Cars 3 is the 2nd sequel no one asked for, coming 6 years after the 1st sequel no one asked for, which came 5 years after the original. If my numerology is correct that means we have Cars 4 to look 4ward (see what I did there) to in 2025. Now, when I say no one asked for it I’m being facetious of course. Clearly the Cars franchise has been the most ‘merchandise-able’ of all the Pixar films so if cranking out a new film every half dozen years sells another billion dollars in branded items then you’d have to be financially crazy NOT to do it.
Beyond the cynicism, however, this film already had another negative stacked against it: Cars 2. Or, rather, the majority critical and audience response to Cars 2. I personally enjoyed that film even more than the first (though it’s been a long time since I’ve seen either so that could have changed) but if you find yourself in the aforementioned majority let me put your mind at ease! As far as I can remember, Cars 3 makes absolutely no reference (not even a whiff) to anything that happened in Cars 2. In fact, I believe you don’t even have to see the original to enjoy this one. Certainly some of the jokes may get lost, but the flashbacks are spoonfed well enough that no prior knowledge is required.
Also, if you have had enough of Mater and/or Larry the Cable Guy you’ll be happy to know that his shtick and character are toned down (relatively speaking) for this film. He definitely has a presence here, but appears in very small doses at well spaced intervals.
When I first heard of Cars 3 my reaction was “Oh no.” Upon seeing the first trailer, however, my mood changed. I was a sucker for Days of Thunder and seeing the sparks fly while Lightning McQueen crashes on the track set my mind buzzing. Maybe it would end up being a grittier comeback story with some consequences that require sacrifice. The first few previews didn’t focus on the humor, and I warmed up to the idea of actually seeing this in the theater.
With those caveats out of the way I can now get to the review (thanks for sticking with me this far).
Cars 3 is absolutely unnecessary. That thought kept playing through my mind during the middle hour of the film. However the ending wraps up Lightning McQueen’s journey so well that I couldn’t help but feel glad that I saw it. I didn’t recognize the names of any of the writers or the director but even before knowing that this definitely felt like a “lesser” Pixar film.
The opening 15-20 minutes are exhilarating as we once again find Lightning McQueen on the racetrack. He’s still racking up plenty of wins and keeping it fun with his friends who always try to one-up each other with pranks on and off the track. It’s a lighthearted easy life until a newcomer – Jackson Storm – arrives on the scene and proceeds to blow away the competition with ease. Comments are made about McQueen’s age and one-by-one his old friends retire (some forcibly so) and get replaced with rookies in the model of sleek ‘next-gen’ racers like Jackson Storm.
The new cars are sleeker and more electronically connected than McQueen. They have a much higher top speed, more sophisticated training methods and know the optimal racing path for the conditions on every track. Lightning isn’t one to go down without a fight but when he finds himself the odd (and old) man out in his latest race he gets distracted and suffers an horrific crash that probably pushed the limits of the G rating. (I thought the fade-to-black here would have been a good place for title card)
Four months later McQueen is still recuperating in Radiator Springs and the question on everyone’s mind is “Will Lightning McQueen ever race again?” We are treated to some terrific flashbacks involving his old mentor Doc Hudson. Doc’s memory is a huge presence in this film and is much of the heart of this film while we witness Lightning’s journey mirroring the great Hudson Hornet’s story. The next hour, or so, is Lightning trying to find his way back to the racetrack for one more try to see if he’s still got the ‘stuff’ Doc said he had in the first movie.
This is where things begin to drag for a while. It’s not exactly boring, but even throwing a demolition derby in the middle of things didn’t quite liven it up to heart-pumping levels. That actually happens in the final 20 minutes of the film at Lightning’s make-it-or-break it race. A decision is made in the middle of that race that almost had me groaning but, as I said, it actually ends up coming full circle for Lightning McQueen and I think elevated the movie as a whole.
Outside of #95, the characters in this film go from mostly woefully under-developed (Storm, and a new sponsor “Mr.” Sterling) to afterthoughts (most of the original cast, some with different voices) to the almost fully-realized Cruz Ramirez. Cars 3 is really the Cruz & Lightning story for most of the runtime. Cruz is hired as a youthful trainer to get the old guy fit enough to compete with the youngsters. Their butting of heads recalls the Lightning McQueen of the original film but he has gotten a little wiser in his old age. And her exuberance is palpable enough to make their onscreen chemistry (non-romantic) believable.
Speaking of reality, the animation is phenomenal. The photo-realism of the racetracks and mountain scenery (a trip to the smoky mountains of the Carolinas was a real treat in 3-D) is unparalleled. Pixar continues to deliver the most amazing animated visual quality around.
PIXAR SHORTS: Lou, while cute and clever, feels like a lesser-short as well. An elementary-aged bully is terrorized by the items he (may have) lifted from other children. When reminded of how he was previously bullied he decides to turn over a new leaf and actually ends up enjoying it.