Cars 3 (2017)
From this moment, everything will change.
I’ve always considered 2006’s Cars to be one of Pixar’s lesser properties, despite the fact that it was co-steered by the great John Lasseter — the Walt Disney of the 21st Century — who, over the years, has fostered the 3D computer-animation studio into a celebrated household name. Needless to say, I was a little startled when Cars 2 — also co-directed by the (now) 60-year-old Lasseter — hit theaters back in 2011, this dull international espionage-esque follow-up proving to be Pixar’s rustiest outing to date, the movie feeling more like scrap-yard leftovers (think a toddler-friendly, straight-to-DVD cash-grab), its plot lacking the sheer creativity and heart of Pixar’s former outings — let’s face it, Cars 2 was really assembled to sell toys. Thankfully, Cars 3, Pixar’s 18th full-length feature, is much less ‘kiddie’ and contrived, the narrative a natural progression of five-time Piston-Cup Winner Lightning McQueen’s endearing story arc, this third lap suggesting that the franchise may (perhaps) still have some fuel left in its tank.
The movie opens during the world-famous Piston Cup Racing Series, where audiences are speedily re-introduced to the cool and confident, fun-loving titleholder Lightning McQueen (voided once again by the affable Owen Wilson), who’s enjoying the season on top, #95 relishing in some sportsmanlike banter with his fellow racers, chiefly long-time opponent/ friend, team Dinoco’s Cal Weathers (NASCAR’s Kyle Petty supplying the vocals). The 2017 season, however, sees the emergence of some flashy next-generation racecars — hotrods custom-built to never run out of steam — the utter force and resilience of this new breed of racers threatening the old-school dynamos and their chances at victory. With these aerodynamic, horse-powered racecars training on state-of-the-art simulators, they’re simply too quick for hotshot McQueen or his veteran pals, who are getting a little corroded under the hood. Alas, when rookie Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) — a big-headed, self-assured speedster — enters the playing field, somewhat redefining the sport, the older athletes decide that now is probably as good a time as any to start thinking about retirement, with their dignity and reputation still somewhat intact.
With the record-breaking Storm quickly becoming one of the season’s frontrunners, beating out greenhorns and old-timers alike, McQueen foolishly pushes himself to breaking point — quite literally — the former champ determined to make the come-back of his career. Unfortunately, the once revered four-wheeled prize-winner finishes off the season with a brutal crash-and-burn, in the form of a rollover, leaving McQueen temporarily out of action, this tragedy almost mirroring the fate of his gruff, long departed mentor, Doc Hudson (voiced by the late, great Paul Newman in flashbacks).
Cut to ‘four months later,’ the bruised and banged-up McQueen having spent some ‘time out’ for self-reflection, seeking solace back in his hometown of Radiator Springs, our broken hero trying to re-assess and re-evaluate his life. Inspired by the legacy of idol Doc Hudson, along with a pick-me-up from gal pal Sally (Bonnie Hunt), and some encouragement from trusty tow-truck bud’ Mater (Larry the Cable Guy reprising his role), the now primer-coated McQueen decides to get back on his tyres, hoping to make a huge return to the world of racing. It’s soon revealed that during his forced ‘leave,’ Rusty and Dusty (voiced by Tom and Ray Magliozzi) — owners of Lightning’s Rust-eze brand — had sold their company to a booming business-car named Sterling (Nathan Fillion), who, as luck would have it, just so happens to be a huge admirer of the lightening-fast McQueen. Knowing a thing or two about the sport, the oily Sterling — having transformed the center into an elite, high-tech training garage — decides to cut a deal with the washed-up McQueen, the tycoon hoping to sell loads of #95-themed merchandise, thus profiting on his high-flying reputation.
Looking for a chance to reclaim his former glory, McQueen begs the big-wheel to train him up again, and Sterling — being both a fan and a professional — ardently agrees, given that a world-champion competitor would do wonders for his business. Partnered with the sunny Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who’d been assigned to whip her hero, Lightening, back into shape via some cutting-edge computerized race-courses, McQueen is roaring and ready to tear up the track, until a catastrophic hiccup — during one of his simulation sessions — almost flat-lines his future as a racer. Fortunately, Sterling, being a reasonable kinda motor, gives McQueen one last chance at redemption: if Lightening can win the 2018 opener, the Florida 500, he will be free to decide the fate of his own career, but if he loses, he must hang up the towel (once and for all) and become a promoter for his own line of goods and products.
Now, under the guidance of Cruz (a condition laid out by Sterling), McQueen sets off on a journey of self-discovery, his road to salvation (and looming resurgence) taking him all the way back to his roots, the damaged ace forming an unlikely bond with his unconventional trainer, who’s unable to race outside of her digital playground, the spunky Cruz afraid of getting her tyres dirty, having had her dreams of becoming a pro-racer shattered way back in her youth.
