Wisely acting like the bizarre, unfunny, and leaden Cars 2 never happened, Pixar’s Cars 3 takes most of its cues from its likeable, if unoriginal source to create a more naturally genial and breezy film about a world inhabited by anthropomorphic vehicles. If Cars cribbed its plot liberally from Doc Hollywood, Cars 3 looks to more classical sports movie inspirations, perhaps most notably the later Rocky sequels and a dash of Days of Thunder for good measure. It’s not much overall, and this is decidedly on the low end of Pixar’s output, but it’s entertaining on its own modest terms and far from the worst film (and especially worst sequel) the animation superpower has put out.
At the start of a new racing season, Piston Cup legend Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) finds himself back at the top of his game. But the promising start to his season comes to an abrupt halt with the arrival of Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a condescending, aerodynamic, technologically advanced rookie that takes the racing circuit by storm. One by one, Lightning watches each of his former racing pals get forced into retirement and replaced by sleek rookies. When his season is abruptly ended with a terrifying crash, Lightning goes back to Radiator Springs to commiserate in silence, wondering if his days on the track are numbered. He’s called back into action and given a new sense of purpose by Sterling (Nathan Fillion), a billionaire mud flap baron and lifelong fan of Lightning’s. Sterling sponsors Lightning and wants to make him the face of his new brand of car care products. The new boss pairs Lightning with Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a brilliant, but flighty trainer who only knows how to run simulations, has never raced a day in her life, and who treats the former champ like he’s feeble. Fed up and wanting to prove himself, Sterling agrees to let Lightning race one more time in the Piston Cup competition. If Lightning loses, he will be forced to retire for good and become a product shill for the rest of his life.
Cars 3 is a workable “first to worst and back again” story with few twists along the way that eagle-eyed viewers over the age of 10 won’t be able to spot from mile away, but unlike the goofy spy yarn that was Cars 2, first time director and co-writer Brian Fee’s efforts never try to pretend to be something that doesn’t fit the franchise. In fact, a great deal of the best gags in Cars 3 subtly poke fun at branding and franchising, which is a bold move coming from one of Pixar’s biggest and most marketable juggernauts. There’s a knowing sense that Cars 2 was a dud that delivered a less than stellar audience experience, and Cars 3, while hardly breaking any new ground in sports or animated films, wants to focus on being a good time for kids and parents alike.
There’s an interesting balance between the old and the new in Cars 3. Previously high profile characters like Sally (Bonnie Hunt) and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) are relegated to the background, while the memorable Doc Hudson, Lightning’s mentor (played once again by the late Paul Newman from hours of audio recordings of the first film that went unused), has a prominent part to play in Lightning’s road to recovery. A large section of the film centres tenderly around Lightning’s desire to track down Doc’s former protégé and mentor, Smokey (Chris Cooper, lending a proper amount of gravitas). Cars 3 knows that it doesn’t have a ton to offer in the plot department, but the relaxed tone and focus on developing Lightning as a character does allow for some refreshing asides. Set pieces where Cruz and Lightning attempt to train on a beach and an elaborate sequence at a demolition derby are quite fun, charming and gorgeously mounted, but instead of moving the plot along, these sequences are character based, fostering a much needed amount of audience investment that the second film forgot to bring along entirely.
There are plenty of life lessons that Lightning and his pals will teach kids along the way, like never listening to naysayers and only giving up on your own terms to the importance of maturing and learning how to become a mentor instead of always being a student. It’s all charming stuff, and it comes across better here than it has in the two previous Cars installments. There are few films aimed at a young crowd that might make the intended audience want to consider being a teacher, but Cars 3 manages to build to that message quite nicely. There’s something heartwarming about a film that tells kids to be the best they can be, and that once they reach a certain point of mastery to not be selfish and to show others how to be just as good. It’s the most original message the franchise has offered yet, bolstered by Wilson’s performance, which effectively balances kindness and frustration.
Outside of marvelling at just how photo realistic the on track race sequences have become since the first Cars (including some truly ambitious camera angles), there won’t be much of anything new for adults to latch onto in Cars 3. That’s fine. It’s a movie strictly aimed at the kiddie crowd, and within its given set of parameters and tropes, the Pixar crew does a fine job of things. Adults and kids alike will probably get a kick out of Pixar’s latest opening short film, Lou, about a literal pile of junk going to war with a playground bully, but the feature will satiate the tiny ones dutifully without annoying the grown-ups. It’s a film designed for heavy rotation at home once the DVDs and Blu-Rays come out, but it’s better than most films that have been designed with similar aims. And considering how dire the second film was, anything is really an improvement, even if that means a return to cliché and past glory.