(2017—Director: Brian Fee)
★★★ 1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Pixar released the first Cars in 2006. While it achieved financial success, many noted the subdued critical reception and suspected that the film served only to sell toys. In those same minds, the film’s 2011 sequel Cars 2 confirmed that suspicion. Since then, Pixar and their films have faced backlash and extra-critical scrutiny. Sure, it is impossible for even Pixar to merit the title of “perfect studio”. Yet it is possible, even certain, that they have yet to put out a work that is truly horrible and compromised. Their entire filmography contains worthwhile and gorgeous animated films. With Cars 3 entering the scene, that remains as true as ever.
Seasoned racecar Lightning McQueen (the ever dependable Owen Wilson) finds himself ill-equipped to face the new generation of racecars who vie for his spot at the top. Especially menacing is the flashy Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) and his unmatched top speeds. Lightning, anticipating what could end up becoming his last racing season, teams up with a spirited young race trainer named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) and a few veterans to show the world that he alone decides when to end his time as a top racer.
After a brief side trip into spy movie territory and a switching of main heroes with 2011’s Cars 2, Cars 3 returns to the heart, grit, and hero of the first film from 2006. The second film’s technological triumphs also carry over for Cars 3 to become the franchise’s most ferocious technical marvel yet. That may be because, compared to the previous two installments, Cars 3 is surprisingly the installment that feels most dedicated to racing—what it is and what it is not. While Cars stressed true racing as good sportsmanship over arrogance, Cars 3 adds an element that is strikingly paradoxical and poignant—how the love of a sport rises with the fear and acceptance of soon finding oneself unable to tower over all other competitors. Owen Wilson’s voice performance captures that maturity and frustration after voicing Lightning McQueen for the past eleven years.
Amidst the familiar faces from McQueen’s racing career and his friends from Radiator Springs are some new faces. The most prominent of these is Cruz Ramirez. Actress Cristela Alonzo’s transitioning between spunk and naïvete could have been smoother, but her take on Cruz gives the film a worthy secondary protagonist. The memorializing of Doc Hudson (voiced in archive and unused Cars footage by the late Paul Newman) admittedly detracts from the impact of Chris Cooper’s character Smokey, Doc’s former crew chief and now McQueen’s new mentor. Nathan Fillion (Fox’s Firefly, Monsters University) lends his dapper charm and charisma to businesscar Sterling, whose intentions of retiring McQueen from racing to transform him into a brand mascot push McQueen to train harder. Armie Hammer (The Social Network, The Lone Ranger) does not particularly leave an impression as Jackson Storm, but as with Chick Hicks in the first Cars, what Jackson represents acts as Lightning’s obstacle and not the car himself. Remarkably, the film finds a creative way to bring back the egotistical Chick Hicks (McQueen’s rival from the original Cars), now working as the racing commentator who flaunts his one Piston Cup victory on the air every chance he gets. Bob Peterson does a good job capturing Chick’s immaturity, but it is a shame that original voice actor Michael Keaton could not reprise the role that gave him his first box office success since his stint as Batman. Still, it made me smile to see him, McQueen’s respected racing competitors, and his friends from Radiator Springs once again.
Many view Pixar’s Cars franchise as a needless blight on a stellar filmography, a ploy merely to draw merchandising revenue instead of serving as vehicles (*clears throat*) for heartfelt storytelling. Cars may sell many toys, but I for one have always opposed the notion that Pixar has lost its touch or that they must restrict themselves to making only emotional, non-sequel powerhouses. Even when they come closer in touch with their inner rambunctious child, Pixar still puts heart, soul, and beauty into their works more often than most western animation studios. I still prefer the warmth of the original Cars and liken it to good comfort food, but Cars 3 demonstrates the franchise’s ability to grow beyond high-octane action in a world of anthropomorphic cars. It excites the nerves, humbles the snobbery, and—most importantly—leaves me with great anticipation for what Pixar has next to offer.
(Parental Note: Although targeted towards kids, Cars 3 contains intense scenes of various car crashes, both on the asphalt and, in one sequence, during a demolition derby. One particularly devastating crash has already been shown in the film’s promotional trailers. Another scene references the moonshine-based origins of stock car racing.)