“Cars 3” (2017): Rules of the Road (And This World) Don’t Apply

The ever popular incredibly unsettling universe of vehicles without humans is back, baby! Cars 3 features race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) trying to find himself back on the track. Despite issues with the overall premise and execution of the universe created in 2006’s Cars, this plotline is at least a return to basics. In fairness, this is following the disastrously awful Cars 2, which took the simple premise of “race cars go vroom” and turned it into a subpar Austin Powers style spy parody. Leaving McQueen in the dust so his sidekick Mater the Tow Truck (Larry the Cable Guy) could hog the spotlight obnoxiously. Now, McQueen’s racing foibles are back in the spotlight and Matter is used very sparingly… even though he gets to say “Git R Done” twice. Returning to the sports story is a far better route for Cars 3 to travel. The question is does Cars 3 have good enough Lightyear brand tires to run that terrain?

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Well… sure. Cars 3 is a very simple “comeback story”/”training the next generation” sports movie. A Rocky Balboa that transforms into Creed. There’s not much to it. Still, it’s a step up from Cars 2. Unfortunately, the passage of time really isn’t felt because of something like Cars 2. In the original film, McQueen is a rookie. A rebel who doesn’t play by anyone’s rules, to the point of losing track of the journey rather than the destination. Now – after a stupid spy movie that used Lightning’s racing as the thinnest excuse for Matter to be an ass – he’s suddenly supposed to be an ancient car. Sure, there’s a montage that tries to emphasize this, but it feels underwhelming and rushed as a way of making up for lost time. We never really got the chance to see Lightning as the head honcho in his heyday, which deflates the power of seeing him crash and be accused of being past his prime.

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This is obviously a commentary on modern technology (vehicular or otherwise) and how quickly we leave the past in the dust. These newer more aggressive high tech cars like Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) don’t have an appreciation for the old style that McQueen managed to have, giving him the role reversal of the first film with Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a high tech trainer who hasn’t had any real world experience. She is learning more than McQueen is at a certain point, turning from a reliance on tech to an appreciation for the real dirt in between your toes – er, I mean treads in tires. Cars 3 builds this chemistry solidly, particularly with a rather over the top demolition derby scene… even if thinking about that scene in context for even a moment makes one question the bloodsports going on in this universe. The high energy back and forth between Alonzo and Wilson is what keeps this boat afloat, especially when interacting with the likes of business tycoon Sterling (Nathan Fillion) or the crazed roller derby bus Miss Fritter (Lea DeLaria).

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Much in the way that the Toy Story trilogy deals with the legacy and meaning of items, Cars 3 tries to inject some of this pathos into its universe. The relationship between McQueen and his mentor from the first film Doc Hudson (the late Paul Newman, who has a bit of new audio inserted into this) plays heavily into the themes here. As McQueen looks at his own failure, he remembers the wipeout that put out Doc so harshly. Both McQueen and Cruz are lost and need a shot to prove themselves, making them mutually grow to learn from their past greed or misguidedness in order to learn what it truly means to race. One does feel the impact in the rather brutal crash scene that sends him out of commission. It’s a noble idea, especially with the additional factor of the hand off being to a female & hispanic… car. Diversity models can come from anywhere, I suppose.

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Yet, the world of Cars 3 continues to crumble because these stories are so simple. With Toy Story or Monsters Inc, there are plenty of questions going on about this universe. Hell, sites like Cracked or Buzzfeed have made an industry out of over questioning these premises and packaging them into articles that “Ruin Your Childhood.” Yet, when watching those films, one never really questions what’s going on on that macro level because the micro character focused level matters so much more. With Cars 3 and the entire Cars franchise, those emotions don’t hit as high because the stories and characters are ultimately so simple. Like a mini-van with rather limited features.

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The animation is up to the usual Pixar standard, as it is rather immaculate on that level. The shine on these cars and the rustic vs high tech nature of the varying settings is grounded in a reality that gives this world some stability. This stands out especially well when we see old footage of Doc Hudson racing, with the projected film having just the right amount of grain to recreate the past. Yet, it’s not enough to keep the emotional investment that consistent. It’s lush style without much substance. Now, there’s nothing wrong with these films being more focused on broader childish appeal, but Cars 3 wants to have it both ways without doing the work. Paying lip service to the introspective themes of legacy while throwing in silly moments of vehicles doing pratfalls. Cars 3 is less a Pixar film and more like a lesser studio trying and failing to catch the right mojo to appealing to everyone consistently instead of one audience member age group at a time.

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Of course, a big part of the confusion here is mainly the fault of this world building. When the story doesn’t distract, this entire human-less vehicle driven universe falls apart. Cars 3 throws unfunny puns and visual gags at the screen to reference our modern culture… but the lack of a laugh just leaves us time to unravel the horrific what ifs at play. For example, at one point the cars go to a resturaunt referred to as a “bar and grill.” These personified vehicles do drink oil… but what do they grill? Is it the tractor cows we keep seeing? And if they do grill the tractor cows, does that make them cannibals? What makes a tractor less personified than a regular car, to the point of not being able to speak? Is it some form of car evolution? Did those tractors evolve into the regular cars our lead characters resemble? Does that mean Jackson Storm and the other new racing cars are the next link in the evolutionary chain? Is McQueen fighting the progression of his species by wanting to race? HOW IN THE HELL DOES ANY OF THIS WORK?!

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These are all questions that the story should be able to distract us from. Cars 3 does attempt to ground the story in its characters, though while servicing some of its least endearing elements like puns. McQueen’s line of “Life’s a Beach, Then Your Drive” is a low gut punch to those who respect their intelligence. It truly is lesser rate Pixar material, despite the gorgeous animation and a nudge towards developing the characters. A noble, but ultimately middling effort that’ll at least be appreciated for not referencing Matter’s past as a spy car. Still, Pixar’s bottom of the barrell is at least better than much of the animated material that gets tossed out there. A parent will likely be looking back fondly on this as they’re forced to sit through this summer’s Emoji Movie.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Pairs of Lightning McQueen Mudflaps

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