Following a sequel that everyone pretty much agrees was (a) a weird diversion and (b) one of the most not-great sequels ever, and also probably (c) a really bad idea for Pixar (rather than, say, Lionsgate) to make a movie starring Larry the Cable Guy being mistaken for a spy…Cars 3 is back to the same formula as the first one. Again, race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is a cocky superstar, and again, he must be taken down a peg and taught there’s more to appreciate in life then winning. Yes, he learned that stuff all before, but just like in real life, where I don’t always remember to check the gas in my car and my wife has to keep lecturing me on it, people don’t always let it sink in the first time.
Lightning’s comeuppance comes at the hands of hot new Tron car Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) who’s sort-of the villain, even though the only villainous thing he actually does is vaguely imply that Lightning is old. Storm is aerodynamically and digitally calculated to be able to reach faster speeds than Lightning ever can, so naturally he dethrones the champ. As all Rocky III fans know, this is where Lightning must begin his quest to get back the eye of the tiger, and occasionally encounter a subplot that suggests over-merchandising is the sign of a moribund franchise (there’s not even a hint of irony in the delivery).
Mater is mostly sidelined in this story, possibly because “Larry’s” politics have become a lot more polarizing in recent years, and instead Lightning is paired up with a female trainer named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). Initially portrayed as tough and able to hone in on Lightning’s weaknesses, she melts rather quickly to reveal the insecurities she’s masking. It’s that time-honored cliche of inspirational drama: “All that time she thought she was teaching him…he was really teaching her”. It’s understandable that Pixar still wanted Lightning to be the point-of- view character after switching it to Mater for Cars 2 didn’t work so well, but the relationship is a little patronizing at times.
Showing a slightly better grasp of its audience this time around, Cars 3 amps up the NASCAR vibe and the country rock, and in the film’s best scene, visits a demolition derby, where the champion is maybe the first Cars character I’ve ever wanted a toy of: a school bus named Fritter with chain piercings, buzz saw STOP signs, and flame-spewing chromed bull horns. She’s voiced by Lea DeLaria (‘Boo’ from “Orange is the New Black“), which is a nicely unexpected bit of diversity. When, not if, there is a Cars 4, it needs to return to her and her wrecking crew.
If you’re wondering why child cars would need a school bus to drive them to school, so is everybody else. Let it go.
Wilson in real life is not yet 50, Lightning is rendered with a babyface, and voice actors don’t have to worry about how they look, so it’s weird that the whole movie deals with the notion of retirement. Paul Newman even returns from beyond the grave via flashbacks and outtakes as mentor Hud, and the notion that even in Cars his vehicular avatar was in the same age category that Wilson’s is now feels like a really forced, inaccurate comparison.
There’s a third-act plot development that I genuinely did not see coming, and considering how calculated down to the last frame most Pixar features feel, I’ll give it a lot of credit for that. On the whole, though, Cars 3 feels like a typical sports movie: not meant for me, but amusing enough to keep me from falling asleep. You will probably not cry.
The short that precedes it is way better. In “Lou,” Pixar creates arguably its most unique character to date: a sentient pile of lost property that creatively morphs and runs as it battles a bully who steals other kids’ stuff. I’d be game for a whole feature.
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