I always try to stay positive about a film I’ve seen. With that in mind, I can happily announce that Cars 3 is one of the top three films in the series.
The wayward plot that feels deeply familiar on many levels. It’s Rocky III on wheels, with the care and attention of The Karate Kid III. This does little to rescue a franchise that looked in danger of sinking since the poorly-regarded Cars 2.
Put simply, Cars 3 is defined by lacklustre character designs and a thinly veiled attempt to use a film as a means to sell merchandise and toys.
This time around, Lightning McQueen (the returning Owen Wilson) is struggling as an ageing racing car. An arrogant young car named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) has shown up and is utilising modern technology to achieve better performance from his specs, forcing cars based on the older technology into retirement. McQueen refuses to retire and pushes his car too much in the final race of the season, leading to a horrific crash that takes him months to recover from. Determined not to retire, McQueen takes on additional training at a new facility sponsored by Sterling (Nathan Fillion), though he seems to want McQueen to retire and turn him into a brand rather than let him keep racing. Regardless of this, he’s given a personal trainer called Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) who he quickly strikes up a love-hate relationship with.
One of the tough sells for the film outside of North America is that McQueen is essentially a stock car racer. NASCAR is the second most popular sport on American televisions, but is largely unpopular in Europe and the UK. Indeed, the sport is ridiculed by many who see it as vastly inferior and less exciting than the likes of Formula One and MotoGP. Perhaps as a British film fan I am spoiled when I see stock car racing – maybe the subtleties of the skill involved are lost on me. But converting that into an exhilarating plot point in a film is an unenviable task and something I don’t think is achieved in Cars 3.
For all the disappointment associated with the story, the visuals are nothing short of stunning. There have been huge advancements in animation in the eleven years since the original’s release. The benefits are felt with the backdrops, which feel somehow much more life-like than it’s predecessors. Even the character design, which is hampered by the restrictive nature of bringing cars to life, feels more advanced; a clear sign they’ve learned from two predecessors.
At its heart, this film eventually ends up being a buddy movie. Whilst it takes a while to get there, it’s an important move to bring the film closer to the original movie. I didn’t like either of the first two instalments, but Cars 3 stands alongside the original as being more in line with the Pixar ethos. It is, as the investors would say, “on brand”. So, whilst the first-time director Brian Fee has taken no risks here and the outcome is something that probably won’t overly please anyone, but nor will it offend anyone.
A safe bet that will maintain the franchise and opens the door for further sequels. Bland, forgettable, but pleasant enough to keep its target audience happy.
Though I do think Cars 2 is a better film.