The Cars franchise has been the black sheep of the Pixar family in many ways, with mixed reviews for the original Cars giving way to outright hostility over Cars 2. That latter film may indeed still be the nadir of the studio’s entire output despite dubious other legacies like The Good Dinosaur. We’re here to tell you that Cars 3 is a much more pleasant and positive comeback for the series, even if these movies about anthropomorphic automobiles will never quite reach the top tier of Pixar quality.
First-time director and longtime Pixar artist Brian Fee has jettisoned the convoluted, frenzied spy saga of the previous film for a much more straightforward narrative, and the movie benefits from the streamlining. Lightning (voiced again by Owen Wilson) is still racing, but his permanent status at the top of the heap is challenged by a new generation of cars led by Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), whose sleek, aerodynamic design and enhanced power leave Lightning not only in the dust, but in a crash that threatens to send him into retirement for good.
Meanwhile, his sponsor Rust-Eze has been purchased by billionaire Sterling (Nathan Fillion), who still sees Lightning’s value as a brand on everything from mud flaps to kids’ toys (a little bit of meta going on there, seeing how Disney stores have been piled with Cars 3 merch for weeks). But Lightning still wants to race, so Sterling lets him train with Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a tough taskmaster who seems out to prove only that Lightning no longer has what it takes. Refusing to back down, Lightning takes her on a road trip that involves a crazed run through a demolition derby, a visit to a racing legend, and a revelation from Cruz that may alter both of their fates.
Cars 3 is much more character-driven and a little more serious-minded than its predecessors, which is suitable given that it’s a movie about getting older and hopefully gaining maturity and wisdom along the way. More and more with Pixar films, you can really tell what is on the filmmakers’ minds, and in this case, Cars 3 sort of reexamines themes from the vastly superior Inside Out. But it also touches on the themes of earning respect, appreciating diversity, and valuing teamwork, although never in a way that’s too heavy-handed.
In fact, the movie has such a generally light touch despite its more sober themes that it doesn’t really pack much of an emotional punch either. There are two standout scenes that attain that goal: one is a monologue by Cruz that is both melancholy and empowering, and the other is the film’s climax, which doesn’t quite bring out the tissues like, say, Toy Story 3, but still creates a nice mix of wistfulness and cheer.
Alonzo’s work is the highlight here, starting out irritating and then morphing into a fully-rounded and sympathetic character (as much as a sentient car can be one). Wilson is comfortable in his third trip around the track as Lightning, easing up just a little on the arrogance and introducing some shading. Nathan Fillion’ Sterling is all smooth salesmanship while Armie Hammer lays down an oil slick of smarminess as Jackson Storm. Lots of cameos abound too, from the likes of Chris Cooper, Kerry Washington, the ghost of Paul Newman (with leftover voice tracks from Cars used in dream sequences involving Lightning’s late mentor Doc Hudson), and of course a fistful of NASCAR greats. Thankfully, Larry the Cable Guy’s tow truck Mater is reduced to just a few minutes of screen time in this one.
At 109 minutes, Cars 3 is perhaps 15 minutes too long (some of the training/racing sequences are more extended than necessary) but the movie is always compelling to look at: the photo-realistic nature of the world around the cars is often jaw-dropping and frequently beautiful while the vehicles themselves have a range and fluidity that truly makes them come alive. The movie feels both a little lengthy and a bit perfunctory, but there’s plenty of room left for Lightning and his friends to hit the road again in a few years. It’s not a great movie, but Cars 3 gets the franchise off the scrap heap and has its moments — like a pleasant, diverting drive that leaves you back right where you started.
Cars 3 is out in theaters this Friday (June 16).