The Cars films have always felt like the slightest installments in the Pixar catalog, and have been written about ad nauseam as being emblematic of everything that’s gone wrong with the once great animation house. Pixar, which enjoyed a nearly unparalleled period of artistic and financial success from Toy Story up to Inside Out, has been reduced to basing filmmaking choices on toy sales and theme park admissions instead of story and character. This was easier to swallow when the first Cars was surrounded by The Incredibles and Ratatouille, a bit harder when Cars 2 was sandwiched in-between the very good Toy Story 3 and very okay Brave and now flat-out annoying since Cars 3 comes on the heels of Finding Dory, an enjoyable, but somewhat less-than-profound franchise extender. Couple that with the rise of Disney Animation Studios, and the depressing reality is that Pixar is no longer the hottest name in animation.
Which is why it’s so incredibly inconvenient that Cars 3 is actually pretty good. Sure, the “Pixar is dead” narrative still kind of applies because Cars 3 is by no means a return to the Best Picture brilliance of Pixar past. But Cars 3 is not the disposable, extended toy commercial you might believe it to be. It pretty much ignores the existence of Cars 2 (a wise choice), and returns the franchise to its more meat-and-potato sports movie roots. There’s also plenty of heady material here which will likely fly over kids heads and cause them to fidget in their seats, which is a testament to the film’s dedication to character and mature themes but also a fair warning for any parents expecting another silly Cars movie.
The plot most directly apes Rocky 3 and 4 in presenting Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) as a formerly elite athlete facing the end of the line, nudged aside by younger, stronger, faster rivals (chiefly Armie Hammer’s Ivan Drago-esque Jackson Storm, whose embrace of new technologies contrasts with Lightning’s stubborn adherence to old school methodologies). As io9 put it, “Cars 3 explains how an over-the-hill athlete deals with his professional mortality, a disconnect from the new generation, and trying to find happiness in places that aren’t the finish line. It’s deep, especially for a kids movie, but it’s also what Pixar usually excels at.”
It also serves as an apt metaphor for the current state of Pixar – the old champ trying to fight its way back into the game – and underscores what exactly might have drawn longtime Pixar employees like Bob Peterson (Up’s co-director, now Cars 3’s co-writer) and Brian Fee (Cars/Ratatouille/Wall-E/Cars 2 storyboard artist making his directorial debut) back into the world of Lightning, Mater and the rest. Such metaphorical reading of the film is not necessary, but it helps.
Out of the gate, it initially seems like there might not be much left in the tank, either for Pixar or this beleaguered franchise. Cars 3 moves through its sports plot in rather workmanlike fashion, too easygoing and leisurely for its own good, forcing the adults in the audience to find something to busy themselves with, such as pondering the bizarre ramifications of a universe made up entirely of cars (best not to pull to hard on that thread, though). Once things finally get interesting, i.e., Lightning pushes himself too far to keep up with Storm and ends up having a devastating crash, the film disappointingly cuts to 4 months later where Lightning is already fully recovered and simply nursing his battered ego.
Far too often, then, you find yourself waiting for this movie to finally start getting to wherever it’s going. There’s an extended traveling montage of Lightning journeying across the country from Radiator Springs (whose residents, including Lightning’s girlfriend, are barely in this movie) to a new training facility, and while the various visual panoramas of the U.S. countryside are uniformly gorgeous I was stuck channeling my inner-Rebecca Bunch:
Then Lightning meets his new sponsor, Mr. Sterling (perfectly voiced by Nathan Fillion as the consummate businessman who just wants to sell Lighting McQueen-branded merchandise, an odd bit of self-critique on Pixar’s part), and trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). Rather quickly, the film establishes its obvious end point (one last race) and truly important character drama (Lightning resents being saddled with Cruz and her new agey motivational tools, but grows to respect her and learns to stop focusing so much on himself). In fact, at some point in the second half Cars 3 becomes just as much Cruz’s film as it is Lightning’s, and they make for a fun, mismatched pair while bumbling their way through several comedy setpieces, such as when they accidentally enter a demolition derby where they are forced to do everything they can to simply survive.
Of course, there is an inevitable training montage, aided by several older racers who either trained or raced against Lightning’s mentor Doc, and an admirably tense finale. However, there is an empowering twist near the end which the changes entire tone of the film and packs a surprisingly poignant punch, sending Cars 3 out on an absolute high note after a rough start.
Perhaps that’s why I say this is a good movie. Looking back on it, I realize there are some lulls here and there, and certain puzzling elements (are they making fun of rednecks during the demolition derby? does incorporating a commentary about merchandising into the plot really exonerate them from the massive merchandising surrounding the movie?). However, once Lightning and Cruz are paired together as a Marlin/Dory-esque comedy duo the film finds itself, and steers into a truly gripping finale which earned a mixure of laughs, tears, gasps and finally applause at my sold-out showing. It’s not as emotionally effective or profound as Pixar’s best, but it sends you out on a high, elevating what is a sometimes mediocre animated movie into a pretty good one.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Unlike Finding Dory, you can’t really argue that Cars 3 fails to live up to the emotional weight of its predecessors because there was never a great deal of emotional weight attached to any of the Cars movies to begin with. However, Cars 3 still packs a surprising emotional punch. It dutifully works through the expected story beats of various other sports movies, not always successfully, before arriving at an empowering finale, and reads like a group of celebrated Pixar workers shouting to the movie world, “We’re still here!” Of course, this isn’t among the best Pixar has to offer, but unlike Cars 2 it’s a far cry from the worst.