In terms of Pixar films, the first "Cars" ranks up there alongside "A Bug's Life" as one of the studio's most underrated films. And since that film was released in 2006, it's become one of the most popular brands for Disney, generating millions of dollars in merchandise sales and inspiring a line of short films, spin-offs, and a sprawling, technologically mind-bending land at the Disney California Adventure park in Anaheim. At this point it's hard to remember when "Cars" was a movie and not a franchise (lord knows the disconnected 2011 sequel, with a plot that remains totally baffling, didn't help anything), which is what makes "Cars 3" such an exciting proposition.

A few weeks ago, I went up to Pixar and watched about half of the movie, all told, and was utterly charmed with what I saw. Based on what I saw, "Cars 3" is a true return-to-form for the series and does a lot to remind you just how special the original film was.At the beginning of "Cars 3," Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is still top dog, but his age is starting to show. He is involved in a catastrophic crash (one that is teased in the first trailer) and is constantly being bested by Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a high-tech racecar with all the bells and whistles. When his sponsorship is taken over by a sick businessman named Sterling (Nathan Fillion), McQueen thinks that they're going to put him back on the track. But instead, Sterling wants to position McQueen as a legacy sponsor of a host of products. Lightning strikes a deal with his new boss: Let him race one more time, and if he loses, he'll retire and spend his golden years shilling products. (The fact that Lightning is essentially being reduced to a logo is pretty interesting and way more meta than you'd expect.) Sterling assigns a young trainer, Cruz (Cristela Alonzo), to help Lighting get ready for the race, and, together, they travel across the country seeking inspiration and advice.

It's pretty cute.

And the connection to the first film is pretty awesome. If you saw "Cars 2," you know that it refashioned the original's slow-down-and-enjoy-the-simplicities-of-life narrative as a high-octane spy adventure. It was audacious, for sure, and remains one of the most beautiful-looking Pixar movies ever, but it lost the sweetness of the original and traded that film's laid back, Miyazaki-indebted charm for something frenzied and frantic and somewhat overwhelming. Also, it made goofball tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) the central focus instead of Lightning. It was ... bizarre.

And if the footage I saw up at Pixar is any indication, the third film almost completely ignores the events of the second film. There's no mention of the European and Asian races depicted in that film, none of the characters have returned, and Mater is barely in it. Seriously, the hillbilly tow truck probably said 10 words in the almost hour's worth of footage I saw. And this film is primarily set in Radiator Springs, the Route 66 oasis introduced in the first film. (Sadly, the sunny epilogue of the first film, which saw tourists and visitors return to the sleepy hamlet, isn't a part of "Cars 3.") So, if you never saw "Cars 2," don't worry. It's probably better (and less confusing) if you didn't.As Lightning McQueen ambles through the American southwest, a part of the country that historically birthed NASCAR races (it started with bootleggers racing their souped-up getaway cars), he clashes with Cruz, who just wants to help, and ends up searching for the trainers that made his mentor, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, via the help of audio outtakes from the first film), the dynamo he was. It's all about going back to reclaim the fundamentals. And like the film's jab at the abundance of merchandise spun off from these films, it's a very knowing, winking look at the franchise. Instead of going above and beyond and introducing all sorts of spy movies shenanigans, it's about peeling all of that stuff away and focusing on what made the original film so charming and engaging.

Technologically and visually though, this is hardly a step back. The footage we saw was amazing-looking; there was a tactile quality to the images that made everything feel lived-in and real. It's like they took the photo-realistic breakthroughs of "The Good Dinosaur" and applied it to something more outwardly cartoony. The result is the "Cars" world we know and love but given a heightened sense of detail and depth. Instead of the glistening metropolises of the previous film, "Cars 3" is all about naturalism. There's also a sequence where Lightning and Cruz are racing along the beach that is just breathtaking. Another sequence has Lighting entering a demolition derby incognito, his trademark logo covered up with globs of mud. You never think about the technology while watching these scenes, about the physics engines whirring away to make sure everything looks just right, but you do know that it looks beautiful and the added layers of detail, atmosphere, and texture go a long way in firmly placing you in that world.

And maybe that's the biggest takeaway from the footage we saw -- how good it feels to be back in the "Cars" world. That's huge. The first film, as sweet as it is, isn't seen as a high mark in the Pixar canon -- and the sequel didn't do it any favors. But "Cars 3" seems like a fine return to form and possibly even better than the original. The story seems like the perfect blend of the old and the new -- both nostalgic and forward-thinking -- and the animation style is the same, with returning characters updated with a fresh coat of computer-generated paint.

Quite frankly, I can't wait to see the rest of the movie and watch McQueen reclaim his former glory. It's a great metaphor for the "Cars" franchise, really. See you in Radiator Springs.

"Cars 3" opens on June 16th.