Director: Brian Fee
Writer: Bob Peterson, Mike Rich, Kiel Murray
Starring: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Armie Hammer, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy, Nathan Fillion, Kerry Washington, Lea DeLaria
Genre: Comedy, Sports
It’s no unpopular view that the Cars franchise is the weakest link in Pixar’s illustrious oeuvre. It’s also no secret why the franchise has managed to stick around for so long despite all its internal weaknesses as a film series and relatively poor public reception from both critics and the box office. I’ve said previously that a great film can be made from anything, and I certainly hold to the view that the visionaries at Pixar are well equipped to do just that. Otherwise, I wouldn’t keep holding a candle out for them like this.
Violence: A violent car crash early on in the film.
Language/crude humor: None.
Sexual content: None.
Drug/alcohol use: None.
Spiritual content: None.
Other negative themes: None. Honestly, this is one of the most inoffensive family films I’ve seen in recent years.
Positive Content: Central thematic elements to the film include humility, perseverance, seeking forgiveness from those we have hurt, and selflessness.
Real talk: I love Pixar.
The studio that brought us the Little Swinging Lamp That Could went on to show us a way of animated family film making that was bold, daring, unconventional, unprecedented, and highly imaginative. It also boasted a method of storytelling that was deep, complex, multi-dimensional, provocative, and emotionally winsome, adding much-needed substance to its subversive style. But even the greatest of achievers have to prove their worth again and again with every outing to show that they are just as good today as they were yesterday. Pixar is no exception.
Some of my filmic superiors such as Steven Greydanus and Peter Chattaway have unofficially categorized Pixar’s body of works into three “phases”: The “Disney Distribution” phase, the “Looking Beyond Disney” phase, and the “Disney Purchase” phase (which we currently observe).
The “Disney Distribution” phase includes the Pixar titles from Toy Story to Cars that were produced under contract with Disney as a separate entity claiming rights to distribution and sequels. This could be considered the “golden years” of Pixar in which they produced the magnum opi that made them into the sacred cow they are now recognized to be by animated film aficionados. Even the arguably weakest entries in this phase (A Bugs Life and Cars) still succeed as worthwhile family entertainment. Most others, such as the first two Toy Story movies, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles, are full-bodied masterpieces–the absolute best versions of the films they set out to be. It was right around 2004 that Disney began seeking more ownership and control of Pixar’s productions. In response, Pixar struck a deal with Disney for a few more films after Cars with plans to find a new distribution partner.
This departure never came to fruition, as Disney announced an agreement to simply buy Pixar Studios in 2006. In the years between 2004 and 2006, Pixar developed three films that looked forward to a possible future without Disney that wasn’t to be, releasing them between 2007 and 2009. Indeed, these three films (Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up), display the vision of folks looking to new horizons. All three were not just superior to their contemporaries in their quality of storytelling, but virtually unheard of in their fundamentals. A tale about a band of talking toys with separation anxiety or a father/son story with clownfish could sell to a cynical executive. But a dialogue heavy plot about a rat who seeks to become a gourmet chef and best a supercilious food critic? A largely wordless film about a lone robot carrying out the demands of his design by needlessly arranging the refuse of a barren Earth, holding onto particular ephemera and sundries as though they were sacred treasures? To date, Up is the only Hollywood animated film with a senior citizen protagonist.
The films of Pixar’s “Looking Beyond Disney” phase actually did look beyond Disney in more ways than one. They broke the mold that the conventional wisdom of the Mouse House and its competitors established as to what could qualify as marketable family entertainment. The early Pixar films pushed the envelope on how good an animated family film could be, whereas these three films redefined what an animated family film was allowed be on a fundamental conceptual level.
Sadly, in the third phase (the Disney Purchase phase) that we now occupy, much of the unmatched mastery that Pixar has been known for seems to have been mitigated to a barely recognizable flicker. For my money, aside from the quietly brilliant emotional powerhouse that is Inside Out, the last time that Pixar has released a film that really left me breathless with amazement was…
Love’s sake, that was a long time ago.
