Originally published on creators.co on June 17th, 2017
Cars 3 is a Pixar movie no one was really asking for (sort of like Cars 2). But regardless of how much we don’t want Pixar to spend their time here with their least loved franchise they are and should be judged as any movie should, on its own merits. I think Cars 2 certainly put a black mark on the potential franchise because the first movie isn’t all that bad. Weaker than Pixar standards? Sure, but still good. It was hard to make sense of the marketing for this latest entry in the series. The trailers were all hinting towards an uncommonly dark and dramatic entry for the trilogy. I can’t say I’m all that opposed to that but it all felt odd.
Why does Cars 3 exist? It’s a makeup for Cars 2. At least that’s what it feels like. Cars 3is not among Pixar’s finest films but this serves as a solid sequel to a solid original film. It’s a bit of a mixed bagged at times but the movie, for the most part, is a fun and fitting end to the Cars series that takes all the criticisms from the previous entry to heart and gives us something that more worthy of the first entry, albeit with a recycled plot.
Cars 3 picks up near the tail end of racing hotshot Lightning McQueen’s (voiced again Owen Wilson) career. His long string of successes comes to an abrupt halt as the new rookie sensation Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) comes out to dominate the racing scene. Storm is a part of a new breed of young high tech racers that are much faster and use the latest racing technology to overcome their competition. Soon the old racers are phasing out, retiring and after a horrific wreck people (or I guess I should say cars, not people) wonder if it’s time for Lightning to retire? Lightning though isn’t about to give up as he trains to get back on the race track with new young trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo).
I don’t think Pixar would ever admit this was a makeup for Cars 2 (and maybe it isn’t) but it certainly feels like it is. Almost everything about this movie screams that they heard the criticisms of the second film and have adjusted to it. The focus is put solely back on Lightning, and Mater is pushed to the background. The structure of the film recalls the original’s, the story revolves around racing again, and has much more callbacks to the first film especially the relationship between Doc Hudson (played by the late Paul Newman) and Lightning. That being said, sometimes the callbacks are very heavy handed but the never the less are welcomed. This feels more like a true sequel to Cars rather than whatever Cars 2 pretended to be.
The plot of Cars 3 feels as much of a reaction to Cars 2 as it is a reaction to modern sporting. Anyone following a sport over the past decade or so will know that statistics and modern technology play an increasingly larger role in the sport. That role could be for analyzing, training, or front office strategy. This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to racing, it’s true across most sports. Cars 3 plays very much into that modern sporting zeitgeist with segments of the movie dealing with a racing show as they break down the stats of the Cars racing world. Lightning’s former rival Chick Hicks hosts one of these shows (this time very clearly and unfortunately not voiced by Michael Keaton, unlike the original film). The movie clearly takes some aim to satirize these movements but doesn’t discredit them either.
With this though, Cars 3 falls into recycling’s many different sport movie clichés. Most notably we get a plot similar to Rocky III and Rocky IV. Some of it feels lovingly acknowledge and given proper homage (one of the cars names is Cal Weathers referring to the actor who played Apollo Creed, Carl Weathers). Other times this movie feels too much like those movies. Monsters University fell into the trap of feeling too much like 80s college party movies. That movie was able to rise above that to become a really fun and well worth it Pixar prequel. Cars 3 isn’t always able to achieve that. Cars 3 doesn’t have the abundance of great side characters, daring sense of fun or witty sense of humor that a Monsters University had.
The movie’s tone feels sad for a good majority of the movie. It’s natural considering Lightning’s struggle and state of mind. A lot of the comedy is just okay. This isn’t an especially funny movie and it doesn’t have the fun of other Pixar movies. The balance of drama and comedy feels off. A few more well-placed jokes would have been welcomed.
Still, Cars 3 does maintain the heart and emotional core that Pixar is known for. The movie brings in a fair amount of dramatic heft and takes a hard look at the end of an athlete’s career. The relationship between Lightning and Cruz gets a good amount of screen time which makes for a strong payoff. So whereas the comedy and humor doesn’t shine as greatly as other entries, the attention to character (with the exception of one) and heart is still very much there which is why this movie works so much better than it probably should. The exception I spoke of early is the character of Jackson Storm. Disney and Pixar are normally quite good at creating memorable and/or well-rounded villains. Jackson Storm feels only like a plot point and not like a character. True perhaps Chick Hicks wasn’t a compelling villain in the first film either but he boasted by the voice acting performance of Michael Keaton. Armie Harmer does what he can with Jackson Storm but the character doesn’t lend itself well to a lot of personalities and gets underserved.
Regardless of that, the story is well told and the animation is absolutely stunning. There were shots that looked photorealistic. Even if you aren’t compelled by the story or its characters there is certainly plenty of pretty images to look at. I feel like I say this with every new Pixar film but they have really outdone themselves from a technique and technical side of things. The biggest achievement though rests within wrapping up the story in a very satisfying fashion. Whether or not this saves a bit of the brand name of the Cars franchise remains to be seen. I admire the attempt to right the wrongs of the previous movie and hopefully, this is the last one as the ending would indicate. I don’t think this is as good as the first movie nor is it up the standards of Pixar but it’s a fine enough film that can be enjoyed by families and others alike.