Pixar has made a name for itself these past few decades by delivering quality kids films that everyone can enjoy, regardless of age. Yet among those films, the Cars series is rarely included, and for good reason. The storytelling and jokes that Pixar is usually known for were lacking from the outset of the first Cars, and by Cars 2, they were downright terrible. It seemed that the series had become tiresome after just two outings (oh that’s right, we’ve got puns over here), and content with selling toys for as long as people would race to buy them (oh no). While other Pixar movies were the wheel-deal (please stop) when it came to quality, the Cars films were spinning auto-control (Ka-chow!)
Yet here we are in 2017, six years after the last terrible installment in the series, with Cars 3. If you saw the trailers, then you know that this movie is trying to shed the series’ mediocre reputation with an unexpected change in the premise. Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) has crashed, and almost everyone thinks he’s done with racing for good. Now, it’s up to him to prove to the world that he can still compete with the best of the best. This new premise gives the movie a slightly more serious tone, and a redemption story to boot.
So how is it? Surprisingly…good.
Director: Brian Fee
Release Date: June 16, 2016
Cars 3 takes a lot of chances, and for the most part, they pay off. Sure, the set-up is different than the past two films, but if you take a look under the hood (heh) more has changed than you could possibly know going in. The old cast of characters, save for Lightning McQueen, are kept at an arms length for the entire movie. Not even Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy), who got nearly as much attention as McQueen in Cars 2, received more than five minutes of screen time. No, for this installment, the focus in on McQueen, and Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), McQueen’s trainer. I won’t spoil anything, but the story takes some unexpected twists and turns that keep it fresh, and dare I say it, exciting. This is by far the best entry into the series yet, and it’s thanks in large part to the strong storytelling throughout the film.
This superior story is felt immediately as the opening moments set the stage perfectly for the story being told. For the first time in this series, McQueen is a relatable character to the audience. He doesn’t have the cockiness of the first movie, and isn’t thrown into the weird spy hi-jinks of the second. He’s just racing, and doing it with a few fellow contemporary racers who share his passion for the sport. However, when the antagonist, Jackson Storm (voiced by Armie Hammer) handily beats McQueen out of nowhere — surprise surprise — we start empathizing with McQueen’s struggle to stay relevant among the rookies, and make a comeback after his massive crash. It isn’t revolutionary storytelling, but it’s executed better than it has any right to be, which is something the series lacked up until this point. If you’re a parent seeing this movie with your kids, you’re in for a movie that can entertain both you and your kids without resorting to slapstick or cheap humor.
Aside from the greatly improved storytelling, Cars 3 boasts several other notable improvements over it’s predecessors, especially in the animation department. Everything from the lighting, environments and effects has a semi-realistic sheen to it. These are the realest fake-cars you’ve ever seen, and while that seems like an odd bit of praise for a movie where those same cars have big cartoon eyes (it is), it gives the action on screen a convincing feel to it. This is as pretty as a Cars movie can get, and, sans cartoon eyes, everything on display here looks gorgeous and realistic. There’s also the addition of McQueen’s new sponsor, Sterling (voiced by Nathan Fillion), and if you like Fillion, then strap in. Sterling is a charming businessman who, at the end of the day, only really cares about his business…and Fillion sells this character like no one else could. Seriously, if you like Nathan Fillion enough, this one addition will make this movie for you. Besides that, this movie also makes several meta jokes about the series as a whole. It’s refreshing to see such a tired franchise like Cars briefly poke fun at itself, and move on to deliver a more satisfying movie.
There are still a handful of things that hold Cars 3 back. While I personally enjoyed the more thoughtful moments present in the film, the humor is very dull overall. What’s worse is that nearly all the jokes aimed at kids are terrible. At best the kid-friendly humor is forgettable, and at worst it warrants a cringe. I appreciate what director Brian Fee did to make this movie watchable and even enjoyable to adults, after all Cars 3 has good theming, a few great scenes and some enjoyable adult humor. But I feel sorry for any kids who came to this movie expecting there to be funny jokes that weren’t about Lightning McQueen being old.
Old man jokes comprise more than half the humor here, and it gets, uh, old after a sort-of funny sequence at a training facility. There also isn’t a lot of work put into making Jackson Storm an interesting antagonist. Here’s literally everything you need to know about Storm, he’s fast, and he’s a dick. That’s it, really. I know tons of movies out there today suffer from bad villains, but it would’ve really benefited Cars 3 to have an interesting antagonist of its own. Most redemption stories have a cool or captivating rival for our hero to focus their energy on, but that focus just isn’t present here. For most of the movie, you aren’t even thinking about the Florida 500 McQueen is going to race in, you’re enjoying the characters, and McQueens journey. The story is good, and the new characters are fun, but the one-dimensional Storm simply doesn’t bring the thunder (oh, you thought the puns were gone?)
Still, walking out of the theater, I was pleasantly surprised. The story that our characters embark on isn’t incredible, but it’s told exceptionally well. Cars 3 is a movie about not only knowing your strength, but finding it, and defining who you are with it. It’s a solid redemption movie, and leagues ahead of either of the previous movies in the series. If you’re looking for a movie to take your kids to, this is the one. Even if the humor might not be up to par with other kids films, you’ll find yourself having a good time, and leave feeling that it was well-spent.