Veteran racer Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is back where he belongs at the Piston Cup, but while he’s been away saving the world or whatever it was he got up to in Cars 2 a new wave of next-generation super-cars has started to dominate the competition. Crashing out during the final race of the season while attempting to overtake his would-be successor, Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), Lightning returns to Radiator Springs to lick his wounds and recover. With a new sponsor by the name of Sterling (Nathan Fillion), and the threat of a premature retirement closing the distance, Lightning has it all to prove as he’s forced to retrain under the tutelage of Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) and her high-tech simulators.

Clearly sensing where they went wrong with Cars 2, namely in removing the characters from their backwater setting and releasing them onto the world stage, Pixar has backtracked on the story to the point that it might as well overwrite its predecessor completely. Franchise starter John Lasseter has pulled out of the race, leaving storyboard artist Brian Fee to take the wheel, a behind-the-scenes relinquishment of responsibilities and acknowledgement of emerging talent that reflects the film’s key themes of legacy and opportunity. Admirably, McQueen wants to retire when the time is right on his own terms, and it would seem that Pixar wants the same for its franchise, despite the criticisms aimed at both over the years, at least since the first film’s release.

Cars 3When Lightning McQueen joins Sterling’s new look Rust-eze team he’s horrified to discover that the businessman is more interested in selling branded mud flaps than racing itself. The real-life parallels are clear: Pixar has been accused of selling out ever since 2006, when bith the original Cars was released and the struggling studio was purchased by Disney, and it’s hard not to read Cars 3 as a riposte. Cars may be one of Pixar’s most lucrative franchises, despite seemingly also being its most unloved, with Disney spin-offs Planes and Planes: Fire and Rescue clearly cashing in on the craze, but Cars 3 would seem to maintain that the Brain Trust is still in it for the pleasure of storytelling, and if there’s one thing the latest film can’t be faulted for it’s having a solid story. Of course, whether this is indeed a dignified last stand remains to be seen; I suppose we’ll just have to see how well it does at the Box Office first.

Cars 3 is not a terrible movie, certainly it’s no worse than the first, but by no means is it a terrific one either. It’s serviceable, road worthy and relatively reliable. You know what you’re going to get with a Cars movie, and this one treads a familiar track albeit with a few surprises thrown in for good measure, including detours to a demolition derby and Doc’s hometown of Thomasville, where they learn lessons from McQueen’s mentor’s mentor (Chris Cooper). Inevitably, however, it also once again fails to address the franchise’s biggest flaw: the premise itself. The universe of Cars makes less sense with every sequel, with Cars 2’s revelation that sushi somehow exists in a world without animals further confused by Cars 3’s portrayal of tractors as mindless cattle. Who on earth farms them? And why? Is sushi in fact made from the day’s catch of submarines? And what of these super cars, anyway? Were they born? Engineered? Enhanced? Is the car species evolving before our very eyes?

What’s strange is that had in been released a decade later in 2016 Cars might have been embraced as topical or even prescient. Its unfashionable and ultimately unappreciated reaction to progress and globalisation might have addressed the disenfranchisement of small town America and drawn overdue attention to those who have been left behind. Perhaps it did, given its obvious popularity, only to be roundly missed be the critical elite anyway — an all too likely possibility. Maybe Cars 3 will speak to a similar audience, maybe it won’t, but like Lightning McQueen perhaps it and Pixar shouldn’t be discounted just yet.