The original Cars film came out during what will surely be known as Pixar's golden age when the studio was at the top of their game. Cars 2, on the other hand, started the studio's recent slump, where storytelling quality waned and the once great animation giant appeared to have lost its footing. That's why I was so surprised that Cars 3 shows no evidence of trouble at Pixar, as if the past seven years never even happened.

I had come to perceive the Cars franchise as nothing more than an excuse to sell toys, with earnings reports showing that sales peaked following the sequel, shorts, and even the Disney Toon Studios spin-off series Planes. Pixar could have easily coasted, producing another film where the main characters get new paint jobs and new characters are added just to push more product with the plot becoming an afterthought, but that's not what they did.

When a group of next generation rookies arrive on the racing scene, Lightning McQueen finds himself feeling outdated and unable to defeat the new hotshot, Jackson Storm. Determined to end his career at the top, the new Rust-eze owner gives Lightning one last chance and assigns him a personal trainer. Lightning must fight the effects of aging and reconnect with the roots of the sport if he's ever going to win another race.

Lightning McQueen is the center of attention again and is feeling pressured to sell out and become a product brand instead of a competitor (a personal story for Pixar?). He finds strength in his reflections of his idol and mentor, Doc Hudson, and some unused Paul Newman recordings from the first film make their debut in this film. One of the story's powerful messages is that even though we lose loved ones, they never truly leave us.

While this is definitely Lightning's movie, one of the new characters steals a significant portion of the show. Cruz Ramirez, voiced by Cristela Alonzo, is an energetic character who never let herself dream big. Through her subplot, we learn about the damaging effects of self-doubt and the film also makes a powerful statement about the glass ceiling.

Cars 3 feels closely related to the original film in its tone and pacing, allowing itself to linger in a world full of lovable characters, never feeling like it overstays its welcome. While very little time is actually spent in Radiator Springs, you find yourself not missing it much and almost regretting some of the moments where the characters reappear (particularly Mater, whose appearances often feel forced and unfunny, save for a Disney fan-service where he sings a Mater-ized version of the "Humphrey Hop").

For many viewers, Cars 3 is going to be a powerful, moving experience that they will feel personally connected to. I don't want to give too much away, but be prepared to be surprised. I also recommend picking up your Cruz Ramirez merchandise now, as I foresee an Elsa-like demand for anything related to this new role model.

Another pleasant surprise is that Randy Newman returned to score the film. His unique musical stylings connect this film to the original and make it feel uniquely Pixar. While I love Michael Giacchino, I appreciate having Newman's melodies back in the Cars series.

Don't let the lingering stink of Cars 2 stop you from experiencing this latest outing. In fact, you can forget it even exists as there is no carryover from that film into this one, not even a passing reference. If you're a fan of the original Cars film, you're going to love Cars 3. It's a refreshing and delightful surprise that proves that Pixar still has what it takes to be a leader in animated films.

I give Cars 3 5 out of 5 dents from Ms. Fritter.