Starring (voices): Owen Wilson, Armie Hammer, Cristela Alonzo
Director: Brian Fee
Running Time: 109 mins
Synopsis: Lightning McQueen (Wilson), the world-renowned racing car, faces being pushed out from the sport due to a bevy of new more technologically advanced racers, represented by the cocky Jackson Storm (Hammer). After a mid-race crash he takes stock of his life and seeks out young trainer Cruz Ramirez (Alonso) to help prepare him for a return to glory.
Cars has always been seen as the runt of the litter in Pixar’s catalogue, maybe not financially thanks to a merchandise haul worth billions, but certainly critically. There is one good reason for this, its concept. While the classics such as Toy Story or Monster’s Inc. featured far-fetched concepts they all had an internal logic that made sense, your toys coming alive when your back is turned or monsters under your bed are childhood fantasies retconned by Pixar into deeper themes of fear and memory. Whereas Cars makes little to no sense at all. It is a world of sentient vehicles, built by either a mystical vehicular God or humans that they subsequently rose up against and massacred. The first film just about escaped this point with its gentle if simplistic exploration of time, nostalgia and community. Sadly its sequel represented a creative nadir for the studio, reformatting the racing aspect of the first film for a madcap childish spy caper, content to trade in fart jokes and an overuse of Larry the Cable Guy’s tiresome Mater. It also stretched the already nonsensical universe to breaking point, introducing confusing concepts such as car toilets and objects that could only be invented by creatures with thumbs.
This third, and likely final, chapter in the Cars franchise wisely avoids all mention of the second film, content instead to return to the soft touch of the opening chapter. In fact that film weighs heavily across this surprisingly deep outing, not least in the return of the late Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson (the use of his vocal leftovers from the first film welcoming but also a little disturbing) whose presence is felt deeply by Lightning McQueen. We open with McQueen riding high at the top of the racing league, content in his legend amongst the racing circuit and in his familial relationship with those around him. However that bliss is soon broken with the arrival of technologically advanced racing car Jackson Storm, Armie Hammer being as smugly arrogant as he can, whom can best McQueen with nary a challenge thanks to aerodynamic precision and statistical reliance. After an effectively brutish crash Lightning retires to the confines of Radiator Springs, ego bruised and questioning his place in this new confusing world of algorithms and scientifically enhanced super cars. It is an effective theme, the idea of the older generation giving way to the younger savvier upstarts and one that incoming director Brian Fee captures with a charming simplicity.
This idea is further exacerbated when Lightning takes off for his new training facility bankrolled by Nathan Fillion’s billionaire speed enthusiast. Fee uses this hi-tech, glossy environment to also hone in on the nature of technology versus analogue, statistical predictions over gut feeling and smarts over speed. McQueen desperate to beat this new opponent at all costs without realising the limitations of his ageing chassis. Age and legacy are not what you’d expect from a film about talking cars but Fee is clearly more interested in something grander as opposed to childish gags (hence the fleeting use of Mater this time out, much to my relief). Owen Wilson gracing his usual drawl with lashings of touching melancholy to help sell Lightning’s dawning realisation that his racing days are over.
Offering the chance to return to the circuit is his peppy trainer Cruz Ramirez. Bright-eyed and sickeningly positive, she has long admired Lightning (a fact that only adds to his age concerns) but surrounds herself with monitors and simulations rather than experiencing the tangible feel of the road itself. As McQueen drags her outside he unlocks a potential in her that could surprise them both. Cristela Alonzo gives an energetic vocal performance and thanks to a mid-film reveal becomes the unexpected beating heart of the story. Her battle with her own self-worth and the pre-conceived judgements she experiences are gently moving as well as being neatly integrated into Lightning’s story.
The story itself is perhaps a little too thin and lacking in dramatic thrust to keep momentum going, similar to the first it is gentle to the point of sleepy at times. Not to mention the lack of big jokes could result in some of the more younger members of the audience feeling bored. Strangely the film also largely steers clear of any major set-pieces outside of the final thrilling race and a sequence set in a destruction derby that is visually creative. In fact it is hard to dismiss the usual technical prowess Pixar has on display here, with them achieving a sense of realism that is almost photo-real at points. One scene of Lightning’s transport Mack (Pixar lucky charm John Ratzenberger returning once more) travelling though a misty forest backed setting left me stunned at its beauty. Voice work is across the board strong with the inclusion of the crusty deep voiced Chris Cooper being a particular highlight.
Despite all this Cars 3 is still very much mid-level Pixar. Never able to rise above the weaknesses of its universe, and featuring writing that is a lot more on the nose than their top-of-the-line pictures. It certainly wins brownie points for its exploration of deeper more perceptive themes, and there is something to be said for its avoidance of pop culture gags and airless noise that most animation tends to adhere to. But the thing you cannot avoid is that for a Pixar film Cars 3 and in fact the franchise as a whole is disappointingly forgettable.
*Side Note* the opening short film, Lou, is another instance of Pixar storytelling genius. Imaginative, clever, funny and featuring an unexpected note of touching emotion. Great stuff.
Verdict: Cars 3 is a technical marvel finishing off the franchise with some surprisingly astute themes but it cannot rise above its confounding universe and soft tone to stay longingly in the mind.