Monday, June 19, 2017

Review: Cars 3

by Patrick Bromley
Time for one last lap.

The Cars movies get a bad rap, even from me. When the original film came along in 2006, it was quickly deemed the studio's first dud, critically speaking. The reviews weren't bad so much as indifferent, meaning it wasn't held against their track record -- especially because it was followed up by the likes of Ratatouille and Wall-E and Toy Story 3. It wasn't until the release of Cars 2 that critics really wrote off the series; there was the Great and Powerful Pixar, and then there were those Cars movies. They made a lot of money, they sold a lot of toys (like, a lot of toys), but they were pandering to kids and were somehow "beneath" a studio that had come to be associated with consistent quality in a way that almost no other studio was before. After Cars 2, though, it seemed a little like the studio was slipping. There was Monsters University and Brave and The Good Dinosaur and even Finding Dory, all movies met with varying degrees of enthusiasm and acclaim but none up to the standards Pixar had set for themselves in the previous two decades. It was almost like Cars 2 has poisoned the well.

(Yes, I know Inside Out came out during this time and is one of the studio's very best movies.)

Like I said, I'm guilty of it too. The original Cars was the first Pixar film I skipped in theaters because I just couldn't get excited about a Nascar movie. We took my son Charlie to see Cars 2 in theaters -- his first movie! -- but it was something I tolerated more than enjoyed, particularly as it played on Blu-ray in my house again and again and again. It was, for a time, the only movie he watched when he wasn't watching the original Cars. As time went on and I was exposed to the movies more, though, something happened. I began to appreciate them in ways I would not allow myself to previously. Maybe it's because I saw how much he responded to them; it's hard not to feel affectionate towards something that makes your kid so happy, especially when it's not something awful and pandering like The Angry Birds Movie or any number of contemporary children's "entertainment." But I think it's because I learned to appreciate the care that went into the stories and the animation. I stopped looking at the Cars films as unwanted stepchildren and started recognizing them as part of Pixar's overall catalogue of quality.
Cars 2 doesn't always make it easy, of course, because instead of lessons and character work, directors John Lasseter and Brad Lewis made a silly spy movie centering around the franchise's weakest character: a redneck tow truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy. He's the worst (Larry the Cable Guy, that is), and building a whole film around him did feel like Pixar aiming lower than they had in the past. But that's also my bias against the actor coming into play; with anyone else supplying the voice of Tow-Mater, it wouldn't bother me nearly as much. And once you get past that, Cars 2 is a decent little spy adventure with a fantastic score by Michael Giacchino and incredible animation. Besides, the same people complaining about the choice to put a lovably dumb character front and center in a Pixar movie didn't seem to mind Finding Dory.

But I think a big part of the pushback against Cars 2 is that it's a rare Pixar movie that doesn't seem super concerned with appealing to adults as well as kids. That's the reason the studio has become so beloved and profitable since the original Toy Story was released in 1995: their movies have something for everyone. Cars 2 wanted only to be a silly adventure movie for kids, though it was too sophisticated plot-wise and made too many retro references in its design for kids to get. It's a weird movie that's stuck between satisfying two different audiences.

Which brings us to Cars 3, a movie my now eight-year old son was more excited to see than any other movie I've seen him excited for. And it's fine! By which I mean it's much more Cars than Cars 2, getting back to Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and the racing world and eschewing globe-hopping nonsense and, for the most part, Tow-Mater. Like a number of other Pixar sequels (Toy Story 3, Finding Dory), it's basically a story they've already told but from another perspective: instead of being the cocky rookie who has to learn humility and the basics of racing from an elder mentor, now McQueen is the elder who faces his greatest challenge from technologically-advanced rookie Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). McQueen's best days are behind him, and after a bad accident threatens the future of his racing career, he has to find both his confidence and his speed again with the help of trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo).
Unlike the last sequel, Cars 3 is quite invested in speaking to the adults in the audience, most of whom may be able to relate to the conflicts faced by Lightning McQueen in the movie. The kids will enjoy the racing, though they may wish there was more of it. It's a film that brings back some of that Pixar class and does its best to satisfy everyone while trying to throw in a couple of surprises and even some more steps towards progressivism. It's a hard movie to dislike because it clearly means well, particularly for the third film in a hugely lucrative franchise that barely has to try in order to sell a billion dollars in toys. At the same time, it's hard to get too excited about Cars 3 because it covers such familiar territory. The emotional beats are more or less the same as the first movie, as is the reverence for a bygone era (era), which is the best thing the first Cars has going for it. The whole thing is competently familiar.

