Pixar’s new film “Cars 3” begins predictably, Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) is at the race track with a few race wins under his tires, but then something unusual happens, he doesn’t win. Instead a sleek new car, Jackson Storm (voice of Armie Hammer) takes the checkered flag. Then more new cars show up and McQueen loses again. McQueen’s singular pursuit of the win against the younger faster cars (yes, those of us going through middle age will find a lot to chew on here) causes him to crash out of the season’s final race and he heads back to Radiator Springs to recover. That’s when the real movie begins.
On the road to recovery, McQueen is introduced to a yellow car named Cruz Ramirez (voiced by Cristela Alonzo) who is something between a personal trainer and a life coach. She’s ready to take on McQueen as her ‘Senior Project’ and when she incites him to anger, she tells him to “Use that!” Meanwhile McQueen is being groomed by his new sponsor for life as a retired champion where he’ll hawk merchandise and earn lots of money.
McQueen isn’t ready to put on the retreads and retire just yet, so he sets off on a road trip to find his speed by reliving some of the advice of his old mentor Doc Hudson. Pixar brings back the voice of Paul Newman, who died in 2006, by using old clips and some dialog that probably was cut from the first film. Which, of course, is one big foreshadow.
The rest of the movie is a gentle teaching moment the kind Pixar is famous for. I don’t want to go into too much more of the plot except to say the dynamic between McQueen and Ramirez goes a long way to making this movie work, so that when the inevitable plot twist happens it’s not a surprise at all, but rather welcomed by the audience with open arms as something perfectly natural. Which is either a bit of brilliant story telling or cliche, perhaps both.
The story never reached in and messed with my emotions like the opening of “Up” or the finale of “Toy Story 3,” but that’s fine. Not every Pixar film has to go there. Sometimes Pixar is allowed to be more fluffy.
“Cars 3” is beautifully animated and set in a more fully realized world than the first film. There’s a lot more of the world to see than just Radiator Springs. Much of the film is like a tour through the history of stock car racing in the US, which for a fan like me is glorious. Non-racing fans will still enjoy the beautiful settings and fun personalities encountered along the way.
Pixar treats the subject matter, car racing, with reverence, looping in stories of how it helped break down class, gender, and race divides over the years.
I also enjoyed how “Cars 3” returns the personal story of Lightning McQueen to the center of the film and leaves the secondary characters, like Tow Mater (who I find funny in small doses), in the pits. Younger fans will see most of their friends from the first two films, and older viewers will get a kick out of some of the cameos (including a nice send-off of the Car Talk brothers (who voice the Rusteze owners in the films), one of whom died between Cars 2 and 3).
The movie raises many good points on the question of legacy and what do you do as you age and are no longer able to perform at the peak levels of your youth. It’s probably not a surprise that Pixar legend John Lasseter, who directed the first two films, hands off control to first-time director Brian Fee for this one. Which, when you see the plot of the movie, is logical. With a great story and fantastic characters, Fee has done a great job with Cars 3.
If you’re one of those who don’t think Cars movies measure up to the usual Pixar standard, I hope you go see Pixar’s “Cars 3.” The movie will surprise you with its art and heart.