The third, and supposed final, installment of the Cars series provides character and fun despite an uncomfortable gender message.
Upon its debut in 2006 audiences were surprised that Pixar, the bastion of animation, could make a bad movie. Okay, maybe not a bad movie, but a mediocre one. The bad movie came five years later with Cars 2, and ever since this sputtering franchise has failed to get off the ground. What keeps things going, and justifies the existence of Cars 3, is toys. And, boy, your kids will want Cars 3 toys, especially with how this movie advertises them. When it’s not selling toys or admissions to Carsland in Disneyland, Cars 3 is a decent reconstituted Rocky with a bizarre faux feminist subplot and beautiful animation.
Racecar Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) must come to grips with the fact his racing days are over. As he struggles to beat young upstart Jackson Storm (voiced by Armie Hammer), Lightning enlists the help of a cadre of friends, past and present.
Each of the preceding Cars films have been “inspired” – or outright copied depending on your definition – by other films. The first Cars was a take on Doc Hollywood. Cars 2 was a horrific James Bond/Pink Panther mashup. Cars 3 is Rocky 3 and 4 with Lightning, the old car, at odds with the new young ‘uns; Armie Hammer plays the tricked out, non-Russian Ivan Drago figure. At a little under two hours the audience sees Lightning fail and work his way back up the ladder, but it all plays out rote and bland. Storm is barely in the film, registering as little more than a retake of McQueen in the first movie. Hammer’s voice work is sufficiently smarmy and arrogant, but that’s all the character is. Storm’s sole purpose is being a nuisance, so when he disappears at the end, with no catharsis, you barely notice.
Cars 3’s grander moral isn’t about winners and losers, but knowing when to retire and move on with your life. Or, at least that’s the implication through McQueen’s actions. McQueen spends a large portion of the first half refusing to give up racing and acknowledge he’s old. It’s funny how in the Cars universe an older man has to retire. Wonder what happens to the female cars when they get old? Are they killed? Conversely, can’t items in the cars just be replaced and thus leave everyone immortal? I’m sorry, Cars 3 gives you way too much time to ponder the intricacies of the universe. This early half provides a generic, but compelling series of stakes that are familiar and chart an A to B road that goes nowhere.
The execution of the plot sees Lightning and Cruz go back to the simple joys of racing. Lightning reminisces about his time under the tutelage of Doc Hudson (voiced by B-roll Paul Newman) and seeks out Hudson’s old mentor Smokey (voiced by Chris Cooper), merely a stopgap which develops after Lightning takes training into his own hands, culminating in an extended sequence at a demolition derby.
The mentor/mentee relationship that was developed with heart and pathos between Doc and Lightning suffers a severe gender and power shift between the latter and Cruz Ramirez (voiced by Cristela Alonzo). Lightning McQueen has mellowed only so far as he isn’t a pigheaded jerk to everyone around him. However, when it comes to female characters, Lightning goes full-tilt mansplainer. Cruz is the typical unorthodox trainer whose “wacky” techniques include dancing and generally being a “spicy” Latina caricature. Of course Lightning refuses to engage in these “bizarre” methods and goes his own way, “teaching” Cruz the real way to be a racer with all the syrupy male expertise that makes Wonder Woman look like a slap in the face. The third act race is enough to make you gag, with Lightning’s faux posturing providing a tone-deaf “everyone wins” scenario.
Three Cars films and there’s been no prior talk of female racecars. Cars 3 seeks to rectify that, poorly, with Cruz and an older female car voiced by Margo Martindale. The problem is these characters are stock gimmicks. Even more cringeworthy is the fact that Martindale’s character is one of a group of marginalized racecars. Alonzo is the film’s high point vocally, and it’s a shame her character is little more than a cop-out to the boring McQueen. Alonzo produces heart and a refreshing spirit to a franchise that’s never felt new.
I should mention the short before Cars 3. Lou is the story of a monster that lives in the lost and found and the little boy who learns a lesson about sharing. The premise has all the makings of a horror movie, and watching Lou – a collection of creatively applied clothes and other items – run around would easily terrify an adult, let alone a child. In less than five minutes it tells a compelling story with a strong message against bullying and promoting sharing. It’s better than Cars 3 so just wait for Lou to arrive on YouTube.
The Cars franchise remains as compelling as used motor oil. Cars 3 is a marked improvement, but there’s no reason for this series to exist short of why it does: toys, toys, toys. If you’re looking for a good Pixar movie there’s a whole history of better movies that don’t require you to change your tires every 100 miles.