Watch Steve's supplemental video review at the bottom of the article
Despite the misstep of the understandably criticized Cars 2 - which I not so secretly liked as well - Cars 3 is upon us and does its best to return to the simplicity and narrative traditionalism of the original films. It discards the scattershot spy-thriller story in favor of one that fondly cherishes legacy and mentorship, while providing a respectable sendoff for most of its core characters.
Being the first film in the franchise not directed by Pixar mastermind John Lasseter (instead, Brian Fee, who served as a storyboard artist for the previous two films), one can only hope that the now "creative advisor" of Walt Disney Imagineering Lasseter (the company that helps conceptualize Disney theme park rides) doesn't feel a Cars 4 is implicitly necessary by virtue of keeping the brand alive.
The film opens by showing hot-rod Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) as a competitive race-car despite a changing racing climate. He manages to win on a routine basis until a new, sleeker car named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) laps McQueen and several other proven greats for a surprise, last-second victory. Storm goes on to win a record-breaking seven races in a row, emphasizing a cold exterior and a technology-heavy series of programs in preparation for each and every race.
When McQueen winds up getting in a devastating accident trying to break Storm's streak, he spirals into disillusionment about the current state of his career. He reflects fondly on his late mentor Doc Hudson, whose career was brought to a grinding halt upon a similarly heartbreaking crash. McQueen's chance at redemption comes when his lifelong sponsorship company Rust-eze gets bought out by McQueen superfan Sterling (Nathan Fillion), who up-converts the company's headquarters into a world-class training center.
At Rust-eze, McQueen is mentored aggressively by Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a racecar who had hoop-dreams but came up short and settled for a life as a trainer. Cruz and her fiery ways get McQueen to work out on vehicular treadmills, utilize his equipment in order to regain stamina and confidence, and practice on a state-of-the-art racing simulator, all in the name of besting Storm and a new generation of allegedly millennial racers.
To keep it short, Cars 3 does indeed work well for younger kids and those who grew with the series. It does everything it possibly can to reclaim whatever reputability it lost after Cars 2, and essentially shows early on there's no point in trying to captivate those who will blindly despise even what they view as a subpar sequel. Cars 3 also functions very well as an appropriate metaphor for Pixar and its competitors since the credits have rolled on its golden age (debatably considered everything post-Cars 2).
Pixar was once Lightning McQueen, the hottest commodity in the industry with the flashiest tech and the most promising array of products and promise. Now, however, two decades since they first captivated with the phenomenal Toy Story, Pixar is watching companies like DreamWorks (The Boss Baby, How To Train Your Dragon) and its own parent-company Disney (Moana, Frozen, Wreck-It Ralph) bask in the fame and praise it once so easily garnered. Much like McQueen tries to stay successful and relevant in a competitive, ageist landscape that favors youth and flash over veteran experience, Pixar's recent commitment to sequels over new properties in hopes to keep brands alive has greatly hindered its reception in the public's eye.
I still regard Pixar highly, and I think Finding Dory is one of the best, most fun animated sequels in recent memory. With that, I also found considerable charm in Brave and see Monsters University as a very important film regarding college and college's primary function in the minds of young people. The company's only real miss for me was The Good Dinosaur, with Finding Nemo, to this day, in my mind being sickeningly overrated, but not a miss or a bad film by any means.
Cars 3's return to Radiator Springs on top of keeping its biggest focus on the same kind of down-home sensibilities that made the first film such a pleasure to watch is not only what's on display here, but what's most effective. Certain details of the story are infuriatingly glossed over, like how Doc Hudson died (before you claim "old age," explain how his mentor Smokey is still alive) and where baby-cars come from, as well as some of the training scenes growing repetitive as the film steers into its third act.
Yet, like McQueen, the film's willingness to recognize mistakes by correcting them - show by Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) existing as a far more muted presence here - is noted. Even other side-characters like McQueen's girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt) and Cruz serve as more impacting characters during this outing. This is probably the most slight Pixar affair in terms of real themes and impact on its audiences, alongside The Good Dinosaur, but its simplicity compliments the franchise's craft as a whole.