A scene from Cars 3.

The Cars franchise gets a nice boost with Cars 3, a much, much better movie than Cars 2, and a slightly better movie than the first Cars.

If you are keeping score—and, really, you shouldn’t be, for there are far more pressing matters in your life—Cars 3 is still one of the more mediocre offerings from Pixar/Disney. Still, a mediocre Pixar film is better than most animated movies.

Jettisoning the stupid spy-movie bullshit that made the last installment convoluted and useless, the folks at Pixar chose to take an earthier, more-emotional route with this one, and it works, for the most part. They also found a way to get the voice of the late Paul Newman into the mix, and hearing his beautiful growl again definitely warms the heart.

Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is getting on in years, and he’s facing fierce competition from newer-model cars like Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a highly trained, superior-strength vehicle that is beating him on the racetrack. After a calamitous accident that renders his beautiful red sheen primer grey, McQueen is faced with either retirement—or a new training regime followed by a comeback, Rocky III-style.

McQueen chooses the comeback, and finds himself in a training facility owned by greedy businessman Sterling (Nathan Fillion), and being trained by Apollo Creed, I mean, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). Race simulators, treadmills and drip racks replace good-old-fashioned racing around in Radiator Springs, which cramps Lightning’s style, so he hits the road and finds himself under the tutelage of Smokey (Chris Cooper). Smokey helped train the late Doc Hudson (Newman), McQueen’s mentor. He’s sort of the Mickey from Rocky of this movie.

Does the film get a little boring at times? Sure; I would’ve glanced at my watch had I been wearing one, but director Brian Fee and crew manage to keep everything pretty much on track in this outing, right up until a sweet finale that gives the franchise its first true emotional punch.

The movie plays around with the notions of retirement and rites of passage to the next generation—pretty heady stuff for a G-rated animated movie. Give the screenwriters credit for finally coming up with a story for Lightning McQueen that caters to adults as well as kids. Also, thanks to cameos, jargon and plenty of racing sequences, the movie should please NASCAR fans.

Another thing that makes this installment unique is that a good chunk of it takes place at night, on quiet highway roads. Yes, Cars 3 provides a good sense of what it’s like to be driving around at night when nobody’s around. The Pixar artists prove, yet again, that they can create precise vibes with their creative pixels. Sequences in which Lightning races through a dark forest and battles a pumped-up school bus in a dirt-track race are standouts.

Mater the tow truck, the Jar Jar Binks of the Cars franchise, only gets a few small scenes. He was the star of the last installment, which meant too much Larry the Cable Guy for those of us who can’t stand Larry the Cable Guy. Since I am the president of the Larry the Cable Gay Hater Fan Club, a club that exists only in the recesses of my own mind, I express gratitude to Disney and Pixar for relegating Mater to supporting status.

Cars 3 is pretty good, but nothing beats the Cars ride at Disneyland in sunny Anaheim. I just rode it multiple times a couple of weeks ago, and it’s a blast. Disneyland … the Happiest Place on Earth! I know that sounds like a commercial, but, hey, this movie is basically a decent commercial for the ride.

Where the Cars franchise goes from here is anybody’s guess. I would love it if Pixar leaves well enough alone and makes this the final chapter. Go out on a positive note, Lightning McQueen.

Cars 3 is now showing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.