Ever since Cars hit theaters in 2006, the franchise has been one of Pixar’s biggest revenue streams, with toy merchandise filling store shelves for years. Heck, you can even visit Radiator Springs at Disney’s California Adventure! That being said, it’s never been a favorite of critics, especially the 2011 sequel. Now that Cars 3 has arrived, though, I can definitely state that the franchise is ending on a high note — or at least, as high as the original movie.
Cars 3 is directed by Brian Fee, a long-time artist at Pixar who’s now taking the director’s chair for the first time. It focuses on Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), and opens with him in a race, as usual. However, he and his colleagues are shocked when a rookie steals the victory. That car is Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who can drive faster and train better than any of the aged cars on the raceway. One by one, Lightning watches his colleagues retire or get pulled from their sponsorship. In a championship race, he’s determined to prove that he still has some fight left in him… and ends up spinning out into a severe crash. Now Lightning has to find his mojo again with the help of Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), his new trainer, while grappling with the idea that his racing days may in fact be over.
Now, I do want to take a moment and admit something here: I do not hate Cars 2. It may be Pixar’s weakest film, and many critics have torn it apart, but on an industry scale it isn’t a bad movie! I find it fun, and if I had to choose between Alvin and the Chipmunks or Cars 2, I’d pick the latter in a heartbeat. But, I understand some of the problems people have with it. It shifts all the focus to a side character and doesn’t connect well with the original. A film about a hotshot learning to appreciate life in the slow lane… is followed up with a G-rated spy movie. Cars 2 is an outlandish and silly sequel, I recognize that.
Cars 3 learns from that mistake. The film opens with Lightning giving himself the same pep talk from Cars, letting us know that we’re grounded again in the tone of the original. Instead of focusing on comedy relief Mater, we again center on Lightning himself and his conflict. In a way, Cars 3 feels like a true sequel to Cars, while Cars 2 was the crazy side adventure that exists in its own little bubble.
We also see Pixar pulling out all the old tricks that I love, mixing mature sentiments with crazy antics. Lightning often refers to the memory of Doc Hudson, his deceased mentor, and what he went through with retirement. He fears being shut out in disgrace like Doc was, and hopes to at least manage one more race. The rest of the plot also carries a more mature tone: his friends get fired by dissatisfied sponsors, his own sponsors sell their company to a new younger CEO, and Lightning’s performance just never quite reaches the new standards of the sport. These all correlate with things adults have to cope with in real life. In fact, about two-thirds into the movie Lightning admits “I can’t keep racing forever,” a bit of a departure from the usual non-stop bravado of most family movie protagonists.
At the same time, I wonder if this movie gets the full benefits from these themes. After all, it is the Cars franchise, which is generally considered the most childish of Pixar’s movies. When the main plot deals with themes like retirement and knowing when to pass along the baton, I don’t know if a large adult audience will necessarily sit down for this movie, and the kids may not relate. Then again… I don’t want to complain about a family movie teaching life lessons! It just sticks in my head as a question mark.
I mentioned crazy antics earlier, and sure enough Pixar balances the serious with the comedy. At the screening I attended, sometimes I found my ribs hurting from laughter. Alonzo’s role as Cruz Ramirez is spot-on, and she really brings fun energy to the movie, while also carrying an arc of her own, learning to pursue her dream of becoming a racer. It’s an uplifting storyline for an uplifting character!
I also loved the visuals. Pixar’s always been the industry leader in computer imaging, and they hold their title here. I was particularly impressed with the rendering of a beach; the way the water looked against the sand was incredible! I also loved how Lightning watched some old footage of Doc racing, and the projected image had “aged” with the faded palette we see from old film cameras. Little touches like that make the film engaging.
Unfortunately, there were some flaws. For example, the citizens of Radiator Springs are given roles in this movie, not much to do. Mater, voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, delivers some nuggets of wisdom and Bonnie Hunt’s Sally has some supporting lines, but the characters still feel unnecessary. Two of the friends tag along for most of the movie, but I forgot they were even there and got confused when they suddenly showed up. It would have been nice to at least show off their quirks and colorful personalities, like in the first movie.
The plot also seems rough-cut. The pacing feels off, rushed at some points and dragging at others. Lightning’s arc seems to meander about, sometimes backtracking and sometimes second-guessing. However, the meandering works for me. When grappling with a big life decision, I’ve done my own backtracking and second-guessing, finding myself muddled in uncertainty. In the end, though, there’s not that much uncertainty in Cars 3. I could induce the plot within the first third of the movie. The obvious plot development overshadowed the novelty in how Cars 3 dealt with themes we don’t regularly see in family films.
In the end, Cars 3 feels like the true sequel to Cars. I can nitpick about the world it’s set in (why is there a school bus if there are no humans to fit inside?), but those are things that have been addressed by others. The main characters are strong and fun, the tone returns to the pleasant quietness of the first Cars, and the themes are refreshing to see. Despite some messy execution, it’s still a solid movie. Top it off with Lou, the funny and heartwarming short about an amorphous blob of lost-and-found junk, and it’s a great experience to treat yourself this summer.