To the film's credit, it does not dwell on Lightning McQueen feeling obsolete or sorry for himself post-accident, which is what I was expecting and what almost any other movie would have done. He wants to get back to racing right away and hasn't lost his passion for it. This isn't a movie about him trying to rekindle his love of the sport, which I assumed going in, but rather a movie about him figuring out how to stay relevant in a world that has passed him by. Sometimes that means getting his tires dirty instead of using a simulator -- a bit of analog versus digital snobbery, which is kind of funny coming from the studio that rendered traditional cel animation obsolete -- and sometimes it means entering smaller races off the beaten path. This later approach leads to the movie's best sequence, in which Lightning and Cruz enter a Figure 8-style demolition derby that's both fun and incredibly well-directed. It's really the only scene in the movie that feels new and inventive, with director Brian Fee (taking over from Lasseter) adding a great deal of style more or less missing from the rest of the movie. The real sell here is the animation, which continues to be breathtakingly gorgeous and detailed to such an insane degree that I found myself marveling at blades of grass not even meant to be the focus of a given scene.
I have a theory that more than 20 years into their career releasing feature films, Pixar sees themselves as Lightning McQueen. When they first entered the marketplace in a real way with Toy Story, they were the shiniest, flashiest new game in town -- making CG-animated features at a time when Disney was just beginning to enter another rough patch and hardly any other studios were putting out animated films. Since that time, though, the cinematic landscape has been completely transformed entirely as a result of Pixar's success. We see over a dozen big animated features released in theaters every year. New animation studios like Laika and Blue Sky have popped up, or existing studios have launched their own animation branches, all to compete with Pixar. Even Disney, Pixar's parent company, has found its footing again and become a real competitor thanks to the success of movies like Frozen and Moana. Suddenly, "Lightning McQueen" isn't the only fast car in the race, and after more than two decades of being in the sport has started losing some races. What, then, is the direction in which the company has to move? Cars 3 feels a little like Pixar pondering its own legacy.

None of this is a recommendation of Cars 3, nor is it a dismissal. If you have kids and they want to see it, take them. It has good messages for them and enough substance to keep you engaged. If you have been a fan of the previous two Cars movies, go. It's certainly no worse and probably better than at least one of those. No one else has to even bother making a choice, because chances are "Do I see Cars 3 or not?" isn't a question you were ever asking yourself. Unlike the majority of Pixar movies that are made for everyone, this is a movie made for its audience and hardly any others. That's not to say that is can't be enjoyed by anyone -- Pixar does universal entertainment better than most -- but just that the rest of the world has written off the Cars franchise. I had, too. But when this one ended and the first thing my son asked was if we could go to the store and buy a Cruz Ramirez toy, I knew that the movie had done something right.


  1. Huh. You made a Cars 3 review interesting. Impressive.

  2. Seeing it tonight. Life is a highway. Hoping it has a killer kid somewhere.

  3. I get that, obviously, automobiles are one of the world's most important and ubiquitous tools, which do a lot of good for a lot of people, and are inherently fascinating to children. That said, given the massive worldwide environmental problems of which auto CO2 emissions are a big part, the sight of Disney reaping billions by glorifying autos to small kids makes me kinda queasy. It might be one thing if these movies promoted an environmental message, or if climate change denialism wasn't so rampant domestically (and particularly, I suspect, amongst auto racing fans)... I don't mean to attack those who like this franchise, or prop it up with their cash. (Unless, of course, they're climate change deniers, in which case I absolutely do.) But I do reserve the right to want nothing to do with it on principle.

    (PS. Also, making feature-length movies about sentient characters without arms or legs creeps me the hell out - especially the grounded ones! At least this nightmare world's planes can fly, and are thus kinda like birds. The cars, on the other hand, are more boxy, non-slithering snakes. Ick.) :P

  4. I can't imaging Cars 3 was made for any other reason than to sell more toys and I can't remember the last time I was excited about a Pixar flick ... These days it's actually Disney that has me on my toes - Big Hero Six, Zootopia and Moana (Vaiana here for some reason) were all more the kind of films our whole family could enjoy.