Film Review – Cars 3
For a long time Pixar had an unimpeachable record. Can you think of a company of any kind, not just a movie company but any company, that had a track record as impressive as theirs for their first dozen years or so? The Toy Story movies! The Incredibles were incredible! Finding Nemo is one of the most beloved films ever! Wall-E is both entertaining and a striking work of art. Ratatoullie is quirky and moving. Up may be one of the most emotional animated films of all time! Really, for a long time everything they touched has mostly been the gold standard for both animation and how to tell stories in film that appeal to all ages while patronizing none of them.
However, the Cars franchise may be the least of their properties. Admittedly, these movies are aimed at the youngest in their audience which is not me. Sure, granted. Toddlers and the toddler adjacent are quite fond of the talking automobiles and their colorful world. But I even have a fondness for the first film. Paul Newman voicing the elder car Doc Hudson lent some class to the affair. A lot of the supporting voice work from George Carlin, Cheech Marin, and Bonnie Hunt was quite charming. And as always, the art of the animation itself was beyond reproach.
Lately we are in the world of Pixar sequels. The new Cars 3 has aspirations to be as poignant as Toy Story 3 which was a master class in how to end a trilogy. They both explore some of the same themes concerning aging and passing a legacy on to another generation. But where Buzz and Woody made us feel like we were saying goodbye to a part of our own childhood, the cars feel a little more rote and mechanical (no pun intended).
Let’s start with the good, because Pixar has earned the right to focus on the good first. The animation as usual is terrific. Whether it’s the gleam of a newly polished paint job or the almost Gran Turismo-esque racing scenes, the animation artists have done their usual Yeoman’s work. Also, I will say this is probably better than Cars 2. Yes, the previous movie had Michael Caine voicing a secret agent car that was kind of fun, but that movie had far too much Mater in it. That character is barely in this movie. And though it’s understood that undiscerning small children like that tow truck, the fact is Larry the Cable Guy is actively annoying. A very little of him goes a very long way. So kudos for Cars 3 for focusing on it’s main character.
The story concerns Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) towards the twilight of his racing days. He’s been the mostly undisputed champion of the racing circuit for a while now. But along comes a new generation of led by the scientifically advanced Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). He puts Lightning in his place on the track by repeatedly beating him. So McQueen tries to push himself beyond his limits and ends up in a nearly fatal crash. So most of the movie is about his attempt to train his way back to the top. Along the way he is trained by Cruz Ramirez (comedian Cristela Alonzo) who knows more about theory than actual racing. Nathan Fillion is present as McQueen’s new sponsor Sterling who has designs to retire him if he doesn’t perform. So the movie goes through training montages, races along the beach, a brief stint in a demolition derby, and a surprise last act passing of the torch. The story beats are kind of mechanical.
When the first Cars came along, at least there was the discovery of Radiator Springs and the new world of different types of talking cars. As an audience, the sense of discovery in this animated world creates the magic. But three movies in, we really need to see something new or deep to still feel engaged. This movie felt a little bland. Also, I’m guessing at least early on that the youngest audience members may get a little restless. I can’t imagine them caring much about jokes involving drag coefficient or how to draft behind other cars. Yes, there are bright colors and the pace picks up towards the end. But for the young ones I can imagine some squirming in their seats.
Mechanical is kind of the right word for this. The best thing to come from this franchise is the charming and fun Cars ride in Disney’s California Adventure. That thing is bright, cute, and fun for everyone. Often this movie just felt like an excuse to keep the intellectual property alive to remind us that the toys and rides still exist.
There is a good pro-girl power message in how Lightning encourages Cruz, and the movie isn’t totally without value. This is more that Pixar may be a victim of their own success. If they hit a Grand Slam Home Run every time they’re at bat, when they get up and hit a mere single, it’s inevitably disappointing.