While the ‘Cars’ movies typically divide critics unlike any other Pixar movie, they also routinely rank among the most successful Pixar products and sell the most toys. So here we go again with another tale from this anthropomorphized automobile universe that seems to have few rules beyond presenting as many toy-worthy characters as possible. Thankfully, this one is far better than the last, but still belongs somewhere in the lower rung of Pixar productions.
On the plus side, the folks behind this sprawling toy car advert of a franchise decided to shove Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater to the sidelines this time, allowing that dated redneck comedy shtick to fizzle out without much effort. That means the star is once again Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), the cherry red racing stud who is so fast and talented that he couldn’t possibly ever be beaten, right? Not so fast! There’s a new car in town named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). He’s part of a new generation of speedsters and… blah blah blah, McQueen is no longer the champion. In fact, a big crash suggests that he might be done entirely. Fortunately, Nathan Fillion’s new race team boss Sterling thinks there’s still a little left in the McQueen tank. He hires him to join his team and promises to train him with the best possible technology and a dynamite coach named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). A few training montages and rounds of hard luck lesson learning should set McQueen on the right course. No doubt about it!
What we have here is essentially a ‘Rocky’ sequel with a racing car playing Rocky. It’s about how an old timer can still keep up with the young folks through perseverance and grit and wisdom, and good lord does that ever sound dull. For almost the entire running time, ‘Cars 3’ appears to be an even lazier sequel than ‘Cars 2’, essentially remaking the original movie with an “old car learning new tricks” subbed in for the formula of “hotshot learning from his elders.” That makes for a pretty tedious watch driven almost entirely by formula. In between all the training montages and spoon-fed moralization, the only real pleasure for anyone who isn’t a wide-eyed child is toying with the loopholes and logic flaws of the ‘Cars’ universe. Why do all these cars have door handles and seats if there are no drivers? How do they operate computers with keyboards when they have no hands, much less fingers? Is their entire economy based on racing? Why do they sleep? How do they get to their seats in the stadiums? Is there a chance that there were once humans in this very recognizable world who were crushed and toppled by sentient cars? These are the places your mind might wander out of boredom.
Then, just as the movie seems to be checking off the final pieces of this paint-by-numbers narrative, something interesting happens. Whether it was a last-minute rewrite or always the ‘Cars 3’ plan, the film suddenly becomes about something different, more meaningful, and even resonant. It’s not a twist that makes you re-evaluate the entire ‘Cars’ universe as something far more interesting than it seemed (if only!), but it is something as mature, thoughtful and unexpected as we’ve come to expect in nearly every non-‘Cars’ Pixar product. It might feel a bit tacked-on, but the Pixar brain trust had something to say with ‘Cars 3’, and that message is actually rather sweet. ‘Cars 3’ shouldn’t be a movie with any sort of surprise or unexpected emotional weight, yet here we are. That’s a big plus.
Along the way, you’ll also get the usual stunning Pixar animation that proves the studio remains the champion of CG animation, not just the pioneers. The voice cast have fun and provide life to characters who rarely have depth worthy of the actors playing them (with the exception of Mr. Cable Guy, naturally). The jokes are far more inconsistent than the Pixar writer rooms typically serve up and much of the first two-thirds of the movie can feel like an absolute slog for anyone who isn’t elated by the mere sight of cars going “Vroom.” However, the fact that ‘Cars 3’ has a worthy message and an emotional punch is something of a miracle. The clichéd sports movie narrative of an old war horse pushing hard for an unexpected victory might make ‘Cars 3’ a chore to watch, but the fact that Pixar managed to live out that narrative through the unexpected rewards at the end of ‘Cars 3’ makes for a welcome surprise. The little kids with all the toys will be presupposed to like this movie through brand loyalty. Their parents might well be surprised once they figure out what movie they’re actually watching, provided they haven’t checked out before photo finish.