element helps bring “Cars” back around to its starting point, as Lightning now plays a mentor role to Cruz much like Doc played to Lightning the first time around.

There are still oddities in the “Cars” universe that are difficult to wrap one’s head around; in a world populated only by cars — humans do not exist in this world — how does anything get done? Do cars build the stadiums in which the cars race? Where do cars come from? Why are cars?

The windshields-as-eyes and grills-as-mouths are also peculiar, but that’s not the point. “Cars 3” hums along the track, and while its heart and humor could use minor tune-ups, it does enough visually to earn a checkered flag and keep this franchise from the scrapheap — for now, at least.

agraham@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2284

@grahamorama

‘Cars 3’

GRADE: B-

Rated G: Nothing objectionable

Running time: 109 minutes

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