In the end, Cars 3 rumbles across the finish line with a show of dignity, empathy and purpose, and it feels like a suitable bookend to the original Cars 11 years ago.
At this point it seems like too much to hope for that any Pixar sequel, let alone a Cars sequel, should function smoothly from start to finish, but at least it ends well. You already know Cars 3 isn’t as good as Cars. If you’re wondering whether it’s better than Cars 2, the answer is yes.
That’s a low bar, certainly — but, like the underachieving Monsters University, Cars 3 is more than willing to lower the bar.
In their heyday, the Pixar folks made movies like Monsters, Inc., The Incredibles and Ratatouille that celebrated greatness and achievement. These days they have self-consciously set their sights lower. “I think it’s time I leave the greatness to other monsters,” Mike Wazowski said in Monsters U. “I’m okay … just being okay.”
Now Cars 3 is overshadowed by Lightning McQueen’s fears of being “all washed up.” “I don’t want to cash in,” he protests. Later someone tells him he’s “looking for his lost mojo.”
If Pixar is looking for its lost mojo, it isn’t looking too hard. Of the five films from last year’s Finding Dory to the upcoming Toy Story 4 (slated for 2019), four are sequels. Four out of five. Plus, one of them is a Cars sequel. If this isn’t cashing in, what would be?
Since Toy Story 3, Pixar has released seven films in seven years, of which exactly one — Inside Out — was the kind of milestone Pixar used to set almost every time around the track. Is the studio all washed up? If it’s okay just being okay, I guess not.
To be fair, there’s more to Cars 3 than a fading champion’s performance anxieties and fears of obsolescence.
The big race at the climax of the original Cars ended with a satisfying twist, one that made the old platitudes “It’s not whether you win or lose” and “It’s not all about you” more than just platitudes. Cars 3 finds another way to do this, looking not only backward to honor past heroes, but forward, as well.
In a way, Cars 3 is basically the real Cars 2, because Cars 2 was effectively Mater’s Tall Tales: The Movie. Cars 3’s first good idea is to put Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) back in the driver’s seat and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) back where he belongs, in comedy relief.
The opening act reminds us that Lightning is no longer the brash, egocentric glory hound we met in 2006. He’s a relaxed, centered superstar whose friendly rivalry with his competitors is characterized by mutual respect (and practical jokes, but mutual respect is the dominant note).
But the racing world is changing, as it changed when Lightning’s generation of super-stock racers eclipsed the earlier era of production-car racers like Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson, aka the Hudson Hornet. Now there’s a new wave of custom-built, super-efficient upstarts, led by an intimidating glossy-black rookie named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) whose power and precision are like nothing Lightning has seen before.
Storm’s sudden dominance turns Lightning’s world upside down — not just because he loses, but because he abruptly finds himself in the role of a slipping veteran no longer commanding the respect he’s used to, faced with his own mortality and uncertainty about his racing future.
Or he does get respect, but of a disconcerting kind. Newer cars see him as an inspiration, an institution, an elder statesman: all different ways of saying “old.” When he begins training for a comeback, a chipper young trainer named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) makes him feel like he’s over the hill. “We’ll work up to the faster speeds after your nap,” she says soothingly. (The punchline here is a good one.)
Storm’s performance is explained to death by sports statistical analyst Natalie Certain, a more telegenic number-crunching counterpart to Jonah Hill’s character in Moneyball. I’m sure the kids will love all this inside-baseball sports geekery.
Natalie co-hosts a TV show with Lightning McQueen’s former rival and current has-been Chick Hicks. So you see, it’s not like Lightning won’t have a career no matter what, even if it means trading on his celebrity to sell merchandise.
Chick Hicks, whose main gig seems to be taking regular digs at Lightning, is still as obnoxious as ever, despite glaringly not being voiced by Michael Keaton, or even by anyone with a decent Keaton impression.
The role was passed to contributing screenwriter Bob Peterson, a Pixar veteran best known as the voice of Mr. Ray from the Nemo films and Dug the dog from Up. Every time Chick opened his mouth, the aural dissonance made me wonder if he was really meant to be the same character.
Two other performance workarounds are occasioned by voice actors who have passed away. Newman’s Doc Hudson appears in flashbacks and daydream sequences thanks to archival audio from recording sessions for the original film.
More awkward are appearances by Lightning’s Rust-Eze sponsors, Dusty and Rusty, voiced by Car Talk hosts Ray and Tom Magliozzi, aka “Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers.” Tom passed away in 2014, so Dusty does most of the talking, with Rusty occasionally chuckling (plenty of archival audio there) or making generic interjections.
Without admitting Tom’s passing, Cars 3 nostalgically tips its hat to him and to Car Talk: “You gave us a lot of good memories,” Lightning fondly tells them. Newman’s Doc is more openly commemorated; Cars 3 is awash in nostalgia.
The heart of the story turns on Lightning’s relationship with his trainer, Cruz Ramirez. Cruz belongs to the Natalie Certain / Jackson Storm generation, a high-tech era of simulation training and deep-dive analytics. This clearly works for Storm, but it’s not how Lightning is used to training.
Of course Lightning has a thing or two to teach Cruz about real-world racing, but what he has to learn from her turns out not to be about racing. Instead, there are larger lessons about the world of Cars beyond the track — its history as well as its future.
We meet a number of Doc Hudson-generation racers, notably Louise “Barnstormer” Nash (Margo Martindale) and River Scott (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who are based on real NASCAR pioneers Louise Smith and Wendell Scott: respectively, “the first lady of racing” and the first black NASCAR racer and the first to win a top-level NASCAR race.
The real-life racers had an uphill battle against prejudice — sexism and racism — and it seems their fictional automotive counterparts faced similar difficulties. Racial identity in particular is a fuzzy concept in a world of Cars, but it’s been there from the outset, for instance, in the voice casting and characterizations of Cheech Marin’s lowrider Ramone and Jenifer Lewis’ showcar Flo. (A line from a deleted scene from the original Cars, relating how Ramone and Flo met and fell in love, suggests a history of cars with African-American voices being refused service and relegated to second-class status.)
A lot has changed since those days, but even now the pressure of feeling like you don’t belong when no one else looks like you remains. Notably, Cruz is Latina in a racing culture traditionally dominated by white males. (Another Latin racer identifies his hometown as “Santa Cecilia” — further evidence, along with the previous film’s popemobile, of Cars Catholicism.)
These themes pay off pretty satisfyingly in the end — though critics may question how far the folks at Pixar practice what they preach, given that nearly all of Pixar’s feature films have all been helmed (and mostly written) by white men. (Brave originated with Brenda Chapman, but she was removed from the project and Mark Andrews finished it. The Good Dinosaur was directed by Peter Sohn, whose parents were Filipino immigrants.)
Cars 3 is the directorial debut of Pixar storyboard artist Brian Fee, whose first project was the original Cars. The studio’s next film, Coco, is set in Mexico, but is being directed by Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3). If there’s a real-life Cruz Ramirez on staff at Pixar, she may still be waiting for her big break.
Caveat Spectator: A disastrous racing accident; a mildly menacing demolition derby. Kids and up.