All images courtesy of Disney/Pixar
It’s been over 10 years since Pixar released its first Cars movie and the franchise is still going strong with a massive array of merchandise, one of the best areas in the California Adventure amusement park (I live for the Radiator Springs Racers ride), and, of course CARS 3, the maybe-final installment of the automotive trilogy with hero Lightning McQueen. With all of its flash and high-speed panache, the Cars franchise is the dark horse when it comes to the Pixar pack of movies. Let’s be honest, if you ask Pixar-heads about their favorite Pixar movies, Cars will most likely not be in their top three. The premise of talking cars is child-like and doesn’t feel like it has room to move beyond that. It gets the numbers at the box office, but as a movie franchise, it isn’t the strongest when it comes to hitting the mark on core attributes of character and an enriching narrative that speaks to the Pixar brand. However, Cars 3 switches gears by delivering a heartwarming story of ambition and maturity that flips the script with subtle subtext of inclusion.
Owen Wilson returns as the voice of Lightning McQueen, whose love for the sport of racing is still undying. He has reached legendary status, but when a new batch of young, eager and faster cars start to eclipse veteran racers, McQueen tries not to let that affect his game — specifically with the new golden boy, Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). During one race Lightning gets into a horrific accident which causes him to lose his title to Storm.
As McQueen recovers, he re-evaluates his life choices. Four months after his accident, he is raring to get back on the track to beat Storm and get his title back. His sponsor, Rust-Eze has been purchased by questionable millionaire Sterling (Nathan Fillion) who feels that it’s time for Lightning to retire and hock branded merch, but being the hard-headed car he is, McQueen pushes to get back to racing and Sterling agrees with one stipulation — he must go through rehab and training with overly-encouraging, cheerleading race technician Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo).
McQueen doesn’t feel like he has time for Ramirez’s by-the-book training and convinces her to participate in different methods of training. They do some beach racing and also unexpectedly end up in a demolition derby led by a fiery school bus adorned with buzz saws with named Miss Fritter (Lea DeLaria) — which ends in disaster. This becomes McQueen’s rock bottom and a call to action to go back to his racing roots. He finds solace in training with his old mentor Doc Hudson’s (voiced by the late Paul Newman) repair truck Smokey (Chris Cooper). Finding inspiration in him as well as racing legends, he becomes fueled with enough determination and heart to beat Storm at the Piston Cup.
From the first trailer, Cars 3 already felt like a different movie than the previous two. The dramatic accident that puts McQueen out of commission set the expectations that this movie would have our hero fighting against the odds to reclaim his title and dignity. This served as the jumping off point of the movie and provides a solid, straight-forward narrative that makes up for the less-than-desirable Cars 2.
Directed by Pixar artist Brian Fee and co-written by Cars screenwriter Kiel Murray and Oscar-nominated Finding Nemo writer Bob Peterson, Cars 3 goes back to form, painting a picture of the mentor-mentee relationship. In the first movie, Hudson shows McQueen the ropes and makes him a better racer. In this particular movie — without giving anything away — McQueen comes to the realization that he has reached a point in his life where he has to put aside his ego and do what is required of him as a racing legend.
The one glaring problem I have with the Cars universe, in general, isn’t necessarily the story or the characters, but with the rules of the world created by Pixar. This may be absolutely trivial considering this movie isn’t necessarily made for overthinking adults, but once I start thinking about how these cars came to be, it becomes a domino effect of logistical questions such as: Are the tires their hands? Why do the car reporters wear headphones? Are their passenger and driver side windows their ears? What do the cars eat? And do they consume food through their mouth or through their gas tank? Is there a steering wheel inside of them? Why does McQueen have to get into a truck to go to a race? Why can’t he just drive himself? Why are tractors cows? And the most inappropriate question of all: How do they procreate? As silly as these questions are, they are queries that prevent me from fully investing into this world, therefore making it difficult to buy into the story they are telling.
Biological questions aside, the movie is adequate — and that isn’t necessarily the worse thing. It isn’t the best thing either. On the Pixar spectrum, it falls right in the middle. Cars 3 gives exceptional animation and entertains us enough. It doesn’t take many risks when it comes to upping the ante for the franchise — and it doesn’t really need to. If anything, the character of Cruz is probably the most progressive part of the movie. Without giving away any spoilers, Cars 3 definitely jumps on the female empowerment bandwagon with the female car character. The twist at the film’s climax isn’t a groundbreaking, Earth-shattering plot point that will topple the patriarchy in the style of Wonder Woman, but it does give a nod of encouragement when it comes to feminism and inclusion.
Cars 3 meets the basic requirements when it comes to storytelling and emotional drive for a Pixar movie. It stays in its lane to give a moral tale of growing up, heritage, and letting go. It hits the marks of a typical fallen sports star story: hero is celebrated; hero’s ego inflates; hero falls to a new, stronger opponent; hero tries to make a comeback; hero hits rock bottom; hero goes back to his roots; and finally, hero gets redemption. Pixar thoughtfully finesses the formula without making it so formulaic. Now if I can get some answers to my logistical questions about the Cars universe, we’ll be squared away.
Running time: 109 minutes
Dino watches too much TV, enjoys reality singing competitions and laughs inappropriately during dramatic films. He’s a fan of comedy, podcasts, and comedy podcasts. He’s a reformed comic book geek and thinks “The Goonies” is the best movie of all time. When he isn’t stuffing his face with a burrito, he’s thinking about his next trip to Disneyland.
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Dino-Ray Ramos | Film Critic