6.5 out of 10
Owen Wilson as Lightning McQueen
Directed by Brian Fee
Cars 3 Review:
I would, and I write this with all sincerity, dearly love to hear Pixar’s rationale for making a third Cars film. While the films were generally commercially successful and good merchandising vehicles (so to speak), they’ve never been particularly beloved. The first film was a backwards-looking nostalgia bomb all about how the good old days really were better than today and we hurt ourselves when we forget about them, viewed through the lens of the studio’s most obnoxious central character.
The sequel, to its credit, decided the best way to approach being a sequel was to try something new, moving the focus to sidekick Mater. But then for some reason stuck him into a James Bond pastiche as a would-be spy; such a bewildering step no one knew what to make of it, but they were most definitely not asking for more, which is usually some sort of pre-requisite for a sequel.
But like it or not, Cars 3 is here, so what lesson of the past has the series learned?
For starters to keep experimenting to the minimum, keep reminders of the past to a maximum. Piston Cup champ Lightning McQueen (Wilson) has come full circle as racing cars must, from a talented newcomer to a decorated veteran with fewer racing days ahead than behind. When a new round of hi-tech racers, led by the arrogant Jackson Storm (Hammer), take over the track, McQueen has to face the fact that his racing days may be over.
Refusing to go gently into that dark night, McQueen hooks up with a new sponsor (Fillion) willing to provide a hi-tech training facility with all the toys and his own personal trainer (Alonzo), who has her own dreams of racing stardom. With the start of the new season on its way, and time running out, he has to decide if he really wants to make one last grab at the big brass ring or help a talented newcomer achieve their dreams.
Though almost all of the supporting characters from the first film are reduced to glorified cameos, Cars 3 has no desire to get too far from what has ‘worked’ before. [With the noted exception of the late Paul Newman as the voice the Fabulous Hudson Hornet, who appears in flashback so often it seems his entire performance from the first film is recreated here].
Instead, we spend a lot of time with Lightning copying experiences from previous stories in an attempt to hold onto the past, just in slightly different places and with a slightly different cast of characters. Once the hi-tech training ends in pratfall disaster, Lightning decides to head out to the tracks of the old days and meet some of the original Piston Cup racers to learn their tricks the way he once did with Doc. This includes a mud-covered trip to a demolition derby rally which is most certainly Cars 3’s finest moment, allowing it to stop being a story and turn into animation.
But no sooner does it begin than it ends and Cars 3 returns to driving old roads again, mildly re-inventing elements from the first film as Lightning once again looks to the past to figure out how to continue forward. Except when it doesn’t, because the desire to experiment at least a little hasn’t gone, either. Or more accurately there is a realization that a) Lightning McQueen isn’t the best character Pixar has ever come up with and b) none of the existing supporting cast is strong enough to take a larger load, which means someone else has to pick it up.
The idea of Lightning mentoring a new generation of drivers is a good one, but it’s not particularly well integrated. The direct character conflict is between Lightning and Storm and that sort of motivation does not transfer to other characters easily, especially not characters introduced later in the film who never share a scene with the antagonist. Alonzo is fine as the pugnacious Cruz, but Cars 3 spends so much time hiding her actual place in the film as a support to Lightning’s internal conflict that it’s difficult to build an emotional connection to her and what she wants. Yeah, it’s a cartoon about talking cars, but the rules of character-audience interaction still apply.
It all smacks of a film which was determined to exist first before anyone had figured out why it should exist. The filmmakers are stuck figuring out that second question as they go and the result is an extremely schizophrenic experience. Is it Lightning’s story or Cruz’s? Is it focused on looking to the past or to the future? Does it want to just repeat what’s come before or try something new and different?
It wants to be both, or more accurately, it clearly starts out wanting to be one and then slowly changes its mind without making enough room for the new idea. It’s decent enough with a few good gags, but the lack of a solid driving idea from beginning to end leaves the finale without any momentum. Maybe they should have made another spy film.