Sentimental and scenic, trilogy-ending sports flick cruises to the finish line
Cars 3 (2017)
Directed by Brian Fee
Cast: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Armie Hammer
It’s a testament to the hit-making animation machine known as Pixar that even the company’s lesser efforts have paid off in spades for its corporate overlord, Disney. To be honest, it’s far easier to list the company’s universally beloved hits (Toy Story, The Incredibles, Wall-E, Up, Inside Out) than it is to list its infrequent missteps (Cars 2, The Good Dinosaur). Cars 2 is currently the lowest-rated Pixar film on Rotten Tomatoes with an aggregate critical score of 39 percent positive reviews. And yet, the film made more than $191 million in the US and more than $370 million in other countries—which ain’t too shabby for a film that everyone generally agrees was the shoddy byproduct of pure corporate greed on the part of the Walt Disney Company (plus, had way too much Larry the Cable Guy).
Now comes Cars 3, which isn’t exactly being greeted with anything close to wild enthusiasm—and yet, it’s already a hit at the box office, topping ticket sales for its first week out of the gate. Cars 3 at least has the good sense to pretend that the silly international spy movie spoof that was Cars 2 never even happened. Without so much as a mention of “Finn McMissle” or “Holley Shiftwell,” Cars 3 races back to its roots, which is more than enough to satisfy the franchise’s mildly loyal fans (generally speaking, anyone having a race car-themed birthday party this year).
The story picks up a decade or so after the original. Once-cocky, hotshot race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is still on the racing circuit. But he’s being lapped by a new generation of high-tech race cars. Yup, the situation in the original film has been flipped on its head (or whatever it is that passes for a head in an anthropomorphic car). Whereas a young McQueen once learned to stop and smell the roses and accept the wisdom of the past (courtesy of Paul Newman-voiced mentor Doc Hudson), his older self now learns to fight the tide of change and show some whippersnappers that he’s still got a tiger in the tank.
After losing a string of races to speedy newcomer Jackson Storm (an amusingly confident Armie Hammer), McQueen seeks help from a new trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). Cue the washed-up underdog, come-from-behind training sequence from every late-era Rocky film (Rocky III to Rocky Balboa). I think you know where this is going. It’s all perfectly predictable for a sporting film, but it feels correct—right down to the flashback sequences featuring some belated wisdom from Doc Hudson himself. (Newman died in 2008, but Pixar saved enough behind-the-scenes banter from his Cars recording sessions to provide some on-point dialogue.) It’s in moments like these that Cars 3 nails the pleasant, nostalgic feeling of the original film.
One caveat is that there’s a lot of car racing in this film, more so than the previous two films. It’s a decision that may sit well with serious NASCAR fans, but not the people who just came to see funny, talking cars. In theory car racing is exciting and fast-paced. The actual, real-life sport, however, is rather dull to watch and hard to capture in a cinematic sense. It’s basically metal boxes looping around and around endlessly. For most folks living outside Indianapolis, it’s like watching a high-speed carousel. Though they’re pretty much the heart of this film, the racing sequences are a bit too realistic and a touch too lengthy for the attention-deficit preschool demographic. Personally speaking, they left me with plenty of time to contemplate my long-standing existential conundrums regarding the Cars franchise. (A talking school bus? Wait a dang minute! Where are the children? What happened to all the people? Why do these mechanical monstrosities even exist? What sort of god would allow this?)
Cars 3 is no ironclad Pixar classic. But it is a well made film that delivers more or less the same sentimental moral as the original. As a Pixar film, of course, the technical concerns are impeccable. Longtime storyboard artist, first-time director Brian Fee has a way of making the visuals pop, and a lot of the joy in watching the film comes from examining the richly textured backgrounds. Also, Larry the Cable Guy is hardly in this one at all. So, for a measurable percentage of the audience, it counts as a narrow but certifiable win.