by Patrick Bromley
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.
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).
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.
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.