Cars 3

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/15/17 18:17:02

"The Third Time Isn't Quite The Charm"
3 stars (Just Average)

“Cars 3” is easily the best installment of the insanely popular Pixar film franchise centered around a universe in which automobiles and other vehicles evidently became sentient, rose up and slaughtered all human beings and have taken over the world for themselves. This is largely because, unlike the previous entries, this one actually makes an attempt to include the kind of thoughtful and serious-minded themes that have always been present in the very best Pixar films. That said, proclaiming “Cars 3” to be the best of the “Cars” films says more about the general lousiness of its predecessors than it does about its own accomplishments because even though it is somewhat more ambitious than the previous installments, it still doesn’t come close to reaching the accomplishments of such stone-cold Pixar classics as “Ratatouille,” “Up” and “Inside Out” and still feels more like an extended toy commercial than anything else.

Essentially pretending that “Cars 2” never existed—a wise policy for all of us to follow—“Cars 3” begins with one-time young hotshot race car Lightning McQueen now one of the oldest veterans on the track. This only becomes apparent to him when a new hotshot rookie, Jackson Storm, enters the field and begins winning races thanks to all of the state-of-the-art technology that he is sporting. Initially, Lightning just sees Jackson as someone who has gotten lucky a couple of times but as the newcomer begins piling up victories while other members of the old guard are retiring, voluntarily or otherwise, in order to make room for more of the newer generation, he finally gets into Lightning’s head and during the last race of the season, he pushes himself too hard in the hopes of beating his rival and has a hideous wipeout that leaves him battered both physically and psychologically.

When the next racing season comes around, Lightning chooses not to retire and gets a new sponsor in mud-flap king Sterling (Nathan Fillion), who supplies him with a high-tech training facility with every conceivable bell and whistle. Unfortunately, the training doesn’t seem to be working and it transpires that Sterling is more interested in having Lightning retire and move into a lucrative second career as a pitchman for his products while putting younger racers on the track. Lightning, on the other hand, wants to be able to retire on his own terms and strikes a deal with his boss—if he wins the first big race of the season, he can choose his destiny but if not, he has to retire. The one caveat is that Lightning is forced to work with Sterling’s best trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), and the two are soon off to help Lightning get back to his roots by training on the beach, turning up incognito at an old school racetrack—not knowing it has become a demolition derby—and paying a visit to Smokey (Chris Cooper), who was the former mentor to Lightning’s own mentor, the late Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, who makes a couple of brief appearances here utilizing unused tracks the late actor recorded for the original cars). Will there be inspirational montages? Will there be dark nights of the soul or at least of the crankcase? Will everything be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction at the end of that first big race? Possibly, possibly and possibly.

As you might have twigged, “Cars 3” is about getting older and being able to recognize and adapt to changing times in a graceful manner instead of trying to cling to past victories for too long—on the off-chance that this isn’t clear enough, we are even treated at one point to a moment set in a roadhouse in which an anthropomorphic automobile sings a countrified rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” This marks a break from the previous “Cars” films, which didn’t really have much in the way of legitimate dramatic or emotional underpinnings to speak of, and this particular theme does make sense on a couple of levels—the kids who saw and loved the first “Cars” when they were 8 are now in college and one could also read it as Pixar’s meditation of their own recent struggles in the animation field they once ruled thanks to a resistance to mess with their own formulas and the rise of competitors like Laika, the people behind “Coraline” and “Kubo and the Two Strings.”

These are interesting ideas and if chief Pixar poobah John Lasseter, who was the driving force behind the previous “Cars” films (they were, in fact, intensely personal works about his profound love of car culture, which only made their dramatic emptiness all the more perplexing) had been in charge of this one as well, there is a good possibility that it could have developed into something both meaningful and entertaining. Unfortunately, it has been put in the hands of newcomer Brian Fee and he has elected to approach the material in a brisk and impersonal manner that is determined to ruffle as few feathers as possible on the way to its inevitable billion-dollar payday at the box-office. A lot of stuff happens in the film but precious little of it manages to stick—the element that comes closest to ringing true involves Cruz and her own once-thwarted dreams of being a racer herself that were stymied for being “different (i.e. a girl) and that only pays off in the broadest of strokes. Frankly, the movie seems more concerned with getting Lightning into different looks (besides his normal appearance, we also see him in primer, wearing a computerized overcoating and covered in mud as a disguise) that can then be made into new toys that can be sold separately.

Even if the film had managed to make the emotional aspects of the story truly pay off, there is an excellent chance that I still may have found myself resisting “Cars 3” on the basis that I have continue to have precious little interest in the characters and find the universe that they inhabit to be more creepy than anything else. Over the years, Pixar has managed to find the warmth and humanity in things ranging from toys to robots to the emotions of a young girl but their efforts to make automobiles come alive continue to come to naught. I am afraid that Lightning McQueen just isn’t a very interesting character and not even Owen Wilson’s always-likable drawl can do much to change that. With most of the other returning players largely kept to the sidelines this time around—after being put front and center in “Cars 2,” Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater makes only a few fleeting appearances here—newcomers take up the slack with Alonzo making the most impact as Cruz, even though you may wish that her character was given a little more personality. As for the brief audio appearances of the late Paul Newman, I found myself of two minds—I naturally enjoyed hearing him once again yet still felt that the film was exploiting audience sentiments over hearing him again to add dramatic oomph to moments that it couldn’t pull off on its own.

In comparison to other Pixar sequels, “Cars 3” lacks the narrative ambitions and genuine heart of the “Toy Story” follow-ups and, to a slightly lesser extent, “Finding Dory” but it is still an improvement on such sorry sights as “Cars 2” and “Monsters University.” Little kids will no doubt love it as much as they loved the earlier films because of the bright colors and motor action but while it may resonate more strongly with older viewers than its predecessors, it never comes close to approaching the greatness of Pixar’s finest efforts. In fact, like the other “Cars” films, it feels more like the creation of someone trying desperately to mimic the Pixar formula who has all of the ingredients but doesn’t quite know how to put them all together into a satisfying whole. “Cars 3” may be an improvement and less of a bummer than its predecessors but if this turned out to be the final of the franchise (and I doubt that will be the case), I would not exactly weep over the prospect of never being able to see a “Cars 4.”

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