“Cars 3” never fires on all cylinders, but it has considerably more horsepower than the franchise’s last chapter. First-time director Brian Fee revs things up with a return to what made Pixar guru John Lasseter’s original 2006 ’toon great. “Cars” again is colorful, funny and sweet. Fee — and a team of screenwriters — insert just enough heart, humor and silly sight gags to coast along to the checkered flag. The path is predictable, but what “Cars 3” lacks in freshness it makes up for in visuals, spectacular race sequences, and nostalgia in telling the story of washed-up racer Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) trying to regain his former glory.

The relationship between the hotshot McQueen and his wise gravelly voiced mentor, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), is the heart and soul of franchise. And so, the filmmakers dust off Doc and resurrect Newman, who died in 2008, to again lend the movie a hearty dose of gravitas. He plays an integral part via flashback, using past dialogue and other unused lines from previous recording sessions. It’s something special.

Younger, faster and sleeker racers are taking over the Piston Cup circuit. McQueen’s new rival is the cocky rookie Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). Coming off his worst season ever, McQueen has one last chance to race — the Florida 500. If he wins, the No. 95 car stays on track. Lose, and he becomes a Rust-eze brand ambassador — which is ironic considering “Cars” is one of the most profitable merchandising phenoms in Disney/Pixar history. This installment is no exception. There’s plenty of new toys to go around, including Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), the spunky yellow racing trainer and technician who works at the fancy new Rust-eze Racing Center owned by Sterling (Nathan Fillion). Stodgy, old dirt-track McQueen clashes with the modern training style of Cruz, dubbed the “maestro of motivation.” Conflict develops faster than you can say “Ka-chow.” McQueen is her “senior project.” Cue a series of geezer jokes.

Wise old Doc — the once Fabulous Hudson Hornet — was always the person, err car, to keep McQueen in check. Since Doc is gone, McQueen does the next best thing — seek out Doc’s mentor, an old-timer called Smokey, voiced by Kingston’s Chris Cooper, adding additional heft with his own distinct voice and sage advice. Smokey also reveals details about Doc that deepen the bond between he and McQueen to reframe the younger racer’s outlook. Old-school training montages right out of the “Rocky” playbook ensue, as McQueen works on precision (to be “smarter, not faster”) steering through a field of hundreds of mooing tractors instead of maneuvering on car treadmills and racing simulators like the young’uns. A forklift named Sweet Tea (Andra Day) sings Springsteen’s “Glory Days” in a karaoke bar. Cruz and McQueen eventually find common ground. And in the end, she might just be your new favorite character in the boy-friendly franchise that’s clearly shifting gears to target girls — who buy toys, too.

As far as the script, “Cars 3” is a little bit pedestrian, with excursions to places like a backwoods demolition derby to pad out the story. The script doesn’t call on the rest of the original Radiator Springs crew: Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), Luigi (Tony Shalhoub), Sally (Bonnie Hunt), Mack (John Ratzenberger), Fillmore (Lloyd Sherr) and Ramone (Cheech Marin) to do anything but cheer on McQueen.

In the canon of Pixar films, “Cars 3” is several laps behind its siblings like “WALL-E,” “Up” and the “Toy Story” trilogy. Those films packed genuine emotions. “Cars 3” doesn’t, but it is a good enough diversion for the family, fueled with positive messages about persistence, friendship and achieving dreams. As McQueen says, “This one’s for you, Doc.”

— Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@ledger.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.

“Cars 3”
Cast: Owen Wilson, Chris Cooper, Paul Newman, Larry the Cable Guy, Nathan Fillion, Cristela Alonzon.
(G)
Grade: B