Editor’s Note: Cars 3 opens in wide theatrical release today, June 16, 2017.
It’s been six, not-so-long years since Pixar’s second-to-last major misstep (The Good Dinosaur gets the most recent nod), Cars 2, arrived in multiplexes to thrill and entertain moviegoers, albeit with an ulterior intention foremost in Pixar’s collective minds: Sell more Cars-related merchandise. Between Cars in 2006 and Cars 2 five years later, Cars-branded merchandise and apparel sold in excess of $10 billion. That number alone – certainly not the negative critical reaction or middling box-office returns – was more than enough to justify a third, trilogy-ending (we hope) entry in the Cars universe (setting aside, as always, the disturbing implications of a universe filled with sentient, self-aware cars, but no people of the flesh-and-blood variety or their digital equivalent). And here we are, with Cars 3, better than its predecessor in every conceivable category, but more than few steps below the first entry or practically anything else made by Pixar, arriving just in time for the summer break. That too was intentional, of course. Family-oriented films usually hit multiplexes during long holidays or school breaks and chances are, the Pixar brand (still stellar), a known commodity (the Cars series), and the absence of direct competition will be enough to keep the series going through a fourth or fifth entry.
Cars 3 is better than its predecessor in every conceivable category, but more than few steps below the first entry or practically anything else made by Pixar, arriving just in time for the summer break.
But that’s for another time and place. Cars 3 does what Cars 2 should have done and didn’t: It relegates the series’ equivalent of Jar Jar Binks, Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), to bit player mode, where he truly belongs. Cars 2 oddly flipped the script, putting Mater at the center of a plot involving international espionage, while Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), the once super-cocky, later humbled racing car champion, took a figurative back seat to the proceedings. Cars 2 was often ear-splittingly overload, crammed with colorful, if meaningless set pieces, and an inappropriately grim storyline (McQueen’s planned assassination by rivals). Luckily (thankfully too), Pixar definitely learned from its mistakes, returning McQueen where he belongs, front and center, and Mater to the marginal sidekick role. Unfortunately, it also leaves McQueen’s equal and romantic partner, Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), behind in Radiator Springs to cheer on McQueen remotely when he’s competing on the racing circuit.
For all of Pixar’s good intentions, Cars 3 runs into its share of problems story wise.
Almost immediately, Cars 3 takes a semi-serious turn into adult-oriented territory: Aging out, losing to younger competition, and retirement, each one a potential outcome for McQueen as he faces a future where he’s no longer the best of the best, but an also-ran, the predictable result of newer, more technologically racing cars, specifically Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). Over the second half of the racing season, Storm repeatedly beats McQueen, taking race-after-race, eventually winning the Piston Cup away from McQueen. Faced with a deeply existential crisis, McQueen decides that his future – or whatever future he still has – depends on training with the latest equipment on the most advanced racing track, courtesy of Sterling (Nathan Fillion), the new owner of McQueen’s chief sponsor, Rust-Eze. Sterling pairs up a recalcitrant McQueen with best trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonso). Brash, self-confident, and forceful, Ramirez proves to be McQueen’s foil, sometime antagonist, and later, when Cars 3 real theme makes an appearance (i.e., moving on, letting younger generations take over), the student to McQueen’s mentor.
For all of Pixar’s good intentions – and there’s little, especially considering Ramirez’s dual status as a woman and a Latino (or at least played by one given that the Cars universe never bothers to explain gender or ethnicity) – Cars 3 runs into its share of problems story wise. While McQueen and his journey toward self-knowledge and self-acceptance doesn’t really raise any objections, how he gets there does, first by belittling Ramirez (she’s a trainer, not a racer) and later by acting as the force for change that inevitably robs Ramirez of one or two degrees of agency. It’s meant to mirror McQueen’s journey in the first entry in the series, but at times it feels paternalistic and condescending: Women and people of color (POC) can’t be forces of change themselves or for themselves. They have to wait patiently to be given those opportunities by those in positions of power. It’s a subtle, almost imperceptible way to reaffirm a status quo that desperately needs to change for the better.
Better than its predecessor but still not measuring up to the original, Cars 3 is full of good intentions yet suffers from poor storybuilding.