As a college student in Orange County, CA, I was a cast member at Disneyland. I worked every single shift alongside Lightning McQueen, Mater, and Red. We were all such close friends that they even asked me to make a TV appearance with them for the 2013 Disneyland Christmas Parade. I’ve heard more Kachow’s than a parent marooned on a desert island with nothing but their 7 year old son and a Cars DVD.
Being as close to this franchise as I am, my bias is twofold. I have a love-hate relationship with the Cars characters. I’ve heard the voice of Larry the Cable Guy more than any human being ever should. And at the same time, I’ve had the pleasure of introducing Lightning McQueen to kids who worship at the altar of his Piston Cup trophies. When Lightning revs his engine, their little faces light up like Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor using a new Binford power tool. But that’s Disneyland; what about the movies?
The Cars franchise has received a bad rap ever since Lightning McQueen appeared onscreen in 2006. The first film earned Pixar its lowest Rotten Tomatoes score to date (a fresh score of 74%) and Cars 2 officially began the debate of whether or not Pixar had lost its touch. I don’t intend to unload all my opinions on that matter in this review, but know that I’m still a fan of Pixar.
Cars 3 essentially tells the story of Rocky 3 and other generic inspirational sports movies. Lightning, once the rookie making headlines, is suddenly seen as a pile of obsolete nuts and bolts next to the race cars of the future. He’s the Ford in a sea of Tesla Model 3’s. This revelation unfolds in 15 minute race track sequence presented as a montage of Piston Cup season updates and live racing coverage. I’ll spare you the easy critique that this sequence copies both 2006’s Cars and Rocky 3 and instead compliment the technical brilliance that Pixar brings to the table.
Debut director Brian Fee introduces Lighting’s new racing nemesis, Jackson Storm, with skillful camera work. As Lightning zooms down the track, the dark, sleek, looming presence of Storm glides over the camera. He enters the scene like Vader’s Star Destroyer chasing down the Rebel Alliance in the opening shot of Star Wars. It’s an effective, menacing character introduction.
Adding to this visual impact is the thoughtful sound design of Storm’s engine. There is a subtle electronic hum to his engine that makes the clunky combustion engine under Lightning’s hood seem inherently inefficient. Layering in Randy Newman’s low rumbling brass score creates a very effective first act.
Lightning McQueen not only loses to Jackson Storm, but crashes badly, calling into question his future as a racer. During a four month recovery period in Radiator Springs, McQueen realizes he doesn’t want to let the rookies of today dictate his retirement plans. “I decide when I’m done,” he says, and heads to a new high-tech training facility to get his groove back. Along this journey he’s introduced to a new personal trainer, Cruz Ramirez, a spunky yellow car who trains like both a Zumba and spin class instructor rolled into one.
Lightning develops an interesting relationship with Cruz. In SAT prep format:
Cruz : old Lightning :: rookie Lightning : ____?
A.) Mr. Miyagi, The Karate Kid
B.) Mick, Rocky
C.) Doc Hudson, Cars
If you guessed C, congratulations! Although A and B aren’t far off in their basic function to the narrative. Despite the great Paul Newman passing in 2008, the Pixar team re-purposes audio recordings from the first film to bring Doc back one last time. While Doc is level headed and wise, Lightning has not arrived at this level of maturity. He’s desperately clinging to a past everyone around him knows is gone.
Unfortunately, this personal struggle doesn’t quite resonate as strongly as it could. Bob Parr (Mr. Incredible) in The Incredibles was far more convincing as a former big shot unwilling to live in the present. You can see this characterization play out in every scene of The Incredibles. Little moments like his angst in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and bigger ones like sneaking out to listen to the police scanner.
A long-winded second act puts Lightning in several obligatory sport tropes. Lightning reaches an ultimatum with his sponsor, engages in a montage of unconventional training methods, and reconnects with the grit of his craft in a demolition derby. The derby, a last-car-standing mud pit wrestling extravaganza, also gives us a glimpse into Mrs. Frizzle’s double life: Magic School Bus teacher by day; Mad Max cosplay adrenaline junkie by night.
While Lightning’s journey was more predictable than I’d like, Cruz’s emotional arc of the story is surprisingly timely. In a vulnerable moment, she opens up about her childhood dream of being a racer. She was the fastest kid in school, and anxiously awaited the day she could show the world her talent. Eventually a big break comes her way. But as she prepares to head onto the track, a reality check stunted her confidence: none of the other cars look like her. She is smaller – without a traditional race car engine and design. She convinces herself that she can’t do it since she is so unlike the other racers. A well stated message that Hollywood is making baby steps in combating rather than just preaching.
I won’t spoil the ending for you, just know that it certainly won’t surprise you. Despite this predictability, Cars 3 is a big improvement over Cars 2. It recaptures the imagery and tone of small towns across America and drives home a solid message on the importance of diversity without belittling the audience.
While it stumbles a bit in it’s generic story and I look forward to seeing more from director Brian Fee. I can see him taking the Cars franchise to an even better place in the future.