Because of this, some of us who have held Pixar in such high regard have had to admit to the lack of luster that has festered within its ranks in recent years after the release of Toy Story 3. Finding Dory was a largely misbegotten project that was pretty much dead on arrival when it traded in its predecessor’s capture of the breathtaking majesty of the ocean for the mundane doldrums of the surface world. The Good Dinosaur was a thudding letdown of a sloppy adventure tale with an equally sloppy production history that, while certainly an achievement with regard to its photorealistic technical direction and rendering of its environments, was bending over backwards to be the next Lion King to no avail.
Monsters University was a cute-but-unnecessary prequel to a much more emotionally rewarding and winsome film. Brave was a well-intentioned misfire that also suffered from a broken production history and failed to capitalize on its most promising features. Cars 2 was so bad, that I can’t even remember sitting through the whole thing–and I’ve tried more than once. One could make the argument that a large sum of the creative power and sophistication of Pixar has been siphoned into the main hub of Disney, with their recent run of films from Tangled to Moana and onward being regarded by many, myself included, as a second Disney Renaissance. Alas, it is not the parent company of Disney but the Cars franchise as the black sheep of Pixar’s oeuvre that seems to have the most to answer for.
The only remarkable thing about the first two Cars films is that they were the ones that ruined Pixar’s winning streak at the Academy (Cars 2 was the first Pixar film to not even be nominated for Best Animated Feature when that award was available, and Cars was the first Pixar film to lose in that category, losing to Happy Feet in 2006). By all accounts, the only reason that Cars continues to maintain a presence at the studio is because it also happens to have the most successful merchandise line of any IP that the studio has produced. That speaks volumes in all honesty.
The idea of a world in which the only characters are sentient emotive automobiles is quite limited in its scope of narrative empathy and capacity, but perfectly suited to a commodities venture. It’s quite difficult to have much in the way of personal investment in machines that were never meant to be seen as human in any measure, and with the release of the bland and forgettable Planes spin-off film from a while back, it’s quite fair to say that the world of Cars is on its last lap with regard to its presence on the silver screen.
At least, that’s what I thought before going in to see Cars 3.
It is rather baffling that what could be considered the best entry in the Cars series is the one that decided to step back and capitalize on what were always the story’s most auspicious features. The first Cars was a maudlin and kitschy off-the-beaten-path drama stumbling about with a rose-colored nostalgic fondness for Middle Americana. Cars 2 was a bizarre spy movie spoof that made the ghastly mistake of putting the one-note side character of Mater into the seat of the main protagonist. With Cars 3, someone seemed to have had the epiphany of simply letting a movie about talking cars focus on what said cars are made to do.
Cars 3 is essentially a respectably competent sports film all about racing. Whereas the career of racing was largely marginalized in the first film (and practically nonexistent in the second), here it’s the entire focus of the plot. All the characters’ actions are centered on races–winning races, losing races, training for races, and getting words of wisdom from their betters about racing. First time director Brian Fee also makes the right move in centering the film’s thematic heart on a longtime favorite theme of Pixar’s work: male anxiety of obsolescence.
As Woody feared being replaced by the flashier technology and youthful panache of Buzz Lightyear (a dynamic that was meant to symbolically harken back to the gradual shift of popularity from the genre of Westerns to Sci-Fi films in the late 60s), Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is similarly shaken by the upcoming generation of new, younger, faster rookies in the league. This generation is most visibly embodied here in the form of the slick, pristine, trash-talking, hubristic Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who effortlessly hits speeds of over 200 mph with the skillful use of modern technology that seems so alien to a past star like McQueen. Sadly, the film doesn’t give nearly as much development to Storm’s character as Toy Story did to Buzz’s, so he falls kind of flat.
