Cars 3 *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Brian Fee.
Written by: Kiel Murray and Bob Peterson and Mike Rich and Brian Fee and Ben Queen and Eyal Podell & Jonathon E. Stewart.
Starring: Owen Wilson (Lightning McQueen), Cristela Alonzo (Cruz Ramirez), Chris Cooper (Smokey), Nathan Fillion (Sterling), Larry the Cable Guy (Mater), Armie Hammer (Jackson Storm), Ray Magliozzi (Dusty), Tony Shalhoub (Luigi), Bonnie Hunt (Sally), Lea DeLaria (Miss Fritter), Kerry Washington (Natalie Certain), Bob Costas (Bob Cutlass), Margo Martindale (Louise Nash), Darrell Waltrip (Darrell Cartrip), Isiah Whitlock Jr. (River Scott), Bob Peterson (Chick Hicks), Guido Quaroni (Guido), Tom Magliozzi (Rusty), John Ratzenberger (Mack).
Pixar’s Cars 3 offers a necessary course correction after the disaster that was Cars 2 – which will hopefully always remain their worst film – and a fitting (hopefully) final chapter in the series that has never been as beloved by critics as Pixar’s other work, but does have a legion of (mostly) little boy fans, and, it must be said, a more readymade toy line than anything else Pixar has made. While the Cars movies have are not among the highest grossing Pixar movies (ranking 10th and 15th of their 17 releases so far), they are, by far, their highest grossing in terms or merchandise – and Pixar doesn’t have share as much of that revenue. Yes, it’s easy to be cynical about Pixar continuing with Cars movies in part because of branding – especially considering Cars 3 has a subplot about branding, and how hollow it is – but the truth is that Cars 3 is a fine film, well-animated and fun, and while probably more aimed at kids than adults, not quite nailing that mixture that Pixar so often does with ease, still entertaining for the parents as well. The Cars films will always be the red headed step child of the Pixar universe – even the first, and best installment, is lesser Pixar – but that doesn’t mean it’s bad.
Cars 3 opens with Lightning McQueen still on top of the racing world. He’s the fastest and best racer on the circuit, and as far as he’s concerned, he always will be. But then, all of sudden, he’s not. A new generation – led by Jackson Storm come up through the ranks, and power past McQueen. They cars a faster, and more aerodynamic, and have new training methods, etc. McQueen and his ilk just cannot keep up. A horrific crash on the last race of the season seems like it may be the end of McQueen – but instead, he’s determined to come back stronger than ever. His new sponsor has even hired one of those new trainers – Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) – to get McQueen ready. But perhaps, what he really needs, is not newer methods – but older ones.
Cars 3 is an interesting movie in part, because the setup reads like a pure sports comeback movie – like on the 18 Rocky sequels, where he’s far too old to be trying to comeback, but so manages to do so anyway, and wins. It also reminded me a little of that Clint Eastwood movie – Trouble with the Curve – where the stats guys know nothing, but the crotchety old veteran, with failing eyesight, can still spot a winner – and a loser – from the sidelines (for that matter, it’s kind of like the old school vs. new school debate in hockey stats right now). Interestingly though, that’s not where the movie ends up – the film is more about aging and accepting when it’s time to move on. Not only that, but about how when you do move on, that doesn’t mean your life is over – and that you can have a satisfying life from there – in some ways, more satisfying. It’s an interesting message for kids (I cannot think much of it will fly over the heads, except for the help each other part) – but its one parents will relate to.
Along the way though, the film is fast paced and fun. The film isn’t as slow and nostalgic as the first film (that one has grown on me over the years), and it isn’t the neon colored, headache inducing, joke fest of the sequel (that one, never will). It tries for a tone somewhere in between – and mostly gets it right. So, you do have a largely comic set piece when McQueen and Ramirez go to the demolition derby, and you do have a more nostalgic look back when the pair visit Doc Hudson’s old friends. But the film never drags, and really does have an exciting, racing climax.
In short, while Cars 3 is not premium Pixar – and it’s not even quite on the level of lesser Pixar sequels like Monsters University (which I known I liked more than most) or Finding Dory – it’s still fine entertainment for kids and adults alike. Besides, Coco is only a few months away – and that one looks great, so I’m willing to let Pixar slide a little with Cars 3.