In 2006, Cars and its hotshot hero, Owen Wilson’s Lightning McQueen, sped away with the hearts of moviegoers around the world, with the franchise becoming one of the most profitable in Pixar’s history (mostly due to through-the-roof merchandise sales). The film’s commercial success stood in stark contrast to its tepid critical reception, with most critics agreeing that this was the first time a Pixar movie fell below the high bar set by their prior work. Cars 2, a dazzling but ill-conceived globetrotting spy thriller, fared even worse than its predecessor, garnering harsher criticism and a far less successful line of product tie-ins.
With Cars 3, Pixar returns to a franchise that youngsters still love but has grown putridly stale for almost everybody else. The bad news is, the threequel doesn’t deliver anything that feels fresh, revitalizing or progressive either in its story or its presentation. The good news is that, despite its lack of novel concepts and ideas, the movie is actually quite enjoyable, a sturdy coming-of-old-age story that culminates in an unexpectedly poignant, exhilarating final race to the finish line.
While Cars 2’s scope and spectacle made it feel impersonal and hollow, Cars 3 is a considerably more focused affair, revolving around Lightning McQueen’s struggle to stay competitive on the racetrack against a more technologically advanced, cocky pack of young racers, led by a jet-black, pompous prodigy named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). “It was an honor to finally beat you,” he snips at the aging Lightning after dominating him in a race and stealing away the media spotlight typically reserved for the grizzled veteran.
Threatened by Storm and the creeping realization that he may be past his prime, Lightning drives recklessly in the last race of the season, resulting in a devastating crash. With his racing future in question, he vows to return faster than ever and, more importantly, faster than Storm.
A new, billionaire sponsor named Sterling (Nathan Fillion, at his snooty finest) gives Lightning access to a sprawling, state-of-the-art training facility and a peppy personal trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). Feeling overwhelmed by his shiny, new digs and bored by Cruz’s unconventional training tactics (at one point, she urges him to name each of his tires and become one with them), Lighting embarks on a soul-searching road trip that sees his late mentor, Doc (voiced by the late Paul Newman via unused lines from the first movie) teach him one last life lesson.
Cars is the baby of Pixar great John Lasseter, but for the series’ third lap, he lets first-time writer-director Brian Fee take the wheel. Thankfully, the risk pays off, with the newcomer and co-writer Ben Queen crafting an easily relatable, down-to-earth story of empathy and acceptance that actually drives at some rich ideas. There’s a mentorship subplot that sneaks up on you in a nice way and gives the story a real sense of weight, and newcomer Cruz introduces an intriguing theme of entitlement and race/gender oppression that’s startling in its complexity (especially considering the movie’s target audience) but isn’t explored thoroughly enough to make a significant impact. This missed opportunity to tackle real-world issues of privilege and discrimination more confidently may be the movie’s biggest letdown.
Two favorites from previous outings, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Sally (Bonnie Hunt), are absent for most of the film, popping in only occasionally to provide redneck one-liners and quick motivational pep talks, respectively. Diehard fans of the franchise may not be thrilled with the characters’ tertiary roles, but their reduced involvement is for the best; keeping the story focused on Lightning and Cruz’s journey is the right decision. The Rocky movies come to mind immediately when watching Lightning train for the big race against Storm, and if you’re a fan of that series (particularly Rocky IV and Creed), you’ll likely connect with Cars 3 in a similar way.
If there was a redeeming quality to Cars 2, it was the stunning work of Pixar’s always-amazing digital artists and animators. For all its flaws, that movie could be downright exhilarating at times with its larger-than-life action set pieces and colorful vistas. Cars 3, unfortunately, isn’t quite as impressive on the visual front; the serene, rusty American landscapes are picturesque no doubt, but they mirror the melancholic tone of the story so closely that the various brown and grey locales come across a bit too drab. There are several standout moments of visual flair, however, like Lighting literally and metaphorically shedding his skin to reveal his true self, a training montage on a beach that boasts so many feats of digital sand physics it boggles the mind, and a thrilling demolition derby in the movie’s otherwise sleepy middle section that’s explosive and grimy and delightfully off the wall.
Cars 3 isn’t remarkable or groundbreaking or even all that memorable, but it’s a rock-solid movie that leaves a far better taste in the mouth than its critically panned predecessors. Lightning’s listless, forlorn attitude is counterbalanced perfectly by Cruz’s blinding optimism and energy, and the voice actors deserve a lot of credit for making a largely formulaic story feel engaging and alive from moment to moment. Cars 3 is far from essential in the grand scheme of Pixar’s legacy, but if the goal was to get this beloved franchise back on track, then mission accomplished.
Cars 3 isn’t remarkable or groundbreaking or even all that memorable, but it’s a rock-solid movie that leaves a far better taste in the mouth than its critically panned predecessors.