Review: “Cars 3”

3 out of 5 stars.

I realize that I am in the minority when I say that I really like “Cars.”  The 2006 animated Pixar film about a cocky racecar who changes his way after he is waylaid in a sleepy town off Route 66 was an instant hit with audience but met with mediocre response from critics, who almost instantly began saying the film’s main purpose was to sell merchandise to pay for the studio’s better, more artsy efforts.

But honestly, despite its few flaws, “Cars” is a great movie—maybe average for Pixar, but certainly above-average compared to other major studio animated films.  Its sequel, “Cars 2,” however, took the route of giving the comic relief the main role, was a complete disaster, and is still considered Pixar’s worst movie by a long shot.  So, while yet another installment in the series is unnecessary, it’s nice to see the studio get it back on track with “Cars 3,” a film that, while it still is far from peak Pixar, is at least entertaining, gorgeous to look at, and emotionally satisfying.

Brian Fee takes the reins from John Lasseter as director, and racecar Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is back as the main protagonist.  The first 15 minutes or so of the movie set the stage perfectly.  McQueen is still racing, and still winning, but with his friends from Radiator Springs behind him, he isn’t the selfish jerk he was at the opening of the first film.  His antics with his fellow racecars are playful, and the competition is fierce, but friendly.  That is, until a new car drives onto the scene—Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a new model that can reach speeds the older McQueen and his pals never could.  We see McQueen become increasingly determined to beat Storm, as his old friends retire one-by-one and are replaced by younger, faster vehicles.  The sequence ends powerfully, with McQueen losing focus and crashing.

Cars 3 2

This doesn’t get McQueen down as much as you’d think though, and he’s seemingly instantly back in the game, trying to prove that he’s still got it with the help of a new sponsor, Sterling (Nathan Fillion), and a much younger trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo).  While Cruz likes to work with technology and simulators, McQueen likes to get out in the world and actually race, so together they go on a cross-country trip to get McQueen ready for the Piston Cup race in Florida, his success in which would indicate whether he gets to continue racing, or will be forced to retire.

Almost all of the old faces from the last two movies (actually, let’s just say the first movie; “Cars 3” behaves as if the second film doesn’t exist, and really that’s probably for the best) are back along with a lot of new characters, and the story does a decent job of balancing both of them.  We see the Radiator Springs gang sparingly (including Mater), and when they are on screen, they are there to provide some form of encouragement for McQueen.  The “villains” of the film don’t get much of a chance to show their stuff, but McQueen’s new friends do, particularly Cruz, who actually always wanted to be a racer and has as much to learn from McQueen as he does from her.

In many ways, “Cars 3” does feel like the first “Cars,” in a good way.  But McQueen never goes back to that selfish character that he was in the first movie; this story is about him coming to terms with his life, and realizing that even though he is older and will never be as fast as he used to be, there’s still so much he can do.  The film refers a lot to Doc Hudson, the older racecar who trained McQueen in the first film (voice actor Paul Newman passed away in 2008, so it is implied in “Cars 2” that Hudson also passed away between those two films).  Here, McQueen longs for someone like Hudson to guide him, and one leg of his journey takes him to Hudson’s hometown, where a lot of his retired racing buddies still live, including his mentor, Smokey (Chris Cooper).  This allows for several nice moments between three generations of cars all trying to figure out their lives, and it’s rather surprising how poignant the film gets at times.  At the same time, knowing how much of an emotional impact Pixar can inject into their films (think “Inside Out” or the marriage montage in “Up”), “Cars 3” comes nowhere close to that.

The film also gets rather repetitive as it goes on.  Outside of a fun sequence in which McQueen and Cruz get caught in a demolition derby, there’s kind of a lot of generic racing going on.  Many attempts at humor fall flat, and the novelty of talking cars must be wearing thin, as the film doesn’t really explore their world or introduce anything that we didn’t see already in the previous two films.  At the same time, the movie is gorgeous-looking, and the story takes the characters through a lot of different environments, from Radiator Springs to the beach to the small country town of Thomasville to the big racetrack in Florida.

“Cars 3” is entertaining enough for all ages, and it has a nice message, albeit one we’ve seen in dozens of movies before.  It’s also nice to know that our last memory of this franchise won’t be “Cars 2,” although the ending of “Cars 3” certainly leaves the possibility of more installments open.  But if future sequels start looking more like this one, perhaps that won’t be such a bad thing.

Runtime: 109 minutes. Rated G.

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