Now having seen all three Cars movies, I’m comfortable coming to the conclusion that these movies just aren’t for me. I don’t find Lightning McQueen to be a particularly interesting protagonist, his world filled with anthropomorphic cars only raises more questions than it answers, and his struggles to win races aren’t all that appealing. The latest outing, Cars 3, is certainly better than the misguided Cars 2, but at the end of the day, it ultimately shakes out to being a nice movie about mentorship and motivation, a concept Pixar explored far better in Monster University. There’s nothing particularly wrong with Cars 3, but there’s also nothing that shows the franchise has found a new gear.
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is happily racing through the circuit, winning races and being a champion. However, his world is turned upside down when a new breed of racers led by the passive-aggressive Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) come on the scene. These new racers use superior technology and mathematics to obtain top speeds, and McQueen can’t keep up, especially after a devastating crash. When he resolves to get back on the circuit and become a champion again, he enlists the help of trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), but discovers that he might have more to teach her than she has to teach him.
Whereas Cars 2 was really Mater’s (Larry the Cable Guy) story and a bizarre spy tale with Lightning’s race serving as the background, Cars 3 is all about Lightning and his desire to figure out his legacy and his desires. It’s a surprisingly mature movie that really cuts back on a lot of the jokes and wacky humor in favor of telling a story about a character who’s struggling to hold onto his life of racing even as the sport starts to leave him behind. That’s a far cry from the last film where Mater wrestles with a Japanese toilet.
The new film is really about Lightning finding his motivation and discovering that Cruz needs his help more than he needs hers. It’s a predictable direction for the franchise to reach, but it’s still a nice message that reinforces Pixar’s belief that collaboration is the most important lesson its characters can learn. Yes, that does position Cars 3 as yet another Pixar buddy movie, but at least it’s in tune with the studio’s ethos. It acknowledges that technology (represented by Storm) is always going to improve and leave the old ways behind, but that what makes a champion is the willingness to work together and acknowledge those who came before as Lightning and Cruz do when they meet up with the old friends of Doc Hudson (Paul Newman). The studio is basically saying that what makes them the best isn’t that they have the most powerful computers or even the best artists; what makes them the best is that they work together.
And that’s a perfectly adequate message for a kids movie, and the kids at my screening were all applauding at the final race, so presumably they were invested in Lightning and Cruz’ story even if there weren’t the easy laughs that a character like Mater provides. It’s a fine movie in terms of what it’s trying to do, the message it’s trying to convey, and the characters involved. But that being said, it’s also not pushing the envelope in the way Pixar used to do.
Cars 3 is probably the safest possible movie Pixar could have made, and I understand that the purpose of the Cars franchise is to sell merchandise rather than tell groundbreaking stories. It’s never been that kind of series even from the first film, which was back during the studio’s heyday. They’re simple stories, kids seem to like them, and that’s apparently good enough for everyone involved. And compared to Cars 2, Cars 3 seems like a towering achievement that’s far more mature. But compared to Pixar’s greatest hits, it feels like the studio is just coasting.
Sadly, we’re right in the midst of a sequel boom for the studio. Finding Dory made over a billion dollars worldwide, and we’ve got The Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4 on the way with only Coco as the sole original movie announced for their slate. So maybe when Lightning and Cruz find Doc’s old pals, it’s not about the importance of acknowledging those who came before. It may be a message that the future is in the past.