Cinematic Releases: Cars 3 (2017) - Reviewed

Disney’s Pixar films are notoriously adept at taking memorable characters and telling incredibly emotionally incisive stories about them, and usually even sequels from the studio are masterpieces – because their characters are so complex, they progress naturally through the lessons each individual story arc instills within them. But Cars 3, a sequel to an already widely considered unnecessary sequel, stalls in a lot of ways.

In the roster of lovable Pixar characters, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) has never been particularly sentimental; each of the films in the Cars franchise seems to exist mostly to help him find his humility, and teach him the value of the race as it relates to those who surround him. His stories really only work because he inhabits a world that seems devoid of any other life form besides sentient automotive machines – were McQueen a human character, the flatness of his bildungsroman would have petered out after the first film.

The third installment of the Cars series finds Lightning McQueen beginning to lose his luster, as he’s shown up by younger and flashier models such as winning rival Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) and is forced to consider retirement after a disastrous crash during a race. Reluctant to end his glory days on such a sour note, McQueen decides to spin his wheels at the brand new state-of-the-art racing center owned by his sponsor, Rust-Eze, now headed by the sleek, rich Sterling (Nathan Fillion) – who sees McQueen already as a classic, to be turned into the face of a brand. Determined to keep his name in the ring (or racetrack, rather), McQueen devises an ultimatum so that he can race in the Florida 500 and save his title.

But anyone who has followed McQueen from his preening days in the first Cars movie is already familiar with how the story will play out. Even at his most egotistical, McQueen’s heart is in the right place, and though he’s struggling with the consequences of aging and the obvious parallels in comparing himself with the newer car models and their fancy technological advances, we already know that he’s taken large lessons in modesty to heart. He doesn’t really need to find his place again. We know him, and we know his chosen family in Radiator Springs.

And so, the film’s best features are its new characters, most notably Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), Lightning McQueen’s trainer at the racing center. Her dreams of becoming a racer herself were dashed by her own lack of self-confidence, and she overcompensates in her job trying to get McQueen’s wheels back on the ground. Every scene which features Cruz brings out the goodness in McQueen, though, and brings him to further understanding about the nature of his mentor Doc Hudson’s retirement, and what aging out of the racing circuit actually meant to him.

But practically any scene which doesn’t directly focus on McQueen himself – particularly a fantastically animated romp through a dirt-track demolition derby – serves as a welcome wake-up from the monotony of the main character’s journey. The denouement seems a foregone conclusion, despite what is meant to be a twist during the Florida 500 race, and it just doesn’t pack the emotional punch it wants to.

Cars 3 falls short mainly because its stakes are so low that there isn’t a whole lot of action that contributes to the story. It feels drawn out and boring, and there isn’t enough comic relief to keep the dialogue fresh. Larry the Cable Guy’s Tow Mater has only a few brief scenes, and they basically consist of him cheering McQueen on from the sidelines, and they land without much impact. After two other movies, McQueen should have enough character development to have already learned to take himself out of the center ring, but since he doesn’t, Cars 3 largely feels like an attempt to sell us on the same old story. Even with characters as endearing and fresh as Cruz Ramirez and a group of older racers who knew Doc Hudson “back in the day”, the insistence of Cars 3 to focus so much of its energy on Lightning McQueen makes it a lackluster entry from a much beloved house of animation.

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- Dana Culling