Cars 3

2017 | rated G | Animated | directed by Brian Fee | 1hr 42mins |

Studio Pitch: Yes, the Cars movies are widely regarded as Pixar’s worst, but they make a ton of money.

The release of a new Pixar movie is usually cause for an event. Yet after the widely disliked moneymaker Cars 2, their follow-up came and went without much of a peep. It is an apology sequel that acknowledges the mistakes in judgment behind Cars 2 and gets back to the NASCAR, Radiator Springs/Lightening McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) origins of the first film. Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) is relegated to a handful of scenes and the film doubles down in the business of animated race-track speed. An obvious voice cameo from the “Car Talk” guys early on is like a declaration that this entry won’t just be aimed squarely at the kids. It’s a marked improvement, but still a watch-checking movie near the bottom of the Pixar cannon.

Cars 3 is the kind of sequel that usually comes along decades after the original, like Toy Story 3 or, heck, Creed, where the story revolves around a commentary on it’s own obsolescence and how time has passed for it’s characters. Lightening McQueen, now at the top of the racing world, is increasingly seen as a classic old car in a world of new hot shots.  That hot shot comes along in the form of Jackson Storm (voice by a perfectly cast Armie Hammer), a slick black racer aerodynamically designed in a lab to be a racing machine. He even trains on a simulator so he never has to go outside. It’s here where I sat up and took notice, inspired by all the satirical directions this could go in. Performance enhancement in sports. Technology crowding out the essence of the game.

My theory, that Lightening McQueen would go on an adventure and uncover a clandestine group of technology-equipped cheaters attempting to change the sport of racing for nefarious purposes, was quickly proven wrong Instead of finding out why Jackson Storm is so well equipped, McQueen goes on a cross country journey of self discovery to get his tires dirty in a way that at every point seems counterproductive. He teams up with his high-tech trainer Cruz (Christela Alonzo), faces off with a school bus in a destruction derby and goes through his old mentor’s watering hole. The film goes exactly where it should, which is kind of satisfying and kind of predictable. I also realized why I’ve never connected with any of these characters and it isn’t that they’re cars, Pixar has connected us to rustbucket robots, rats and fish. It’s that Lightening McQueen is kind of a jerk.

It’s also that the Cars universe is truly baffling. Even as a silly cartoon in a world full of silly cartoons I have some idea how those world’s function. The world of Cars is inhabited by cars, where cars race and other cars sit in the stand watching. Where they roll up to giant desks with computers at them and roll into diners with car-sized stations. They have skyscrapers and office buildings. It doesn’t seem like a world built by cars but one built by humans and slightly augmented for cars during some sort of human-exterminating car uprising. It’s even odd for Pixar which normally has such an acute awareness of how children play. When children play with cars they pretend people are driving them, not that the cars themselves are alive. The whole thing is just so bizarre. A cost cutting contortion to keep from animating humans.

Also, there aren’t nearly enough car puns in these movies. I guess ultimately that’s the problem with the world. The concept is so weird and wacky but the universe around it is almost too realistically rendered. It takes itself way too seriously. The animation is gorgeous. I feel like I’m supposed to categorize a bright cartoon about talking cars here as a comedy – but there are not jokes in Cars 3. At all.

The Cars films are all pretty empty and unusually poorly scripted for the Pixar studio. There is a realistic, very un-Disney, message behind some of these Pixar films – first revealed and handled far better in the underrated Monsters University – that I appreciate: that sometimes you can try as hard and as long as you want and still may never succeed. If at first you don’t succeed, don’t try try again, try something else, get creative. The movie only halfway takes that message to heart. So as apology sequels go Cars 3 comes out with it’s dignity in tact. It’s watchable, better than Cars 2 or The Good Dinosaur, but a long, wheezy, unfunny watch.

 

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