The Cars films are the outsiders of the Pixar major productions, a series that has coasted on the credit of bankable merchandise and brand recognition more over the actual attributes of the films themselves, which have consistently proven to hold the most average critical reception the studio has received to date. These films may work for young children, but they lack the depth or emotional influence that has succeeded with many of their better efforts, and an internal logic to its nonsense universe (anthropomorphic automobiles and vehicles) that quite simply doesn’t make a great amount of sense when scrutinised.
This comes to the forefront of Cars 3, as protagonist Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) finds himself increasingly at odds with the new generation of racers and their more technologically savvy outlooks on the sport, and being referred to as a veteran who should retire now or face serious injury or death on the track.
There are many reasons why thematically this should work, by treating the series as a sports narrative it makes sense and certainly gives the character a greater sense of motivation than his original arc or learning to appreciate small town American attitudes. But in practice it never makes sense because of a very basic issue with the world itself; they’re cars.
Besides the preposterous ideas of conception (or construction) in this universe, in a world where bodily parts are interchangeable and constantly open to upgrades why should age be of any concern? The technology and statistical analysis being used by the team of antagonist racer Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) is apparently a new and frightening concept to apparent old-timers like McQueen. Yes this all makes sense on the surface level for story’s sake, but in application it never coalesces with the nature of the world and proves to be a constant distraction from the drama.
Although said drama is as equally lacking in many ways. Sidetracking some of the series more colourful characters like Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), Luigi (Tony Shalhoub) and Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt) for a primary focus on Wilson’s McQueen and Cristela Alonzo as trainer (and prospective new series MVP) Cruz isn’t a move that fully succeeds because, quite frankly, McQueen isn’t that interesting a character to follow.
The dramatic beats fail to compel because of this lack of attachment, and scenes such as McQueen’s admittedly spectacular crash in the first act feels less shocking or affecting than it should do. In an attempt to conjure depth the film continuously disturbs the ghost of the late Paul Newman’s character from the original film, which only grows increasingly more tiresome and depressing after a while in its efforts to transform McQueen from racer to mentor – which only proves in showing just how vacant the rest of the performances really are. Director Brian Fee is clearly trying to tap into something here, but lacks the grace and momentum of the great John Lasseter even when he’s not on top form.
Cars 3 wants to act as the great trilogy capper Toy Story 3 was, but without the wealth of investment or engagement necessary to do so beyond broad sentimental strokes. It’s still an assuredly good-looking picture when it’s focusing on natural landscapes and slow-motion rubble and smoke in the lens, despite the generally lacking character designs. It works as a watchable and harmless experience, certainly better than the last one, but it feels like it really is time to call it a day on this franchise.