The expectations for Cars 3 are not high. The original Cars is often considered weak in comparison to earlier Pixar films, and Cars 2 is the most critically scorned of all the studio’s movies. With this in mind, all Cars 3 needs is mediocrity to leave audiences satisfied.
Cars 3 is indeed mediocre, but it fulfills the singular goal of completing Lightning McQueen’s narrative. McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) was introduced to audiences in 2006 as a cocky rookie who learned the real victory was having friends and integrity. Eleven years and one filler spy spin-off later, McQueen is still the top racer on the circuit. The first of no less than five montages shows McQueen winning races, pulling pranks and otherwise getting complacent. However, when technological advances allow a new generation of racers, led by Jackson Storm (voiced by Armie Hammer), to dominate at the racetrack, Lightning’s place in the sport is put up for debate.
Many of the characters from the original Cars film are given minute roles, which is probably for the best. Cars 2 showed us that overplaying the bit characters, like Mator (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy), gets old very quickly. Instead, Lightning McQueen is accompanied by a new character: Cruz Ramirez (voiced by Cristela Alonzo) a trainer and racing hopeful.
Although their path is a bit circuitous, McQueen becomes a bit of a mentor to Ramirez. (Thankfully, there are no romantic or sexual implications—I don’t think I could handle a creepy old man Lightning McQueen.) Together, they explore the country and try to get McQueen’s mojo back. While the structure is nice, the movie fails to answer some of the anthropomorphic questions the first two films provide: Why do these cars have gender? Are there different races to these cars? There are two cars that are heavily implied to be African-American. What happens to a car’s soul when it dies?
In more ways than just an excessive amount of montage, Cars 3 is the Rocky 4 of the Cars franchise. Okay, stay with me. In Cars 3, Lightning McQueen is witnessing the departure of his friends due to the emergence of a new threat and better technology… just like Rocky lost Apollo to the Russians. One of the cars that retires is even named Cal Weathers. In order to face this new threat, McQueen’s training methods are unconventional, and though he’s experienced, he’s seen as the underdog. Both films are mediocre or even bad, but everyone will remember it as the best one. And finally, both feel like they should complete the franchise, but there will be more sequels. I can’t wait to see Lightning McQueen raise his son to be the next champion.
While Cars 3, the directorial debut for storyboard artist Brian Fee, manages to be pleasant to watch, it never gets all that enjoyable (nor all that painful). There are enough layers to keep things engaging, but not enough depth to really gain all that much from the experience. The dialogue is often redundant, but serves its purpose. The animation style is smoother than the original, but considering that eleven years have passed, it’s really not all that impressive.
Cars 2 was the first Pixar film to not be nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar. There is definitely a sense that Cars 3 is apologizing for Cars 2, especially because the implications from that film are all but erased here. However, I’m not certain Cars 3 has a good shot for the Oscar either, especially while competing with Pixar’s other release, Coco. Its emotions are forced and its humor is lackluster. All the same, Cars 3 is harmless and fun.