The Cars series must be loved by many. Including its Planes spin-offs, the Cars franchise is Pixar’s most populous series at five films, overtaking Toy Story by two, and studios don’t make more movies in a series if they’re not making money. The ancillary market of Cars-related paraphernalia and theme park attractions are the true reason this series proliferates. The movies are simply high-dollar advertising for the toys and rides. The Cars intellectual property is worth in excess of ten billion dollars.
It’s never been the Pixar series of choice for me, but I’m not the target market for Cars toys either. The theater full of kids who saw Cars 3 when I did left talking about which car was their favorite and which one they wanted to “be” when they played Cars, almost, one might cynically say, as if the narrative of this Cars film is too thin, and the kids felt a need to fill it in themselves. Culturally, Cars isn’t about the stories Pixar tells with the characters; it’s about the stories kids tell about the characters at home in play. But I don’t review toy lines. I review movies, so…
Cars 3 is the best film in the series so far. Wisely bypassing the awkward genre mash-up they attempted of the first sequel and focusing the story back on Lightning McQueen instead of a supporting character, Cars 3 sees Lightning outmatched by newer, more technologically-advanced race cars and sets him off on a journey to find a new way to win. It’s a late-era Rocky film where the aging champ finds a new way to stay in the game but torqued up and chrome-plated in the Cars way. Cars 3 fits squarely in one of contemporary cinema’s most popular and yet overlooked genres – the geriatric, Baby Boomer, wish-fulfillment fantasy film. (See also the late career films of Robert De Niro.) “You may be old, but you’ve still got a lot to offer. We need you.” is a kind implicit message. It’s just strange, to me, to see it in a movie series aimed ostensibly at eight year-olds.
Yes, death shrouds Cars 3. The story is explicitly about obsolescence and retirement. In one scene, Lightning literally sees his life pass before his windshield. And death is present in the voice acting too. In the first half of the film especially, the movie parades out all the cars once voiced by now late actors. Since 2006 when the first Cars film premiered, we’ve lost Paul Newman, George Carlin, and Tom Magliozzi (of NPR’s Car Talk and, in the Cars universe, co-owner of the Rust-eze corporation which sponsors Lightning’s race team). Their characters are included in the film, but, with the exception of Newman’s “Doc Hudson,” they’re mostly silent. That Pixar was able to cobble together all Doc Hudson’s lines in this film from extra material gathered during the recording sessions for Cars is remarkable to me. Pixar did a similar thing to get Tom Magliozzi’s lines for his character by culling through Car Talk episodes. (A different actor, Lloyd Sherr, now voices “Fillmore,” George Carlin’s original character, though he says little in this film.) I suppose in this age of digital archiving, no one ever passes away completely. It is up to the living to be respectful of the dead.
Cars 3 mostly works. The emotional pull associated with the passing away theme is resonant—“death and taxes,” you know?—and the movie has one stand-out sequence involving a demolition derby. The movie isn’t peak Pixar though. It lacks the narrative magic their early films all had. An example:
A key plot element in Cars 3 involves Lightning’s new trainer, Cruz Ramirez, and her desire to be a race car. She tells a story about how when she was young, she longed to grow up to be a racer, but at her first race, she became intimidated by the roar of the other cars’ engines and slinked away to a life of coaching instead. Her story, and it’s placement in Cars 3’s larger story, reminded me of Jessi the Cowgirl’s story in Toy Story 2. It serves a similar purpose, rounding out the character and adding emotional weight to the main character’s decisions. But in Toy Story 2, Pixar reveals Jessi’s story in one of their most moving moments in their filmography – the “When She Loved Me” sequence set to Sara McLachlan’s plaintive song. The scene gets at Toy Story 2’s metaphor of parents being left behind by children better than any speech ever could. In Cars 3, we hear that Cruz felt outmatched and alone and we hear about her fear and regret, but we don’t see it and we don’t feel it. So in the end, when she gets a new second chance to redeem this moment in her life, it doesn’t touch us as sincerely as the moment in Toy Story 2 when Jessi gets a new kid.
Pixar is burdened by their own success. They taught us to expect more from animated movies. Better, they taught us what a great animated film looks and feels like, so when they fail to live up to their own example, it’s all the more disappointing. (One could make the argument that this dynamic is what Cars 3 is also about – Lightning McQueen is known for winning, so when he starts coming in second place, everyone thinks he’s lost everything, and he has to find a new way to win. He certainly doesn’t want to be only about selling merchandise…) Again, I enjoyed Cars 3 much more than I enjoy the first two films in this series, and it brings more to the table than most other non-Pixar animated fare, but it just misses greatness, and greatness is what Pixar has taught me to expect.
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