Five years ago, in my review of “Cars 2,” the animated adventure of anthropomorphic race car Lightning McQueen, I wrote, “The first “Cars” film was my least favourite Pixar film—until now.” With the release of “Cars 3” I have to revise that statement.
Pixar are the American masters of animation, the gold standard. In films like “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo,” “WALL-E” and “Up,” to name a handful, they are wizards, able to weave a story out of pixels and terabytes about toys and other inanimate objects that make us care about them for the ninety minutes we’re in the theatre.
For me the “Cars” movies have always been the sore thumbs of the Pixar IMDB page. Wildly successful, they appeal to kids who enjoy the colourful characters, fast paced action and corny jokes, but there’s not enough under the hood. They have always struck me as fuel injected visuals with little depth in the story department.
“Cars 3” is no different.
“Cars 3’s” story sees champion racer Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) in the “living legend” phase of his career. An old school racer in a changing world his dominance of the track is challenged by hotshot Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), the fastest car on the circuit since McQueen. “Champ here has been a role model of mine for years,” says Jackson, “trash talking and I mean a LOT of years.” To stay in the game McQueen adopts Jackson’s new school training methods, wind tunnels, treadmills, virtual reality and a multi million-dollar race simulator, under the watchful eye of trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo).
When the high-tech racing preparation doesn’t work the pair seek out old timey trainer Smokey (Chris Cooper) to help McQueen find his lost mojo. In doing so they reconnect with the memory of McQueen’s mentor, Doc Hudson (courtesy of unused audio recordings of the late Paul Newman from “Cars”). Old style know-how trumps hi tech—like Rocky training on sides of beef, McQueen dodges bales of hay to increase his dexterity—which seems an odd message for a movie featuring state-of-the-art animation.
Padded with flashbacks and musical numbers to flesh out its thin story “Cars 3” feels more like an excuse to sell merchandise—the original generated more than $5 billion in swag sales—than a fully realized film. There are good messages for kids about self confidence and never giving up and the animation is terrific but it lacks the emotional punch that made “WALL-E,” “Toy Story” and “Up” so potent.
“Cars 3” brings much of what you expect from Pixar but seems to have left its heart at the junkyard. That’s not likely to affect audience reaction. The “Cars” movies have found permanent parking spots in many a family’s Blu Ray machine but for my money they belong on the used car lot.