★★★

The best thing about Cars 3 is Lou, Pixar’s latest short film, which unspools prior to the start of the feature. Lou centers on a schoolyard bully named J.J., who delights in snatching toys away from the other kids. But J.J. is taught an important lesson in compassion by a playful monster made up of baseballs, buttons, hoodies, books, and other assorted treasures located in a lost-and-found bin. It’s guaranteed to warm your heart and put a smile on your face. As for Cars 3, it quickly gets up to speed with some exciting racing scenes, then shifts into a lower gear for a lengthy stretch. Thankfully, it revs its engines for its final laps and crosses the finish line in winning fashion.

Superstar racer Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is cruising along nicely in his career until a new generation of slick, ultramodern competitors, led by rookie sensation Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), appear in his rearview mirror and blow past him. He’s suddenly viewed as the sport’s “elder statesman,” and rumors circulate that his career may be over—especially after he’s badly damaged in a horrific on-track accident. But McQueen, bolstered by support from his late mentor Doc Hudson (the late, great Paul Newman, appearing in flashbacks), his girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt) and his trusty pal Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), refuses to retire, even though most of the racing world thinks he should. “I’ll decide when I’m done,” he says. He attends a state-of-the-art training facility to get back in shape, where eager technician Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) puts him through his paces. Yet McQueen is strictly old school and doesn’t take to the newfangled technology; soon, he’s back practicing on a sandy beach and kicking up dust on dirt tracks to regain his competitive edge.

Cars 3 is a technical marvel (just like the two previous films), and it’s miles and miles better than the wrongheaded detour of Cars 2, which bizarrely decided to focus on international espionage. The voice cast are again in top gear, with newbies Kerry Washington, Margo Martindale, and Chris Cooper serving as welcome additions. But the film’s lengthy midsection is akin to watching a single-file NASCAR race when you’re just itching for “the Big One” to pump up the action and bunch the cars back together, so they can restart and swap paint in exciting three-wide, side-by-side racing. At least there’s a humorous demolition derby involving McQueen and Ramirez midway through that briefly lifts the movie out of the doldrums, and the story eventually shifts into overdrive in its final stretch to deliver a rousing, crowd-pleasing ending.

At one point, McQueen’s new sponsor, a mud-flap magnate named Sterling (Nathan Fillion), fears that the former champ’s poor showings will adversely affect his endorsements and cause sales of his merchandise to plummet. Disney needn’t worry that the same thing will happen to its multi-billion-dollar Cars product line with this latest installment. Yes, the franchise still isn’t firing on all cylinders, but it’s a pleasant enough ride for families to enjoy on a hot summer afternoon—and it will likely inspire kiddies to drag their parents to a nearby toy store soon after.