Director: Brian Fee Starring: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Armie Hammer, Nathan Fillion Running Time: 109 minutes
The Cars franchise has always been an easy punching-bag, even among Pixar enthusiasts. It’s less grown-up friendly than other Disney/Pixar films, it’s more commercial, it’s character designs aren’t great, it gives a prominent role to “Larry the Cable Guy”, etc. But as the Fast & Furious sequels have shown, it’s never too late for audiences to turn around on a series, even if it’s a shallow series about cars that go fast. Cars has always been a hit with the kids, but can it entertain the adults as well? The latest entry doesn’t offer anything too deep or emotional or original, but it’s simple fun that provides a nice message, a few laughs and not too much Larry the Cable Guy.
For those of us who insist on looking deeper than necessary into movies, even ones that have tractors that are also cows, there might be some interesting behind-the-scenes implications to read (too much) in the Cars 3 story. Having built up a long and successful racing career, the word ‘legacy’ is playing on the mind of Owen Wilson-voiced Lightning McQueen. He wants to continue racing, still having belief that he’s the best, but he’s a veteran now, and younger, brash cars are starting to leave him behind, in particular, the arrogant Jackson Storm, voiced by Armie Hammer. Though his big-money backer just wants to make easy money from his brand, Lightning stubbornly starts the comeback trail. Insisting “I decide when I’m done”, he tries to use the latest technology and a new trainer Cruz Ramirez, to get back up to speed, and while they’re still life in Lightning yet, he starts to see that maybe Cruz, who’s always dreamed of being a racer, deserves a chance to shine as well. Pixar themselves don’t quite have the same untouchable “nothing but hits” perception that they used to. They have corporate masters at Disney to serve and have always maintained stubborn control over their productions, with directors being replaced regularly, yet with Cars 3, Pixar head honcho and director of the previous two films John Lasseter cedes control to Brian Fee, who is directing his first feature after storyboarding many previous Pixar films. The story here might not hit viewers emotionally as much as Toy Story or Inside Out, but it’s possible that it’s relatable to someone in the Pixar offices, which puts it up on some of the other Pixar sequels at least. Sure, the Minions are the big box-office behemoth now and Laika hold the critics’ hearts, but Pixar decide when they’re done.
The animation here is slicker than ever, with the races in particular looking close to the real thing, at least until you remember that all the cars on the track have eyes and all the spectators watching the cars are also cars. A spectacular crash that seems to signal the end for Lightning, heavily featured in trailers, is the standout sequence, with real weight to both the movement and the emotions. The environments are nice to look at, they’re just filled with dozens and dozens of forgettable characters, flatly voiced by bewildered NASCAR drivers or actors rushing in and out of the recording booth like Krusty the Clown voicing a new doll (hello Kerry Washington). Cruz Ramirez having slightly more of a personality than the vehicles around her telegraphs where her story ends up, but thankfully comedian Cristela Alonzo injects some energy into her performance, providing a Dory-esque sense of fun that is easy for the kids to root for.
There is no reinventing the wheel with Cars 3, nor does that seem to be the main concern of anyone involved. It’s a straightforward sports movie, all comebacks and underdogs, filtered through a brand that sells a lot of toys. But it’s inoffensive and does have some charm, perhaps not delighting parents in attendance but not sending them off to sleep either. The many questions the Cars universe poses, like why cows are tractors but crabs are just crabs for example, might well keep them awake long after they’ve left the cinema. For the kids, there’s enough here for them to be entertained, probably more than the previous two films, ensuring that this series could well keep on rolling into another installment. Less sequels, and more original films like the upcoming Coco would be preferable to see from Pixar, but movies like this and the money that they make help the animation giants keep greasing the wheels. You can stop groaning now.(3 / 5)