My issue with Pixar’s first two CARS movies were that they were the only Pixar films that seemed squarely aimed at children. There’s nothing inherently wrong with making films or any form of entertainment just for kids, but Pixar has always been about appealing to younger audience members on one level while equally (if not more so) aiming both jokes and heartfelt moments at adults as well. That balance might be what separates Pixar films from most other animation houses, except when it comes to those darn CARS movies, which is all the more frustrating since they are clearly the films that are the nearest and dearest to co-founder John Lasseter, who is currently the chief creative officer of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. And he also co-directed both previous CARS movies.
When I say a film is aimed at children, I simply mean that a great deal of the nuance has been removed to ensure that kids get all of the jokes and plot points. CARS is about working hard to be a winner; I think most kids understand that concept. Additional messages about respecting your elders and remembering where you came from are also ideas that I’m guessing a lot of parents would be happy to have their kids embrace. I’m not sure what CARS 2 is trying to do, other than be different than the original film, but it seems hopelessly adrift and arguably the worst Pixar feature to date.
For the third installment, first-time director Brian Fee (a storyboard artist on the first two CARS films, as well as WALL-E and RATATOUILLE) has worked with writers Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson and Mike Rich to not only bring Lightning McQueen and his pals—both familiar one and a few newbies—back to his roots but also finally give the CARS films a bit of depth and purpose. In other words, there’s a little something for the parents as well. CARS 3 features themes of getting older, making room for the next generation while still being useful to them, and perhaps most importantly, inclusion, thanks to the introduction of a new characters named Cruz Ramirez. More on her in a second.
Make no mistake, CARS 3 is still very much a kid-safe movie (it is rated G, after all). There are still lame jokes, simple messages, and the cringe-worthy inclusion of toe-truck/best friend Mater (Larry the Cable Guy won’t go away, apparently). The good news, however, is that apparently the filmmakers are pretending that CARS 2 never happened, so if you feel like re-watching the first two films before seeing CARS 3, you can stop after the first one.
As the story opens, McQueen (Owen Wilson) is still at the top of his game, winning races, being a decent guy and hanging out with his Radiator Springs family, some of whom are also part of this pit crew. If there is one thing that is sacrificed to bring in a few new elements, it’s the Radiator Springs folks, including Sally (Bonnie Hunt), who always do a decent job grounding McQueen. But staying grounded isn’t really an issue for him in this chapter, so the Radiator Springs group becomes mostly a cheering section at different races.
At one particular race, McQueen is bested by a sleek, next-gen car named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer, doing a perfect combination of smug and disrespectful, all the while pretending to be a big fan of Lightning). It is the first of many easy wins for Storm, and as more technologically advanced racers join the circuit, older cars start dropping out to make room, leaving McQueen desperate to win and reckless in order to make that happen. After a nasty crash that takes McQueen out of the running for the season, he contemplates his next move with a little inspiration from his late mentor, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, resurrected thanks to audio clips from CARS, as well as unused moments from Newman’s recording sessions; it sounds weird, but I loved hearing Newman’s voice again).
As if on cue, McQueen is offered a chance to train at a new racing center, built by his new sponsor Sterling (Nathon Fillion), a slick but chummy McQueen mega-fan who wants to bring the old-timer into the new world of racing. He assigns Lightning a scrappy, young trainer, the aforementioned Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who immediately labels McQueen her “senior project.” The two engage in a bit of back and forth as far as training for the final race of the season, the Piston Cup. She exists in a world of simulators, treadmills, and other methods that don’t actually involve racing. McQueen wants to get out into the field and improve his speeds and driving the old-fashioned way. Not surprisingly, along the way, they become friends, and we learn that Cruz had always dreamed of being a racer as well, but had a lifetime of being told that she wasn’t good enough, didn’t look like the other race cars, and that girls weren’t racers.
While McQueen is busy boosting the confidence of his trainer, he also seeks help from a team of legendary, first-generation racers (all friends of Doc’s), including cars voiced by Margo Martindale, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and real-life racer Junior Johnson. Among the legends is Doc’s former crew chief, Smokey (Chris Cooper), who agrees to help McQueen race smarter, if not faster, than Storm.
I’m guessing there are more than a few people (old and young) who are going to be surprised how CARS 3 plays out, but it ends up being right in line with many of the messages of the movie, and it sets the tone should the series continue past this installment. Alonzo is the real discovery here. I’ve never seen her television series, but there is something really warm, funny and genuine about her persona and, by extension, Cruz. Another fan favorite is sure to be the introduction of Miss Fritter, a maniacal school bus that McQueen and Cruz meet when the accidentally race in a figure-eight demolition derby, one of the true highlight of the film.
The visuals of CARS 3, at times, seem even more realistic than they did before. The racing sequences are fantastic, as you would expect, but there are a few moments when we see “vintage” racing footage of Doc, and it has a completely different, more weathered look than the rest of the movie, to the point where it look like authentic 8mm film being run through a projector. In addition, Randy Newman returns to the CARS world (after sitting out the second film) to provide a lovely, moving score.
For many reasons, it’s entirely possible that Pixar wanted to drive home the idea that the elder statesmen in any field can still provide a great deal, even with a new generation moving in and taking things to the next level because the world of modern computer animation has been around a while. The groundbreaking first Pixar short, LUXO JR., turns 30 this year; the original TOY STORY is more than 20 years old. Many of the founding members of Pixar are in their late 40s-early 50s; Lasseter himself turned 60 earlier this year. And new members of the Pixar creative team are joining up all the time, but it’s an organization that still has plenty of room for the minds and talents of the older folks. Of course, it could all be a coincidence…
CARS 3 is easily the best in the series, but it’s also a film that feels more in line spiritually with many of Pixar’s more celebrated works. I know many of you are simply done with the CARS movies, but I’m here to tell you that it’s safe to go one my time around the track.
I should add that LOU, the short film attached to the front of CARS 3 is a quite remarkable take on the bully phenomenon, and the less you know when it starts, the better.