Let’s get the requisite car puns out of the way: the Cars series is a drag! Pixar finally had a flat tire! Larry the Cable Guy is the metaphoric visual of a potato in a tailpipe. Something, something out of gas and so on. Long lambasted as the aberration in the otherwise stellar Pixar library, the Cars series has done little to elicit excitement beyond the mediocre original and its lemon sequel. Heck, one could argue that the most entertaining element associated with the franchise would be the Cars Land section of Disney’s California Adventure. Does Cars 3, the “epic” conclusion (?) to a trilogy no one outside of toy retailers asked for, live up to such derision?
After a series of staggering losses to younger, technically optimized racers, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) suffers a debilitating crash that threatens to end his career. In an effort to avoid the similar fate of his late mentor, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman – respectfully resurrected here through unused archived takes and flashbacks), McQueen accepts an offer from a successful business car, Sterling (Nathan Fillion), and begins to train anew under the guidance of Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). With Sterling more interested in McQueen’s marketable name than his ability to win races plus Cruz’s ageist, training wheels approach, McQueen finds that his road back to the finish line may be more literal than expected.
With the announcement of a third entry in the Cars series, two questions were most prevalent on people’s minds. 1.) Is it really necessary? Nope. 2.) Will it at least be better than the second one? The absence of the rusted tow-truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), the redneck Jar Jar Binks of the Pixar universe, from the synopsis above would certainly suggest so. Those that abhorred his leading car status in the first sequel (a decision that crippled that production) may be relieved to find that he is absolutely sidelined in this picture (one would suspect that the filmmakers were trolling this criticism by having him be the first character to make a literal in-your-face appearance). Relegated to a small role that has him pop up here and there for some much-needed comedy relief, the focus is shifted back to McQueen’s journey. Though the trailers would imply a much darker turn for the series, Cars 3 is ultimately a somber reflection of the first film as McQueen faces his own demons and limitations. These deeper layers alone makes the film a far more intriguing endeavor.
Nonetheless, perhaps in an excessive effort to distance itself from the overt lowbrow hi-jinks of its predecessor, Cars 3 stalls at the onset (okay, one last car pun) with a tedious, groggy first act – the only exception being McQueen’s fateful crash, the lone jolt to the film’s creeping stupor. However, with the introduction of Cristela Alonzo’s Cruz Ramirez, the film instantly springs to life, reaffirming a sense of fun and charm that has been lacking in the series since its debut. Cruz makes a far more interesting pairing with McQueen than Mater and their scenes together not only serve as the comedic highlights of the film but also, surprisingly, the most bittersweet as they come to understand each other’s pain and lost ambitions.
Beyond that, the film’s set pieces oscillate between repetitive humdrum and inspired flourishes such as a hellish demolition derby capped off with fiery bursts and a demonic school bus! Visually, Pixar has once again proven the mastery of their craft with some outstanding vistas that include a sunset beach trial and an enveloping drive through the Smoky Mountains – a sequence so intricately rendered that you could smell the dew in the air.
Overall, Cars 3 serves well as an apology for Cars 2 but fails to surpass the tedium of the original. Though it adequately succeeds with some of its storylines and spoofs, other threads fall flat such as its jabs about branding saturation and toy sales. Coming from Disney, such jokes (which are never allowed to be as biting as their potential) come off as hypocritical rather than illuminating especially considering the fact that the Cars toy line is a billion-dollar venture itself. Cars 3 may not save the franchise from being the Pixar foible, but it is far from the worst animated effort of the year (the litany of cringe-inducing trailers attached certainly would suggest so).