The Cars movies have always been outliers in Pixar’s filmography. They’re missing that combination of wit and dramatic themes that appeal to both kids and adults. The world where sentient cars are the only form of life is an unusual alternate reality, though not a complex one. And the addition of an espionage plot in Cars 2 was just plain weird.
Cars 3 doesn’t add any intricacy. It adopts the simplest of sports stories, which, if done right, can be inspiring even if it involves animated talking cars. But the film gets bogged down with basics, repurposing parts from Days of Thunder and a collection of hits from the middle Rocky sequels to create a thinly drawn tale that’s not nearly as vibrant as its beautifully rendered settings.
Veteran race car Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) is enjoying his typical success on the racing circuit when a new crop of speedy rookies, led by Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), begin taking over. A weather-related name is also apparently key to domination on the track. After suffering a losing streak and a spectacular crash, McQueen trains to get back in the game and take down the more advanced, younger Storm.
There’s a lot of filler in the journey to redemption. Hammer’s Storm disappears for most of the movie and is the vaguest idea of a rival. The focus shifts to McQueen’s excitable trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) for a time. She had racing aspirations but is stuck with an indefinably narrow-minded corporate boss Sterling (Nathan Fillion). Potential for an empowerment message fizzles, with Cruz feeling more like a shiny new merchandizing and marketing ploy than appealing protagonist.
And if we’re talking about equality in the Cars universe, what about those small, forklift-like vehicles that are all destined for servitude, working only in pit crews, as waiters, or as custodians? Admirable and necessary professions to be sure, but there appears to be a double-standard here in regards to promoting egalitarianism.
It’s boredom that allows us to begin asking any number of ridiculous questions like this. If the subplot with Cruz is half-formed, McQueen’s flashbacks to his mentor Doc Hudson (pieced-together recordings of Paul Newman) and training sessions with his mentor’s mentor Smokey (Chris Cooper) are purely gear grinding. Director Brian Fee and writers Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson, and Mike Rich never find a spark or a consistent through-line in the collection of platitudes. So…another question. There’s a baby car cheering on McQueen in the stands – where does he come from exactly?
Fee, a storyboard artist on the first two films in the franchise and also WALL-E, and his team create more interest visually with occasionally dazzling scenery. The big crash sequence is kind of intense for G-rated fare, the slow-motion flips and sparks flaring up and flying out in the only discernable use of 3-D. A unique demolition derby adds a few minutes of excitement, while the curling waves during beach driving and the foliage during a nighttime dash through the woods really pop.
Characters aren’t nearly as distinctive as the environment, the only real traits coming from the voice cast. Wilson’s laid-back twang, Alonzo’s pep, and Hammer’s uppity intonation aren’t enough to effectively differentiate one googly-eyed vehicle from the other, however. Flourishes for supporting automobiles, like grills forming a moustache or a tattered ragtop resembling hair, are nice touches, but there’s nothing under the hood.
One of the many asides in Cars 3 is the idea of the aging McQueen selling out to become the bankable face of a product line. Though surely unintended, the self-referential nature of this idea in relation to the sputtering Cars franchise is hard to ignore.