The Cars franchise teeters on a precarious position in the illustrious Pixar hall of fame. Enjoying, at most, a lukewarm reception from critic circles, the franchise is an oddball. It didn’t live up to the usual Pixar magic peddled by giants like Toy Story or Monsters Inc. However, its wide audience appeal prevented it from driving off from into the sunset despite all its flaws.
As the third outing plays in theaters nationwide, the question stands: can the Cars franchise still right itself before it crashes and burns?
Cars 3’s answer is ambiguous, at best, but it shows promise for the future of the Cars franchise.
Rapidly outpaced by technologically faster cars, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) must find it within himself to prove that he’s still relevant in a sport where speed is everything. Braggadocio racers like Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) leave him trailing in the dust. With his new trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), McQueen digs down deep into his roots to find his place in a new world. Of course, his supporting cast including the eccentric Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) return.
Cars 3 sets itself up for a young vs. old duel—or if you prefer the colloquial: millennial vs. elder. For the most part, it is. But Cars 3 shines brightest when it focuses on McQueen’s struggles as an aging racecar. In fact, as marketed as he is, Jackson Storm occupies only a fourth of the movie.
This is one of the rare movies where the central second act outshines the first act and the epilogue. I cared more for McQueen’s journey than his rivalry with Storm. As far as baddies go, Storm was an unconvincing character. In fact, he just seemed like a middle-aged director’s poor attempt at parodying “millennials” even implying that they listen to trashy dubstep only. It felt like a shoehorned agenda rather than an effective conflict.
As McQueen realizes that he’s old, a hustling businessman (or businesscar?) Sterling (Nathan Fillion) takes on the challenge of training him with state-of-the-art equipment. Ecstatic, McQueen begins the program but soon realizes that Sterling wants only to sell McQueen merchandise when he retires. Again, this is another shoehorned parody that doesn’t deserve as much spotlight as it got. Sterling is a blatant parody of Disney and Pixar as corporations looking only to sell movie merch. You have to wonder how his character got past Pixar executives. As with Storm, Sterling’s story line doesn’t cover much traction and is hastily resolved in the epilogue.
It’s only after McQueen goes off on his own that Cars 3 begins to pick up. If you’ve seen Rocky IV or Creed, you know where this is going. It’s an intense series of training and self-discovery. Despite sharing the same beats as underdog sports dramas, it’s still charming. It’s easily the most enjoyable part of the movie.
The dynamic between Ramirez and McQueen is as well plotted as it gets. One is a middle-aged racer struggling to find his place once again. The other is a trainer aspiring to be a racer like McQueen. As you can probably tell, it’s an interesting relationship between them. It’s explored to its maximum throughout the movie.
Cars 3 is also one of the most gorgeous animated films I’ve seen. It maximizes the visual capabilities of today’s technology. For a movie about cartoon cars, Cars 3 takes its landscapes seriously. Everything besides the cars looks incredibly realistic. One of the film’s spotlight moments takes place in a muddy demolition derby. It has one of the best renderings of mud in animation history.
Overall, despite being bookended by weak conflicts, Cars 3 is back on track because of the Pixar magic brought by McQueen’s own personal struggles. It’s not the most revolutionary Pixar movie, but it hits the right notes as far as emotion goes.