Cars 3 is the real Cars 2. Ignoring the much maligned Pixar sequel entirely. It’s no secret that when it comes to Pixar, the Cars franchise is their most middle of the road. Cars is a good road movie that deserves more credit than it’s given. While Cars 2 took a wrong turn and nearly cost Pixar all their credibility. Yet the kid friendly financial success of Cars endured. To the point theatrical spin-offs made by Disney’s lesser direct-to-video studio Disneytoon Studios were made. As inferior as Cars 2 was, the Planes movies were the real sellouts. I can honestly say that I had zero interest in a Cars 3. My mind was changed when I first saw the much talked about teaser trailer.
In an attempt to take the franchise seriously, the teaser was insanely dark with a brutal car crash and ominous music. Cars 3 asks questions about the car world that are like every other sports movie. Since giving the spotlight to a goofy comic relief like Mater was a bad idea, Lightning McQueen reclaimed the title. Randy Newman returned to score and John Lasseter had some input, but storyboard artist Brian Fee replaced the director. The intention was always to return to the original tone and have a more emotional story along the lines of Finding Dory. Returning to the franchise at 22 years old was far more satisfying with Cars 3, but even a good Cars movie is still just a Cars movie…
Cars 3 had any awards attention given to its short Lou. A precious and unique story where a Kindergartner faces a living lost-and-found. Cars 3 came out at a point when all the possibilities of the Cars franchise were exhausted. Thanks to Cars 2, Planes, and a whole bunch of shorts, any possible questions about the anthropomorphic world of vehicles was already addressed. So unless Disney makes Boats, I can’t imagine there’s anything else to know. A major plus was the vast improvement of computer animation. Cars 3 utilized a new system called Rix Integration Subsystem. Now animation and rendering could be done simultaneously. Backgrounds are extra realistic and the cars themselves have a sheen that’s worth complimenting. A more personal story meant a slower pace that only sped up with racing sequences.
Cars 3 is the true continuation of Lightning McQueen’s journey. All he did in Cars 2 was race, try to be a good friend, and be in the dark about everything else. The only unavoidable acknowledgement of the sequel is Doc Hudson’s passing. Owen Wilson, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy, and the rest of the mostly respectable cast return. Along with some newer faces and several NASCAR stars. Lightning McQueen has reached veteran racer status and has maintained a winning streak all those years. Everyone loves him and fellow racers are his friendly rivals. Everything about Mater’s time as a spy is completely ignored and his screen time is reduced severely. All Mater has to do is be supportive and wear silly hats. His jokes are also toned down to the point where he barely feels necessary anymore.
Meanwhile, Sally is given a slightly bigger role as Lightning’s girlfriend. John Ratzenberger has a bit more to do since Mack more actively transports Lightning around, but the rest of Radiator Springs is mostly left on Route 66. Cars 3 drives right back to the sports angle with several callbacks to the first movie. Paul Newman may have passed, but Doc’s presence is felt throughout. Archive recordings are used and Lightning’s mentor/mentee relationship to him motivates most of his actions. Lightning finds himself in a similar position when a rookie shows up out of nowhere and steals his thunder. Armie Hammer is the antagonistic new racer Jackson Storm. A state-of-the-art, high tech racer built for speed. Michael Keaton doesn’t return, but former rival Chick Hicks returns with his own sports coverage show. He talks with Kerry Washington voiced racing analyst Natalie Certain about the advancements built into Storm. Along with the odds of him maintaining victory in every race.
As all his friends are slowly replaced by next generation racers, Lightning begins to let it get to his head. When he pushes himself too hard, Lightning has a brutal crash seen in the dark teaser trailer. I didn’t realize how much I appreciated Cars, until I saw a childhood icon face a tragedy like this. It was a tear worthy moment that did manage to get me. While Lightning recuperates with a primer paint job, the media already assumes he’ll retire and be replaced by Storm. Sally gives him a pep talk and he decides to return even better than he was before. Learning from Doc’s past incident. So Lightning, Luigi, and Guido take Mack to his Rust-Eze sponsors who’ve just sold their brand to billionaire Sterling. He’s a big fan of Lightning who’s turned Rust-Eze into both a museum and training center.
With Mater back home, hispanic comedian Cristela Alonzo fills in as Lightning’s trainer Cruz Ramirez. She takes a new aged approach to training in a high tech environment. All Lightning wants to do is go on the simulator, but Cruz treats him like an old car. When he can’t handle the simulation, Sterling talks to him about retiring and becoming a brand. But Lightning would rather embrace the old ways and train on dirt. Cars 3 is basically Rocky IV with cars. With all the usual sports clichés. You could almost take out the living car element and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. Cruz accompanies Lightning on the beach where he spends most of his time trying to loosen up her wheels. He attempts to practice on a local racetrack in disguise, but it turns out to be a dangerous demolition derby (with a Pizza Planet truck) where he’s discovered by the media. The whole sequence is pretty pointless, only succeeding in adding to Lightning’s humiliation and him blaming Cruz for failing to train him.
Cruz kind of hijacks the story when she talks about her own dreams of becoming a racer, but never feeling like she belonged. Lighting then gets the idea to seek out Doc’s former coach after calling Mater. Mater’s only real contribution in the movie. Lightning apologizes to Cruz and they both find the Chris Cooper voiced Smokey in Thomasville. Along with other aging racing legends who’ve also faced uphill battles. Smokey gives Lightning a confidence boost when he points out how happy Doc was later in life being his coach. Lightning trains with Cruz in nature while Storm continues to train with technology. It’s only when Cruz passes him by that he starts having doubts. The climax is set at the big race in Florida. Everyone shows up in support while Smokey acts as crew chief. Lightning starts dead last, but manages to regain an advantage. It’s only when Sterling forces Cruz out that he does something that can’t possibly be legal.
SPOILER ALERT! He gives his number to Cruz and has her finish the race for him. They never out right say it, but the thinly veiled message is obvious. Lightning takes over as crew chief and offers words of encouragement. I can’t deny the exhilaration of the race and the triumph when Cruz proves Storm wrong. Even though the execution makes for a cheesy ending. Dinoco buys Rust-Eze from Sterling and sponsors Cruz with Doc’s old number. Meanwhile, Lightning literally gives himself a Doc paint job that I wasn’t expecting. In the end, the moral is that sometimes training is just as rewarding as playing the game yourself. The exact same moral as Monsters University. The animation is stellar, the soundtrack is fast, and the story is an improvement. Cars 3 is just the middle child of the Cars franchise and passable by Pixar standards.
Preceded by: Cars 2