Film Review: Cars 3

by Chris Piper on June 16, 2017

Horsepower and happy endings

Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), center, tries to run down past glory, with Storm Jackson (Armie Hammer), left, and Cruz Ramirez, right (Cristela Alonzo).

Oh how quickly the young become old, the strong become weak, and the fresh, young, star becomes the stale, old, has-been. In the age of computer-generated animated features, oh how long ten years can be.

Sadly, Cars 3 proves this old axiom, as it leans heavily on the achievements of the first two films, and mostly settles on telling a very basic story in a fairly predictable way. Cars “purists” (wherever they are) will no doubt be satisfied, but the rest of us will leave the theater nostalgic for the spectacular achievements of Pixar’s earlier efforts.

For the uninitiated, Cars presents a world of living Cars: boy Cars, girl Cars, old Cars, young Cars. Eyes blink through their windshields. Their tires double as extremities. Their grills morph into mouths that do a lot of talking. Imagine an entire world made like our own, but for those of the four-wheeled, rather than two-limbed persuasion.

In this world, racing is the global sport, and Lightning McQueen is its number one racer. In the first film he rises to prominence and in the second film takes a detour into a spy thriller. By Cars 3 he is already past his prime, and struggles to keep up in a sport now dominated by newer, younger, stronger, and more computerized racers. It’s ironic that a computer-animated film takes pains to portray how computer-aided racing has disrupted the more seat-of-your-pants variety.

Voiced by the ever-youthful Owen Wilson, McQueen seems ageless, even as he’s being passed in an early race by metaphor-in-a-name Storm Jackson, who is voiced by Armie Hammer. Jackson’s sole purpose seems to be to exude enough cockiness for long enough so that we can cheer his eventual racing demise.

McQueen’s journey back to championship lane begins at a specially designed training facility for Cars. There he meets Cruz Ramirez, voiced by Cristela Alonzoa. She’s a canary yellow thing of flared fin beauty who is a personal trainer (yes, a Car personal trainer) to a group of up and coming young racers. The road back is long, full of set-piece scenes of racing on the beach, dodging evil school busses at a demo derby, and a series of long and tiresome interludes which all basically extol the virtues of respecting one’s elders and believing in one’s self. McQueen’s ultimate triumph takes a turn that will thrill every would be Danica Patrick in the audience.

Mater, at home in Radiator Springs.

The genius of Cars (2006) was to mix just enough human with just enough auto and create a world where the strength of the story and the complexity of the characters masked such tricky questions as: Do Cars have sex? Do Cars go to the bathroom? How would a Car fill out a tax form? Pixar’s winning early formula always revolved around fanciful or exotic worlds inhabited by characters one could actually believe. Cars was an autorama of imagination and savvy casting. We not only got to hear Wilson, but George Carlin as stoner VW bus Fillmore, Paul Newman (that voice will stay with us forever) as the rusty old racer Hudson Hornet, and, in what must be the epitome of voice and image, Larry the Cable Guy as (Tow) Mater, the comically positive tow truck with a ready quip of down home Southern wisdom.

In many ways Cars 3 seems more like the natural sequel to Cars than Cars 2. Cars 3 follows all the rules set up by the original. It introduces a few new characters, but doesn’t allow them space to grow or leave any impressions. Screenwriters Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson, and Mike Rich seem content to stay well within the lanes of a basic road to discovery story. The original film’s soundtrack produced some Top 40 hits, but the songs of Cars 3 seem overly manufactured to support the story. To say these days that the animation is impressive really misses the point. It’s become so routine to see superb computer animation that before long we’ll simply drop “computer” from that term, and we’ll all understand animation to be only of the computer generated type.

All that said, there still is something just a bit magical about spending two hours with living things that also have engines and dip sticks and talking grills. Too bad there isn’t enough magic to conjure a better film.

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Cars 3 opens today at Bay Area theaters.

 

Chris Piper

Regardless of the age, Chris Piper thinks that a finely-crafted script, brought to life by willing actors guided by a sure-handed director, supported by a committed production and post-production team, for the benefit of us all, is just about the coolest thing ever.

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