If you haven’t been brought up to speed over the last eleven years of Cars history, I’ll help you out. The Cars movie only exists to sell toys. And if you’re parent, it’s likely you know this pretty well by now. Pixar makes bank selling Lightning McQueen and Mater toys. However, as a film franchise, it’s one of the worst Pixar properties in their long and successful film history. Of all their movies, Cars 2 is the only critically panned Pixar film to date.
Usually, when a sequel gets panned, a studio ends it and moves on. But since Cars is a merchandising cash cow, it was only inevitable they’d release the third installment and make it a trilogy. As a side note, it’s a little sad their worst property has a trilogy before The Incredibles. But I digress.
In many ways, Cars 3 is an apology film, desperately trying to make up for its predecessor. Realizing a Cars 4 isn’t likely, it crams in as many plot points and character moments to wrap the whole thing up and say goodnight. While it does try to make a return to form, bringing the focus back on Lightning McQueen and his racing pursuits while also injecting some of the old Pixar emotional charm, it’s disjointed pacing, predictable plot points, and flat humor makes it feel tame in comparison to the first movie and the entire Pixar library.
In Cars 3, Lightning McQueen is at the top of his game, beating all his peers, and winning plenty of races. However, newer, faster race cars have hit the track, leaving McQueen in their dust. McQueen sets out to prove once and for all he’s still the fastest cars in the world.
To some degree, Cars 3 feels like two films shoved into one short time frame. The first part is a sped up version of potentially what Cars 2 should have been, showing Lightning McQueen in his prime, racing against his peers. Since we really didn’t get to see much of that in Cars 2, we’re given a cliff notes version. Hands down, this is the most boring part of the movie. It’s obvious they’re just going through the motions to get to the inciting incident but they drag it out for quite a long time. They throw gags and jokes here and there. Unfortunately, those jokes never land.
Which brings me to the saddest part of Cars 3, the jokes are rarely funny. Pixar is renowned for finding ways to make humor relatable to both kids and adults. Their ability to tell jokes that go over kids heads but appeal to adults is what makes their movies so good. Cars 3 doesn’t get that. The jokes don’t work a good portion of the time. While I hate to say it, a big reason for that is McQueen’s lack of a funny man.
McQueen has always been the straight man in the Cars franchise with Mater playing the funny man. Cars works because they’re together. Cars 2 didn’t work because they’re largely separated. And Cars 3 doesn’t work because of the same reason only vice versa. McQueen needs a funny man to go with his straight man personality.
It feels like they went through painstaking efforts to limit Mater’s appearance in this movie. While I am no fan, he’s undoubtedly a key part of the McQueen dynamic and keeping him at a distance felt odd.
With Mater mostly out of the picture, they try to give McQueen another funny man through the new character Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). Sometimes the chemistry works but its not as apparent. There are genuine humorous moments and she brings out a few laughs at times, but it only happens in the last half of the film. The first half is completely devoid of any good humor.
Most of the plot centers around McQueen getting his mojo back and dealing with being the old race car on the track. With newer, faster cars racing against him, he suddenly realizes he might be put out to pasture like his old mentor. This emotional arc is possibly the best part of the movie and the driving force behind why anyone would want to finish it. I could easily connect with this and assume this theme is pointed more toward parents rather than kids. However, we’ve seen this roughly before in Toy Story with Woody afraid of being replaced by Buzz.
They try to put in a few emotional moments with interesting character intersections and backstories, but the payoff, in the end, feels too shoehorned in. Some of McQueen’s final decisions, though admirable, come across as a cop-out and doesn’t give him the full glory he deserves and what the audience expects after a full movie watching him train to defeat his enemies. Though, I will say Ramirez’s character arc is probably one of the better moments in the movie.
Overall, Cars 3 makes up for the train wreck of Cars 2 (which isn’t saying much) but doesn’t live up to the first Cars or any of the other Pixar films. The theme of a once fast race car being out-done by new models sometimes feels like a poignant self-reflection on Pixar’s part. Its message is also often depressing with very little hope except the final message to just give in and help the next generation. If you’re a parent to young children, they might enjoy it but more so for the racing and adventure rather than the humor. In the end, Cars 3 wraps up a mostly disappointed franchise that hopefully Pixar keeps in the garage for a long time.
Photos courtesy of’: Disney Studios