The parallel to older generations responding with flabbergasted bewilderment to “those darn kids and their fancy-schmancy whatchamahoozits” is an explicit entry point to the empathic dimension of McQueen’s arc. It is one that works quite well in fact. A poignant moment is one where McQueen converses with other racers from his time who are starting to retire. One such racer remarks in a moment of sorrowful departure, “I once asked my uncle ‘How do you know when you’re done?” He told me ‘The youngsters will tell you’.” Of course, McQueen is having none of that. He pushes himself harder than ever before to best Jackson Storm and prove to the world–and himself–that he’s not done yet. Here is where the famous crash scene of the teaser takes place which is quite rightly executed with a powerful amount of gravitas.
What I found curious about that crash scene is the method the filmmakers employed to give it such a strong visceral resonance. Every shot in that sequence was orchestrated just so in order to obscure McQueen’s anthropomorphized features, so as to make his damage in that moment feel as realistic as possible. There’s something to be said in that, but it would probably take me off on a horrible tangent…
Rather than letting this massive failure end his career in the same way that it did for his mentor Doc Hudson, McQueen decides to put himself back through training to enhance his performance. He is approached by a new sponsor named Sterling (Nathan Fillion) who demonstrates a great admiration and interest in McQueen providing him with the latest in training technology complete with a stellar racing simulator and an energetic young trainer named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). Ramirez wastes no time doing what she can to bring McQueen up to speed (Shut up, Kelli*) while also wasting no opportunity to teasingly remind McQueen of his age. Once McQueen has a similarly disastrous encounter with the simulator, he decides that his training would be best continued in a more natural environment after striking a deal with Sterling to keep racing if he wins against Jackson Storm (“I decide when I’m done!”).
What follows is an adventurous romp across beaches, wildernesses, and mud pits while the dynamic between McQueen and Ramirez takes a sudden 180 degree shift. I suppose the switch is reflective of McQueen’s deciding to take fate into his own hands, but it still took me out of the plot for a tick or two. It also served as the catalyst for Ramirez’s character arc, which has a surprisingly touching payoff that I was glad to see performed with such poise and charming aplomb.
Legacy and mentorship are major subjects of exploration here. Most points in the film turn when one’s ego is mitigated for the sake of another’s success. A major contextual plot element is centered on how a now-deceased character (played by a now-deceased actor no less) from the previous films found his greatest joy and satisfaction not in his own achievements, but in aiding the achievements of another. This carries the film’s heart with great finesse and grace. It almost encourages me to treat this film as lightning in a bottle (Shut up, Kelli*), something that happened at just the right place and under just the right conditions.
Sequels have always been a bit of a troublesome beast for Pixar. Toy Story is the only film from them to have sequels that do justice to their predecessors. Because of this, I can understand why Laika Studios president Travis McKnight has sworn that his studio will never do a sequel, feeling that all the characters’ finest moments should be in their first outing, thus rendering any potential sequels lesser by necessity. While there’s nothing in Cars 3 to put it on the same level of achievement as Toy Story 2, there is enough to make it a praiseworthy accomplishment. One can hope that the next Pixar film slated for later in the year (the Mexican Day of the Dead-inspired Coco) will deliver an even greater reward, but in the meantime this should keep audiences satisfied.
BTB: Cars 3 is preceded by the short film Lou which is, in my judgment, best summarized as a bully comeuppance tale done perfect. It’s also a stellar display of skill with regard to CGI rigging. As much luster as may have been lost with regard to Pixar’s feature films, their short films have not lost their edge it seems.
+ Welcome return to basics in focus + Likeable cast of characters + Purposeful use of the competitive drive and spirit + Surprisingly fulfilling payoff
- One note villain - Drags near the beginning - Some character dynamics shift abruptly
The Bottom Line
This is easily the best that the Cars franchise has offered us thus far, and I’d be willing to see it carry on for a small while longer if it maintains this level of sophistication and self-awareness. I’d just advise folks to be aware once it begins to reach its breaking point.