Cars 3 clearly shows Pixar returning to the original film for inspiration. While Cars 2 was more a feature-length version of Mater's Tall Tales, this film inherits more thematically from the first film and includes appearances from Chick Hicks, Doc Hudson (in flashbacks), the Rusteze crew, and Tex (who owns Dinoco). This sequel captures some of the nostalgia of the first film, not about small-town America (which still makes the first one of Pixar's finest films), but more along the vein of Doc Hudson's story. The previews gave this theme away dramatically with the image of Lightning McQueen rolling, just as we remember Doc Hudson did. And this exploration of Doc Hudson's backstory while Lightning McQueen explores his own mortality, having to acknowledge that he will not be able to race forever, is the strongest part of this outing.
Those who love the Cars franchise for the zany cast of characters, particularly Mater, will get a taste during the first section of the film, but will be mostly disappointed. Mater really does take a backseat here, so that Lightning can explore his relationship with racing. This quest leads McQueen into a series of new relationships including Cruz Ramirez (Pixar's effort to pull little girls into the franchise, more so than Sally or Holly Shiftwell), Sterling (a new sponsor who has access to new technologies that promise to help Lightning advance his training), and Smokey (who is an appropriate (I won't spoil the surprise here) stand-in for the missing Doc Hudson). Because I do not want to reveal too much about a new movie, I will not explore those relationships, but in many ways all these new relationships hinge on Lightning's quest to honor his calling to be a racer and to live up to the legacy of his mentor, Doc Hudson.
The film speaks on different levels as the best Disney Pixar efforts. Astute youth, but particularly adults, will pick up on the sadness of "passing your prime." Anyone who has excelled at something and then arrived at a day when one felt that one was slipping against the competition, particularly a younger generation will easily identify the heart of this film. Change. Transition. Deciding when to retire or to pass the torch. These moments are heart-wrenching, and this film addresses them with a similar skill as the original, and then answers them in a way that may not be pleasing to some long-time fans, who are loyal to the old generation, but in a way that definitely fits with the franchise. Everything fits, and the writers force no motivations. There are many hints that prepare us for the end, just as we expected in Toy Story 3. I find it a worthy entry in the series, one that perhaps will stand more multiple viewings than the second one. The original, though, along with Toy Story 2, still heads the top of my Pixar list.