As A Farewell, Cars 3 Is A Bit Of A Flat Tire

Director: Brian Lee
Starring: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Nathan Fillion, Armie Hammer, Bonnie Hunt, Kerry Washington, Tony Shalhoub, Bob Costa, John Ratzenberger and Larry The Cable Guy
Studio: Disney/Pixar
Rated: G
Running Time: 1 Hr, 49 Mins

Cars has always been one of Pixar’s more intriguing franchises. While they have always been near the bottom of the animated giant’s box office pecking order, the previous Cars films each still grossed around half a billion dollars globally and they sell merchandise for Disney like nobody’s business. Despite this, they also usually rank near the bottom of every favourite Pixar movie list. I didn’t expect to enjoy the first Cars movie in 2006 (I’m not exactly a big automotive guy) but I did and I think I was one of the few who actually liked the 2011 sequel, but the third and final entry is definitely lacking. After all is said and done, Cars 3 is an underwhelming farewell to one of Pixar’s most enduring properties.

A new generation of sophisticated racecars is taking the world by storm, leaving Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) in the dust. While McQueen begins to doubts place in this new landscape (his contemporaries are either retiring or being replaced), it isn’t until his losses to Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), the leader of this new breed of car, begin to pile up that he fears his day is coming to an end. After a frightening crash ends his season prematurely, both he and the rest of the world begin to suspect he’s done.

After some intense soul searching and some prodding by his friends in Radiator Springs, Lightning decides he isn’t ready to call it quits just yet. He winds up in the employ of Mr. Sterling (Nathan Fillion), who pairs him up with race trainer Cruise Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) to get him back in race shape. As Lightning struggles to regain both his form and his confidence, it becomes apparent that his next race could very well be his last.

One of the secrets of Pixar’s success is its ability to make an emotional impact on its audience, to evoke a specific response from viewers regardless of age or gender. Make no mistake, there’s always plenty of comedy but a Pixar movie can always find one or two other emotional buttons to press. And press them hard. You can easily pinpoint the effect Up, Wall-E, The Incredibles, Inside Out and Toy Story 3 had, making them as memorable as they were successful. While Cars 3 is mildly amusing, it just doesn’t command that same response.

I have to admit, it took me a while to put my finger on why it failed in this respect. The animation was easily up to Pixar’s lofty standards and they continued their trend of unparalleled world building. The voice cast all seemed to slide into their roles effectively, so did it feel so flat?

In the end, this may be a franchise that suffered from its own success. While the first film was firmly centred on Lightning McQueen, 2011’s Cars 2 relegated Lightning to a supporting role while it shone the spotlight on his former sidekick Mater (Larry The Cable Guy). Not only does Cars 3 switch back to McQueen, it ignores the changes Mater underwent in the sequel and returns him to his role as comedic support (it doesn’t even acknowledge that Cars 2 even happened). Not only does Mater go from world saving hero back to junkyard denizen, but everyone seems to have forgotten that his adventures abroad even happened.

And in the end I’m pretty sure that works against both this movie and the franchise as a whole. It’s obvious that Pixar was going for the nostalgia angle, making this a passage of time, passing-the-torch metaphor but the problem is the audience never really made enough of an emotional connection with McQueen to pull that trick off. Maybe if he had been the star of all the Cars movies they may have had a better shot, but as it stands we never really feel all that bad about possibly saying goodbye to him and his world. Unlike the cast of Toy Story (who are returning to the big screen in 2019), he never really felt like a friend.

And that’s why most of us probably won’t miss him.

Image Pixar Animation