Fair warning: my ability to be objective on this little review is going to be just a little bit compromised. The reason being is that on a little bit of a whim I decided that it was finally time to take my 2-year old to see her first movie on the big screen which is something I’ve dreamed about since I knew we were getting a kid. And it was glorious. Now I did the responsible thing and grabbed the first screening of the day of a movie that’s been out close to a month so she could spread out and we would be bugging as little people as possible. And it worked like a charm – she sat enthralled for the first and last third, got a little skittish in the middle, and we only had to leave in the last 2 minutes (I’m pretty sure I know how it ends). So however else I feel about the movie itself, this was one of the best moments of my life.
Of all the movies in the Pixar canon, the Cars movies tend to be the ones that get the most flak, and for the most part it is justified. There is still the (not wrong) perception that the reason Pixar pushed this franchise out had more to do with economics than art. And this was in a sense confirmed by Cars 2 which by any critical measure was a failure as a movie, seeming to exist only to further the financial success of the studio at the cost of its quality. The general perception of this movie was so low that it basically undermined Pixar’s reputation and still haunts it to this day as every Pixar project since that has not reached the extremely high highs of Pixar’s golden age has been labelled as a sign of the studios decline rather than being “still pretty good if not AS good as the golden age” films. More critically it shifted the public perception of Pixar as less of an artist’s paradise and more of a business trying to take care of their bottom line. Even last night I watched an interview with John Lassetter at the D23 expo (happening right now as I write this) and he said something along the lines of “we aren’t going to make a sequel unless we think there is a story worthy to tell” and I found myself rolling my eyes thinking about the fact I was going to see another sequel to the oft-mocked Cars movies the next day.
All that to say that my feelings toward Cars 3 is a little conflicted. But before we get to that lets focus on what really matters: This movie in every single way is a dramatic improvement over Cars 2. Borrowing from the very same playbook of Toy Story 3, Cars 3 focuses on a Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) on the cusp of a grand change to his status quo. Instead of the sensational rookie who took the Piston Cup by storm, we now find him the old man on the tour quickly being surpassed by younger and hungrier competitors. In telling the story this way, Cars 3 finally embraces the narrative high stakes of existential crises that truly is the sweet spot of Pixar storytelling. Now the particular way that Cars 3 tells that existential crisis may be a little conventional (think Rocky III meets Rocky I), there is no doubting that at least the story feels genuine and true to the characters involved.
Speaking of the characters involved, though I feel a little sorry for Mater seeing how far he is pushed into the background after his ill-advised star turn in the last outing, Cars 3 rights the ship by focusing on the heart and soul of the franchise (for better or worse) by making this story firmly about Lightning McQueen.
The addition of his younger trainer/caretaker Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) as McQueen’s foil also works even if her introduction is a little forced. She makes a welcome addition, especially in a very male-centric franchise as she seeks to get McQueen back in shape to retake his crown. The pairing also forces the humour to be much less of the lowest-common-denominator slapstick humour of the first sequel and instead grounded more in the very real give and take that these two go through which again just makes the whole movie feel more intimate and warm.
Among other things to be praised in this movie is a return to Americana roots in the soundtrack which helps root the story in its small-town sensibilities. And meanwhile I doubt the races themselves have been shot better as the race scenes look stunning adding much needed excitement and verve to balance out the movie’s smaller moments. All in all it is a story that – and I feel I’ve said this several times already – corrects the severe faults of the first sequel by returning it to its roots.
But while there is a lot to like about the movie. On the one hand it is a solid and competently told story with plenty of heart and caps of the (current) end of Lightning McQueen’s narrative arc in a satisfactory way. But I can’t help but feel like the movie was just merely good – which drives me back toward the perception problem Pixar has right now. The movie clears the low, low bar of expectations that was set by Cars 2 but still comes nowhere close of the highs of WALL-E, Up, and even more recently Inside Out. It is definitely better though then all the output Pixar has produced since the ill-conceived Cars 2 save for Inside Out and perhaps Finding Dory. But it doesn’t change the narrative enough that this period of Pixar’s financial success has come at the expense of a creative slump.
The fact is I felt comfortable leaving the movie two minutes before the end (running after my child) because I had completely anticipated this ending about halfway through the film. While the movie is good it just doesn’t break any new ground, and as we pass the half-decade mark of this Pixar slump perhaps it is unfair to expect that Pixar should keep breaking new ground. But perhaps it is also a good thing that after so many disappointments, our expectations for what Pixar are capable of still remain sky high because it means we still believe they are capable of ascending those heights. And although Cars 3 falls short of those enormous expectations, it is more than a worthy addition to the ever growing canon of what is still a great studio.