The Cars films have always felt a little like Pixar, the pioneering animation studio behind Toy Story, Up and last year’s Finding Dory, in the third rather than fifth gear.
Cars 3 is the second sequel to have spawned from the 2006 original; the third in a franchise that has, for over a decade now, whiffed somewhat disappointingly of commerce rather than creativity. With over $10bn banked already from merchandise alone, Cars has certainly proved itself to be a hugely profitable vehicle. The unfortunate result is a series that opportunistically loads each new film with fresh and disposable characters at the expense of developing old ones. Cars 3 won’t win over the naysayers – it’s got its predecessors’ rusts and some – but fans should be satisfied whilst those on the fence may find themselves surprisingly touched by the time the credits role. Naturally too – damn it Pixar – the animation itself is dazzling.
After a focus on the inadvertent employment of the clapped out tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) by the British Secret Service in the last film, this time it’s original protagonist Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) who’s back front and centre. McQueen has reached the top of his game both personally and professionally as the film opens. Able to mock his past self (‘I am speed…Did I really used to say that?’), still winning races by the dozen and content in his relationship with Sally (Bonnie Hunt) back in Radiator Springs, McQueen is living la dolce vita. Time is a friend to none however and it is the arrival of newer, younger models that sends McQueen spinning off the track and eating his rivals’ dust.
These new generation racers, trained in super high tech facilities, may be jerks (principally Armie Hammer’s Jackson Storm) but they’re not villainous. McQueen’s antagonist in the film is no big bad but the very idea of ageing and his unwillingness to have his retirement date chosen for him. As one veteran soliloquies with his forced exit, you know when it’s time to stop because ‘the youngsters’ll tell you’. After undergoing a humiliating crash, reminiscent of that experienced by his former mentor Doc (the late Paul Hudson – sweetly granted tributes here), McQueen resolves to get with the times and the mantra that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.
From here he’s sold to Sterling Silver (Nathan Fillon) and put under the stewardship of Cruz (Cristela Alonzo), a racing technician who has herself always longed to be a racer but has consistently been too afraid of rejection. When Sterling decides that McQueen is best retired and hooked up to sponsorship deals (‘You are about to become the biggest brand in racing’ – knowing irony?), the former victor vies to win again and prove he’s still got it by taking on the new gens in Florida.
For at least two thirds of Cars 3, long and dull sequences of racing and exposition make for an extremely sluggish watch. After the convolutions of Cars 2, the intent here is clearly to return to the simple values of the original – which would be fine if it had anything new to offer rather than episodically plodding towards the inevitably uplifting conclusion. There’s whimsy enough for younger viewers but little by way of wit or heart. It’s depressing, for instance, to return to Radiator Springs and realise that you’ve basically forgotten who half the characters are. Don’t bother trying to remember though, they’re presented as entirely peripheral. Similarly, there’s a real hollowness to the supposedly loving relationship between Lightning and Sally, who is once again sidelined back home with nothing to do or say worth paying attention to. It becomes unwittingly awkward and even misjudged to see her beloved frolicking around with a younger model as she wiles away the hours awaiting his return.
What saves this third Cars then, is a twist in the story towards the conclusion that, while not unpredictable, manages to hit a note of surprising and genuine charm and progression. Beyond general parables about the importance of being true to yourself (‘The new you has to look for opportunities you never knew were there’) there is a subtly deployed fist pump of female empowerment. An adrenaline rush of pleasure hitherto unheard of in a Cars film.
Having worked his way up from the ranks of Disney animator on Pocahontas II to a Senior Creative team member for Inside Out, Brian Fee directs the film, his debut in the pole position, and oversees some typically superb computer crafted animation. For all its faults early on, there’s a mesmeric quality to Cars 3 that retains the flair that keeps Pixar at the top of the field. If they want to stay there, in the face of ever rising competition, perhaps their own advice should be heeded. It’s the fuel that takes you far, not the dashboard.