Cars 3 (2017)

How did it take this long for Pixar to make a pure sports movie with its Cars franchise? You have what are essentially talking NASCARs as the protagonists but you goofed around for two movies doing things that, for a lot of the time, have almost nothing to do with the sport that’s supposedly the focus. Now, with Cars 3, we’ve got an actual sports movie—this time focusing on a veteran racecar, Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson), trying to make a comeback after both a terrible crash and the feeling that the young up-and-comers are overtaking him.

So, yeah, we’re doing the “veteran comeback” story as Lightning needs to find himself, or improve his racing performance, or something in order to defeat these new, faster, better cars—who are represented primarily by a cocky racecar named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), because having characters named “Lightning” and “Storm” was too clever to pass up, I suppose. Lightning is given a trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a couple of weeks to train, and the film essentially becomes a road movie featuring lots of training, motivation, and side trips to various locales designed to sell new Cars toys. So, a later Rocky movie. With cars.

About half of the film actually kind of works. Those are the parts that (1) are about racing and (2) semi-subtly hint at the direction the film and, in turn, the franchise, seem to be heading. The training is fine, the interactions between Lightning and Cruz are fun, and the story being told here is more than acceptable. It’s not great and it doesn’t reach the heights of most of Pixar’s other movies, but it’s decent enough and a step up from the previous Cars movies.

The rest of it really doesn’t work. The main story lacks a lot of focus—to the point that, by the time the characters are competing in a demolition derby, we’re grotesquely aware that the scene exists with the primary agenda of adding a bunch of new characters that will be turned into toys so Pixar can fund its next three features. These diversions could have been used to build up the villain, Jackson Storm, who comes across as a one-note character due to a lack of screen time. He’s the villain by default, not because he’s actually doing much of anything wrong.

Cars 3 is the best Cars movie thus far, not that there was a very high bar set by the previous chapters.

There’s also a lack of humor to most of the proceedings. I was thankful to see far less of Larry the Cable Guy‘s tow truck character—who for inexplicable reasons was the lead of Cars 2, a film plot seems largely ignored in this film—but Cars 3 is lacking in laughs. There isn’t much heart here, either—there’s more than the last time, but less than in the original. So if we’re not laughing or feeling, what are we doing?

Well, we know exactly what’s going on here. The Cars franchise is something that the movie-going public has to accept from Pixar. They’re the cash-cow films—the ones that, through both box office and merchandising, make the franchise enough money to take on riskier, potentially less lucrative projects. That Cars 3 is a tolerable watch is a blessing. It could be a throwaway production and still rake in the dough. Kids won’t care one way or the other. Let’s just be thankful that, when it focuses on its story, it’s pretty decent.

As with most Pixar movies, the animation is more than solid—it’s the movie’s strongest aspect, really. The Cars movies have never looked the greatest, but some of the shots and animations in Cars 3 are tremendous. Not all of it is done in that near-photorealistic quality that recent movies have seen in spurts, but the parts that are look tremendous. The rest is still a step up from previous movies in the franchise. The studio didn’t slack in this department.

Cars 3 is the best Cars movie thus far, not that there was a very high bar set by the previous chapters. This one decides to act like a sports movie, and the parts that don’t divert from that path are pretty solid. There are too many diversions that distract from the story and take time away from characters that need it, and there’s a lack of heart and humor this time out, but it’s watchable and has some very good animation. It goes in a decent direction, too, and if they’re going to make more of these, it’ll be interesting to see if they follow through with that.

Conclusion: Cars 3 isn’t anything special, but it’s better than the last two movies.

Recommendation: Cars 3 still isn’t worth seeing unless you’ve seen the previous films.

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