The first Cars films was an amiable, loving ode to small town values (the “Our Town” sequence a damning fist to the face of corporatization) and “taking it slow,” while the second was a tragically misguided attempt to elevate sideshow pal Mater the Tow Truck to lead car status in a subpar auto-spy exposé.
Cars 2 not being good hurt more than Cars not being a classic – it was easier to pleasantly meander in Radiator Springs than stumble around car-Europe, watching Pixar bungle its patented emotional payoff for the first time. Where the first film is endearing, the second felt a bit cynical.
So, would Cars 3 work? Could Pixar veer away from the bad vibes associated with the previous Cars film and deliver something more in line with the original? Well, it’s Pixar. Of course they can.
Cars 3 feels like the real Cars 2. This is the sequel that makes sense – a Rocky-approved tale of an older Lightning McQueen (the always reliable Owen Wilson) being inched towards a reluctant retirement by a wave of new-fangled race cars, led by the super-fast jerk-on-wheels Jackson Storm (his name should really be Jackhat Storm, for obvious reasons). McQueen’s new sponsor wants him to hang it up and sell McQueen-approved mud flaps. The racer still wants to race. Time is ticking.
So, Lightning teams up with new-age racecar trainer Cruz Ramirez (ABC star Cristela Alonzo) to train for the next big race in car-Florida (potentially his last), learning lessons about himself, his new trainer (who secretly wants to be a racer herself) and his late pit chief/mentor Doc Hudson (the late Paul Newman, in previously recorded audio) in the process. The final lap here carries a surprise or two, but everything falls into place, even if there are too many pit stops on the way to the finish line.
Cars 3 is a solid fix for what went wrong with the second film – director Brian Fee goes back to what worked with the first – cute humor, meditative themes, a proven by-the-numbers story. If the first film is the standard-bearer for the Cars-iverse, Cars 3 is the proper extension – though, it’s a film that also bears in mind its predecessor throughout, and can be guilty at times of trying too hard to make up for the sins of its past. When it’s not trying too hard to drive to a proper emotional payoff, it’s a sweet film, and a resonant one.
Watching Lightning grapple with his mortality as he stares down the next phase of his life – one he believes his mentor Doc struggled through – makes a mark. One oddly compelling scene in which he bids an abrupt farewell to a friendly competitor demonstrates the magic of the studio – they can make you get a little misty-eyed over watching a blue racecar lament the end of his time at the races. Kids may not fully relate to this pensive subject matter, though all will certainly pull for McQueen to get it back in gear.
The colorful characters of Radiator Springs are primarily left back home, though Lightning and Mater get a sweet exchange over video call that helps smooth over their odd arc from the last movie. Ramirez is a fun addition, and Alonzo provides a dedicatedly peppy spark to the role. Armie Hammer isn’t given a lot to do as Storm other than come off as a cocky competitor, but one would imagine a Cars 4 would send him down his own road of redemption (come now folks –you know this ain’t the end of the Cars movies).
The animation, of course, is striking, with each and every Pixar effort ensuring the animation feels life-like – each puddle, gust of dust and leaf on a tree transforming into photorealism as opposed to convincing cartoon work. And, who doesn’t mind hearing another grand score from Randy Newman?
Cars 3 isn’t any better than the initial installment, but it’s certainly an atonement for the struggles for the second film – a righting of the perceived wrongs that left many Pixar fans feeling short-changed. None of these films try to reach the sophisticated heights of a Ratatouille or a Wall-e, but they don’t necessarily need to.
The Cars films are the Arnold Palmer of the Pixar universe – there is nothing overtly clever, revolutionary or daring about mixing sweet tea and lemonade, but the beverage goes down like a song as long as you don’t mess up the batch. We’ve seen what happens when someone over-pours the tea – now, the mixture tastes right, and that’s more than enough for relaxing on the porch during a hot summer day.