The goals for the third Cars movie seem clear: 1) Make some new toys, and 2) Correct the mistakes of Cars 2. If the popular talking points are to be believed, the mistakes of Cars 2 were to insert Lightning McQueen et al into a James Bond-style spy story, and to make Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater into basically the main character. They’ve corrected those mistakes alright. Cars 3 is back to the (boring) basics of racing, and Mater has taken on a similar role to Jar Jar Binks in Attack of the Clones – he’s in the movie for the sake of continuity, but he’s limited to almost no dialogue. Who knew that in comparison to Cars 3, the “mistakes” of its predecessor would seem like virtues.
To reference the Star Wars prequels again, and to borrow the viewpoint of another esteemed writer for this website, the prequels could at least be credited with really going for it. You might say that’s what Cars 2 did when it decided to delve deeper into its world and take the idea of a planet populated by cars to its logical next extension. Even though Cars 2 made its money and sold plenty of merchandise – we wouldn’t be seeing a Cars 3 if it hadn’t – the spy story was deemed to be off message.
In getting back on message, the writers have become genuinely lazy, trafficking in hoary themes of the fight against ageing and obsolescence, which Pixar has explored far better in several Toy Story sequels and other films. The film is also giving us broad and obvious judgements like “technology is bad” and “selling out is bad.” Lip service is paid to gender equality and other progressive ideas, but this too is done so limply that it almost has the opposite impact.
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is yesterday’s news. That’s where we find our hotshot racer at the start of Cars 3, having suffered a debilitating crash whose only lingering impact is on his psyche. He’s started losing to a new breed of racers lined in purple neon who train on simulators, a bit like Drago in Rocky IV, led by the cocky Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). Plus, his sponsorship has changed owners to a smarmy billionaire (Nathan Fillion) who wants to ease McQueen into life after racing, as a pitchman for his products.
To give Lightning one last shot, he’s opened a new racing centre with many of those Drago-like simulators, and tried to whip McQueen into shape with the help of a trainer named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who has a fondness for new-agey motivational catchphrases like “use that” and “imagine yourself as a fluffy little cloud.” But when these methods predictably don’t work on our old-school hero, a look back into his own past for inspiration is the only hope he has of avoiding involuntary retirement.
All this stuff seems so familiar that you get the distinct impression it’s already been covered in this very franchise. That could be because the film has an inordinately high level of sentimentality for a character we haven’t seen since the first movie, the Hudson Hornet, voiced by Paul Newman. There was no choice to bring this character back for the sequel because Newman died in the interim between the first and second films.
And so a belated homage to the screen legend is one of those mistakes they seem to be correcting from Cars 2, when Hud’s passing was acknowledged only in one two-minute scene. While that was undoubtedly the short shrift, we get more like 15 minutes of appreciation here, which is way too much, even for someone as great as Newman. The forlorn horns on the soundtrack and flashbacks to the first movie grow wearisome quickly.
One part of his past Lightning seems to have ditched entirely is his best friend, Mater, whose absence unexpectedly reveals him to be the soul of the franchise. Say what you will about the comedy of Larry the Cable Guy and whether now feels like the political moment to align yourself with a self-described redneck. The fact of the matter is, the opening of Cars 3 feels strange because we get only a few stray lines of dialogue from Mater, as it rapidly becomes apparent he will have nothing to do with this story. Something about that just feels off.
His replacement is one of this film’s many gestures toward equality, as the Cruz Ramirez trainer character – voiced by a Latina – comes into the narrative after about 20 minutes. But she’s introduced as a joke with her dubious motivational methods, and it’s only after she’s already failed several other litmus tests for strong characters that her status as the co-protagonist is revealed. Where her character goes from there does tick all the progressive boxes, but it can’t help feeling like a half-hearted version of that, wanting in its execution. Unfortunately, Alonzo’s voice work doesn’t do the thinly written character any favours. She’s fine, but entirely unmemorable – unlike Larry the Cable Guy in at least one of those respects.
Because much of the rest of the execution is component, and the visuals are as dynamic and vibrant as ever, Cars 3 is slightly better than the bottom rung of Pixar films. But it has a lot of similarity to last year’s Finding Dory in the sense of it feeling uninspired. It’s too bad the new direction Pixar went with Cars 2 was slapped down so definitively, because a new direction is what this company sorely needs right now.