At first glance, any movie about talking cars sounds ridiculous. What challenges could there possibly be for them to overcome? But this is Pixar we’re dealing with, you can be sure that whatever they’re up to will be infused with a great deal of heart and that goes pretty far.
It’s safe to say that after Cars 2, which didn’t pack the same punch as the original regardless of how entertaining and different it was, Cars 3 returns to something more tried and true with variations thrown in with the attempt to mislead the audience. The result is fun and satisfying.
Bringing the focus back to Lightning McQueen feels like a sort of back to the basics approach, where certain threads and themes from the original appear in ways that affect the story. This time around, the film reestablishes the great Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) as one of the greats in the world of racing. The first third of the film sees McQueen doing what he’s always done best and that is race and win. At least until new blood hits the scene. Next generation racer, Jackson Storm (a superb Armie Hammer) bursts into the racing world and proceeds to handily beat everyone. Including McQueen.
McQueen’s loss ignites a changing of the guard and McQueen’s peers begin retiring, giving way to newer, faster, cars with more bells and whistles; designed to wipe the floor with an older racer like McQueen. Not to be outdone by the likes of Storm, McQueen becomes determined to redeem himself and return to take his rightful place at the top. However, an accident on the track serves as huge wake up call for McQueen.
The real meat of this movie comes following the crash and McQueen’s subsequent recovery. Here is where we see a McQueen we really hadn’t seen before. He is in denial about what is happening to him and his ability to perform. He begins to doubt himself and his abilities. He is going to have to dig deep and learn how to lose and figure out what it means to experience other ways of winning and living life on his own terms. The second act of this film plays a lot like Rocky III, right down to a beach training sequence. Because it turns out, that McQueen still has a few things to learn and the right people are around to teach him.
Chiefly, a young and enthusiastic trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) assigned to get McQueen to get into the best shape possible if he is to have a chance at beating Storm. It’s the relationship between McQueen and Ramirez that holds this film together. You begin to understand fairly quickly that the two of them, while at different positions when they first meet, are actually not so different from one another; they are at two ends of the same road so to speak. Both have a passion and respect for racing and the legends that paved the way for them; their relationship walks a wonderful line between the dynamics of trainer and trainee, to mentor and mentee and equals.
Speaking of dynamics, Doc Hudson’s (the Paul Newman) presence is strongly felt in this film. As McQueen finds himself lost, he goes back to one of the anchors in his life when things were tough and that his old mentor. At first glance, one wonders why bringing Doc back into the fold was necessary for this new story. However, one finds that in order to achieve and maintain a certain emotional resonance of this new stage in McQueen’s life, while honoring the profound effect Doc had on McQueen professionally and personally, including Doc was absolutely the right call, made even better by Paul Newman’s performance however sparse it is.
Visually, the film is A-1 as you would expect. The locations are wonderfully rendered and satisfyingly populated with the life you would see if you were to go to the places depicted in the film. A cross-country travel sequence is yet another example of Pixar’s resplendence. It jumps from one state of the USA to another, featuring famous landmarks and everything in between; the result is beautiful. The cinematography is of the highest caliber. It remains a wonder that all of this is done on a computer. There are really nice examples of very nuanced aspects like deliberate camera focus in order for viewers to make out words in the manner that the film wants us to rather than reading an entire word at once on a sign. The camera gives us each letter coming in and out of focus as the film sees fit. It’s a small thing to note, but it made a huge impact.
With Cars 3 Pixar shows that this franchise, like McQueen, still has some tricks and surprises left up its sleeves and one of the biggest things of note is its display of female characters, how prominent they are here, more so than in any other Cars film, how well drawn out they are, Cruz Ramirez being chief among them. She is a prime example of the journey of women and women of color go through in areas dominated by white males. It would’ve been surprising if a Pixar film didn’t at least touch on that aspect as well as the aspect that women, regardless of background or skin color deserve to achieve parity with the men they encounter. This film provides a wonderful payoff with regard to that which is still sadly not too prevalent in the real world, but it is great to see it somewhere.
The only real issue to close on is this: true the heart of this film is about an aging athlete attempting to make a comeback and win in the face of a younger generation. However, if Jackson Storm was designed and engineered to be faster, couldn’t McQueen who is also a car, have been redesigned to be faster and win too? Other cars have been upgraded or modified with new features and such, couldn’t McQueen have conceivably been given the same treatment with a new engine and a few other things? Some of us might like to think that the answer to that question is ‘yes’, but then again, this story wouldn’t have been quite as dramatic and then McQueen probably wouldn’t have learned very much resulting in a thin character arc for him to play. As it stands, Cars 3 finishes strong.