In Pixar’s esteemed lineage, the Cars movies are curious oddities. Old-fashioned in its morals and perplexing in its automobiles-living-and-acting-as-humans mythology, the brainchild of Pixar’s head honcho/gearhead/Hawaiian shirt enthusiast John Lasseter is, comparatively, the animation company stuck in second gear. They’re not necessarily bad films (though there are many people who’ll readily denounce Cars 2); they’re just not up to speed with Pixar’s other, better movies, many of which are modern classics. They’re fast-paced, well-animated and almost instantly forgettable — unless, of course, the general weirdness and inconsistencies of their motor-filled universe haunt your soul as much as they do mine. This line of thinking continues with the newest, Cars 3.
Directed by longtime Pixar storyboard artist Brian Fee, Cars 3 is an intriguingly meditative and heavily existential trilogy capper, which returns the focus on an aging, pensive racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) after a strange, silly cinematic detour with Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and European spies in the previous sequel. Growing less cocky and confident after several younger racers, including hotshot Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), take away his lightning in several races, McQueen pushes himself too far and suffers for it, resulting in a spectacular near-fatal crash that many pundits assume will be the end of his racing career. Four months later, however, McQueen is driven as ever to return to the track, if under some new management.
Idealistic businessman Sterling (Nathan Fillion) sets McQueen up with a spunky, enthusiastic (if somewhat intimidated) young trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), hoping his popularity and notoriety will help sell merchandise and sports equipment. But McQueen, of course, has other plans. He believes he still has a good race left inside him, and he recruits Cruz to help him speed towards the finish line in what very well become his final race. From there, they train day and night, throughout the majestic, rustic all-American natural landscapes across this car-fueled nation, in order to defeat Storm once-and-for-all. Fueled by the lingering words of his one-time trainer, Doc Hudson (the late Paul Newman), McQueen is winded, frustrated but nevertheless determined, hoping to prove to the world that he’s not simply an old timer whose glory days are behind him. But McQueen soon realizes that Cruz is, in fact, more of a racer than a trainer at heart, and McQueen learns that he might, in fact, still have some solid mileage in him — if in some fairly unexpected directions. Car pun. Car pun. Car pun.
Borrowing heavily from several sports films, most notably Rocky III and IV, Cars 3 doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it’s reasonably charming in its traditional mechanics. Hoping to capture the nostalgic resonance of Toy Story 3, if not nearly as powerfully, Fee’s earnest, if traditional and conventional to a fault, sequel is neither Pixar at its best nor Pixar at its worst. Like the original Cars, it’s simple and cliche-ridden, but it’s also easygoing and quick to please. It’s Pixar firmly in B-territory, alongside Finding Dory, Monsters University, Brave, A Bug’s Life, The Good Dinosaur and the other Cars movies. It’s perfectly fine, as far as these movies go, but beyond its stunning animation — with several landscapes serve as some of Pixar’s best animation to date — it’s unremarkable.
And when a movie like Cars 3 tries so hard to pull at your engine strings, that’s difficult. Like Finding Dory, there are certainly some great moments inside Cars 3, with the rousing second half being exceptionally better than the clunky, tonally messy opening 35 minutes, but as per usual with these Cars films, you’re left wanting just a little more. It’s another well-polished, smoothly efficient ride, as far as family animation goes, yet with Pixar’s signature logo proudly stomping at the front, you’re naturally discouraged by its overall average execution. Even today, with Pixar’s brand not holding the same emotional resonance it once did, away from 2015’s magnificent Inside Out, of course, you expect the best and brightest from Pixar. Cars 3 is neither the best nor brightest.
Much like the aforementioned Rocky III and IV, however, it’s still perfectly enjoyable in its own right. It’s just not special in that way Pixar is usually wonderful. And that’s a shame, but sadly, “just pretty good” is slowly becoming par the course for Pixar, with sheer excellence coming only periodically since their glory days ended after Toy Story 3‘s release. You can blame it on Disney’s interference, the lack of influence from Pixar’s dependable brain trust, the changing of the tides or stiffer competition from other animation houses like Laika or even DreamWorks Animation, but much like Lightning McQueen in this new film, Pixar just isn’t the powerhouse company it once was. For what it’s worth, though, this fall’s Coco looks fantastic, and I’m very excited to see it.
It teases at mortality, obsolescence, self-worth and the importance of one’s legacy, but these themes feel cloaked onto Cars 3 to give it more dramatic purpose rather than integral to its moodier, if only moderately meaningful, plot. Worse yet, one wonders how such heavy matters will play towards the younger audiences which these Cars movies are generally geared towards. Still, Cars 3 works pretty well as a thoughtful, heartfelt and occasionally moving final lap for what’s considered Pixar’s least beloved franchise — at least, if we’re ignoring the box office numbers and merchandise sales. It’s formulaic, overly sentimental and lacking any genuine surprises, plot-wise, but it’s endearing and, above all else, fueled with persistent charm. It’s not at the front of Pixar’s pack, and it still raises way too many questions for its own good (How do cars learn Bruce Springsteen songs? How do cars put on huge headphones? Are beach crabs, like, normal crabs, like the birds flying in the sky, or are they automobile crabs, like the car-centric bugs that are shown in the first film?). But Cars 3 proves Pixar isn’t down for the count just yet, even if they have less creative fuel roaring inside their system.