Admittedly, I find that the whole Cars universe really doesn’t work, its blatant implausibility just downright distracting; here’s a world clearly manufactured for humans yet inhabited by automobiles — why are the cars even fitted with seats? Regardless, Cars 3 sticks to this pre-established (often head-scratching) groundwork, the film staying true to the rules ironed out by Lasseter and his whizz-kid team of artists back in ’06. So I can’t really fault this third chapter when certain elements make little logical sense — how do the cars hang up picture-frames or posters, for instance? Or how do they put on headsets? All of this befuddlement aside, Cars 3 burns some pretty serious rubber.
With Brian Fee taking over from Lasseter (who serves as executive producer), Cars 3 ditches all of the loony spy caper stuff, director Fee — his foot firmly on the gas — steering the saga back onto solid turf, this third installment crossing the finish line just behind the winning original, outrunning the subpar sequel by a good few miles. It helps that Lee worked as a storyboard artist on the other Cars projects, the animator having a long history with the 31-year-old Pixar — which was actually founded in 1986. I’m also happy to report that Mater — who, in Cars 2, thwarts an evil ‘exploding racecar’ plot, struggles to use a Japanese toilet (amongst other things), and is later knighted by the Queen — has been pushed back to the sidelines, where a goofball like that belongs. Phew!
Exploring the budding friendship between an ‘adult’ McQueen — who’s grappling with a mid-life crisis of sorts — and his youthful partner Cruz (think old meets new), Cars 3 drives home a powerful message of collaboration, Lee’s picture stating that when people (or in this case, cars) work together, they can achieve near-impossible things, our protagonists overcoming trendy new tech with simple determination, willingness and spirit. What’s more, the screenplay — penned by original Car’s scribe Kiel Murray, along with Bob Peterson, Finding Nemo (2003), and Mike Rich, Finding Forrester (2000) — respectfully highlights the importance of mentorship and motivation, the movie paying homage to those (often) neglected heroes behind the superstar — their coaches. And, of course, evoking a strong sense of wistfulness, there are hints of ‘Route 66’ nostalgia and nods to the golden age of automotive pride, with the narrative also tipping its hat to the world of NASCAR, filmmakers recruiting several pro-racers to voice ‘sports car’ versions of themselves; we have Chase Elliott playing a grassy, turbo-charged next-gen racer named Chase Racelott, and stock car driver Ryan Blaney as team Blinkr’s sleek third-gen recruit, Ryan ‘Inside’ Laney. There are tons of other fun cameos to spot, so try to find them all!
With most of the cast comfortably jumping back into the driver’s seat, the performances are pretty first-rate, with series newcomer Cristela Alonzo, The Angry Birds Movie (2016), probably making the heartiest impression, the stand-up-comic imbuing go-getter Cruz with gusto and pep. Chris Cooper, The Muppets (2011), adds gravitas as the iron-willed pick-up truck Smokey, crew chief to the Fabulous Hudson Hornet back in the day — the character a tribute to famed racing mechanic Smokey Yunick — while Isiah Whitlock Jr., Enchanted (2007), and Margo Martindale, Table 19 (2017), voice a couple of Doc’s old-timer circuit pals — trailblazer River Scott and #94, Louise Nash, the fearless ‘First Lady of Racing’ — whom audiences meet in the Hornet’s hometown of Thomasville, these characters inspired by real-life NASCAR legends. It’s also great to see McQueen’s mustached ex-nemesis, Chick Hicks, as a smarmy commentator for the Racing Sports Network, with Cars 3 writer Bob Peterson replacing Michael Keaton on vocals.
As per usual, the animation is dynamite, which is exactly what patrons have come to expect from Pixar, Cars 3 boasting some of the most photo-realistic computer-rendered imagery to date. Holding vast, colorful crowds and neon-tinted racers, the Daytona-inspired seaside speedway — home to the Florida 500 — is real visual treat, this glassy, forward-looking arena a standout set piece. Moreover, the blazin’ race scenes are wild and visceral, with McQueen’s stunningly photographed 24-second crash working as an emotional hook, audiences dropped right in the middle of this viciously disordered tumble. The film’s apex, however, is a crazy 8 demolition derby, which is unlike anything the franchise has ever showcased before. Held in the twilight hours of a country fair, surrounded by dense pine-tree woodlands, this mud-soaked ‘bump n grin’ is a blitzing, rambunctiously choreographed hoot.
Passing the checkered black-and-white race flag a victor, Cars 3 is a return-to-form for Pixar’s zoomy property, even if failing to reach instant classic status. In a pass-the-baton kind of way — an idea that’s very much unpacked in the movie itself — Lee has proven to be a worthy replacement for Lasseter — who’s surely guided the first-time filmmaker throughout his career at Pixar — the animation maestro re-energizing a series that was more or less stuck on neutral, Cars 3 a breezy afternoon joyride. Do we need a Cars 4? Probably not! But I’d be more willing (and open) to take a fourth chapter out for a spin, given that the series has had some much-needed bodywork and wheel alignment done.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by S-Littner