MPAA Rating: G
USCCB Rating: A-I
Reel Rating: 2 reels out of 5
The original Cars was beloved by fans and a majority of critics; Cars 2 – to put it mildly – was not. After an amazing first trailer for Cars 3, the good folks at Pixar seemed intent on revitalizing the franchise with a different kind of story. But it turns out this story is weaker that either of its predecessors and completely out of its element. The cars of Radiator Springs have had a good run, but it’s time to retire from the track.
Long after his famous rookie season, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is now a racing veteran with several Piston Cups under his belt. He takes all this in stride until a new rookie named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) easily beats him and rubs it in his face. Storm is part of a new breed of “high technology” cars that run on simulators instead of dirt roads, measure resistance in wind tunnels, and use endless other streams of data to get the upper edge. Think Moneyball for NASCAR. Other cars start using his methods and soon Lightning is the only of his kind left. On the last race of the season, he has a terrible crash and loses the Piston Cup for the first time in years. Despite being pushed to retire by his new sponsor, he decides to give it one last shot. “You can’t be faster than Storm,” one friend tells him, “but you can be smarter.” With the help of two mentors – the young trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) and Doc’s former crew chief Smokey (Chris Cooper) – Lightning may have a chance. All that’s missing is a drive up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The story of an older has-been going up against the new hotshot is one of the great staples of sports from Rocky to King of Kong. Whether it’s “one last ride” from Dom or winning “just one” for the Gipper, almost everyone loves an underdog story. Yet it’s hard to imagine an elementary school kid identifying with Lightning’s dilemma. I’ve never known a sixth grader to reminisce about his glory years of spelling bee fame until that snot-nosed third grade prodigy came along. Pixar has always pushed the boundaries of children’s entertainment, but they have finally gone too far.
Cars 3 not only relies heavily on a story foreign to its target audience but also nostalgia for the past and its own franchise. Lightning constantly refers to Doc Hudson, even having imaginary conversations with his old boss. When he finds Smokey, the pick-up truck is at a bar full of old racers long past their prime. Even the younger cars like Cruz and Storm talk about their childhoods when they watched Lightning race and longed to be like him. There is even a closing scene for Rusty and Dusty, Lightning’s old sponsors played by the Magliozzi brothers of car talk fame. Hearing Tom and Ray say “don’t drive like my brother” one last time did bring tears to my eyes.
Children see change all around them, but it often doesn’t make an impression. When we are young, we rarely think change will happen to them. Sooner or later, however, mortality catches up on everyone, and I suppose there are worse ways to teach that lesson than a brightly colored movie about talking automobiles. Change cannot be stopped, but it can be dealt with effectively. Rather than follow a road he cannot travel, Lightning turns his attention on Cruz and becomes her mentor. She is able to use both her own technological savvy and his old-school wisdom to win the big race. Everyone – young or old – has something to contribute. In the end, Lightening is able to get something better than another Piston Cup. He becomes a surrogate father to Cruz, just like Doc was a surrogate to him.
All this fuss over the Piston Cup, Doc, and rookie racers is an apparent attempt by Pixar to completely redirect the series away from Cars 2. Indeed, the filmmakers seem bent on erasing the film from the canon. There is no mention of anything from the sequel – not even Holly Shiftwell, Mater’s spy girlfriend. Indeed, despite saving the world from a criminal mastermind, Mater lives alone on the impound lot by himself. I was in the minority of critics who liked Cars 2, mostly because it expanded the universe of the franchise; we even got to see a Pope car (officially Pope Piston IV according to the plastic figure on my desk). The only scene in Cars 3 that really works is the demolition derby with the tripped-out school bus precisely because it continued this creative spirit.
Mostly, however, Cars 3 shifts into reverse and adds nothing to the series except aging and eventual death. Really, Cars 3 is just a new Cars 2 – a direct sequel to the original that ignores its superior predecessor. There was no need for this embarrassment; Cars 2 was just fine. Cars 3 is less so.