For the longest time, Pixar had only one black sheep in their stable of films: the Cars franchise. Most people wrote off the two movies as nothing but reasons to move merchandise. For the most part, they were right.
The first film was a decidedly light affair, at least by Pixar standards. The second, however, went totally off the rails, focusing more on Tow-Mater, while adopting a spy caper story structure. With Cars 3, though, a course correction of sorts is applied, returning solely to the racing world. It also helps that the latter half employs a lot of heart and a more progressive view.
In the past decade, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has become a more mature individual. He wins with grace, showers his sponsors with adoration and even plays practical jokes with other racers… until a Storm approaches. Jackson Storm (a game Armie Hammer), that is, the new rookie in the league.
The difference between Storm and the racers of old is that all his training is predicated on numbers or the use of simulators. As his wins start to mount, older racers retire, replaced with more of this “new breed”. Lightning pushes himself continually, hellbent on only leaving on his own terms. In return, he goes a step too far, resulting in a giant wreck that leaves him a shell of his former self.
An innate fear of mortality and technology may make sense in “the real world,” but in the confines of the Cars universe, it feels a bit odd. Presentation doesn’t help matters, as the rise of this younger generation calls to mind Clubber Lang & Ivan Drago of the Rocky series.
In fact, the majority of Cars 3 is steeped in the language of underdog stories. That partially comes down to one of the four writers being Mike Rich, who previously wrote Secretariat, Radio and The Rookie. Once the champ, our hero must find the strength inside him to show he’s just as good, if not better, than the young upstarts.All this seems as if it should lend itself easily to a series of obstacles. Strangely, almost anything that stands in the way is conveniently resolved within five minutes. A confrontation with Lightning’s new sponsor (Nathan Fillion) lasts a fraction of that. Out of all these minor altercations, only one officially gets run into the ground, namely the number of times he gets called “old.” No one ever accused kids’ films of being subtle.
By continually taking the air out of the tires, the middle of the film becomes the kind of slog that tests the patience of both children and adults alike. Thankfully, there are inspired set pieces that pop up regularly enough to distract.
Along the road to the big race in Florida, Lightning takes in a demolition derby and a stopover in Doc Hudson’s hometown. His absence weighs on Lightning, as he looks to the past in hopes of answers. He finds them in part due to hours of audio recordings that Paul Newman did for the first film. It’s a bit of nostalgia that comes off as sweet, rather than exploitative.Fans may take umbrage with the fact that the denizens of Radiator Springs don’t get much screen time. They’re there, but in just the right amount as to not pull focus too much. Devoting more time to their shenanigans would make an already long film worse for wear.
Cars 3 is all about legacy and how it relates to history. Too often, when people think about the impact they’ll leave, they do so with a rather narrow view. In this case, it’s one that continually cripples Lightning on his road to recovery. Only by looking forward and backward is he able to see there is a way to stay connected to the sport he loves, while passing down knowledge to help future generations.
That last bit gets muddled in the mix. Joining Lightning on the road is his new trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). In all honesty, the movie truly belongs to her, but Pixar can’t pull the trigger until 3/4th of the way through to make it apparent. It’s a great decision when they embrace it, only partially stymieing the proceedings.
Cruz comes complete with a compelling backstory that a good portion of the audience will relate to. Couple that with Alonzo’s vocal work and it’s safe to say if the series continues, they have a new star to focus on.
This being Pixar, of course the visuals have to be addressed. While Cars has never strived to push the envelope, the film is gorgeously alive. Subtract the cartoony faces that adorn the cars and there’s one hell of a demo reel. Not to be outdone, the 3D is some of the best to date. It never feels obtrusive, choosing depth and fidelity over “in-your-face” gimmicks.
Cars 3 is easily the best film in the trilogy, by a long shot. What may sound like faint praise is actually a ringing endorsement. Here is a Pixar movie worthy of the long line that studio is synonymous with. After a few stutters and starts that threaten to flood the film, it finds its true heart and purpose in the third act. You may even find yourself a bit misty eyed. How often does that happen during the summer?