Pixar’s newest model in the Cars series rolled into theaters this weekend. Though the designers have noticeably worked out some kinks since the second generation, the latest product still fails to deliver the innovation fans expect from the brand.
Out of all of Pixar’s works, the Cars films are subject to the most criticism. A marriage between Toy Story director John Lasseter’s two greatest passions, animation and autos, the concept of anthropomorphic cars lacks the spark of brilliance films like Monsters Inc. and Inside Out exhibited. How can a world of cars exist without people? How can they function without hands? Cars simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny as well as the rest of the studio’s portfolio.
The first Cars film divided reviewers on the point of whether they responded to the vehicular characters. Ascribing personality traits onto machines is no easy task. Cars don’t lend themselves to the emotional capacity that more people-like subjects do. Despite this undeniable weakness, the level to which Pixar succeeded at the challenge is a testament to the incredible talent of the animators. However, you could still argue the endeavor may have been foolhardy to begin with.
Considering how daunting the prospect is to relate autos to people, the original Cars was an impressive feat. The result was a delightful film that drew upon motor culture to tell a heartfelt story that paid homage to rural Americana. Cars 2 saw a significant drop in quality by fixating on cheesy spy jokes, as well as by focusing on Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), a farcical tow truck that is manageable in small doses, but quickly exhausting as a central character.
Cars 3 thankfully corrects course by bringing back Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) as the lead, and by delving deeper into the racing world with a storyline that evokes popular sports films. Under the guidance of frequent Pixar contributor, but first-time director Brian Fee, the approach is an appreciated tune-up after things broke down in Cars 2. Unfortunately, the plot borrows beats from boxing movies, and retreads material from the original Cars.
Pixar’s sequel features an aging Lightning McQueen struggling to maintain a racing career. The trouble with this premise is that the animators are unsuccessful at conveying Lightning’s fatigue to the audience. A montage of McQueen’s career highlights fails to communicate the passage of time, with the character’s appearance remaining unchanged. Cars can age, but it wouldn’t make sense for a professional racer to be rusty and unmaintained. What the audience sees is a fully updated luxury sports car.
Following a nasty wreckage, McQueen is coaxed out of hiatus with the help of a new billionaire sponsor (Nathan Fillion), and an unconventional trainer (Cristela Alonzo). As he gradually comes to terms with being past his prime, the spotlight shifts to his trainer, Cruz. She grew up with dreams of being a racer, but settled for training when she believed she didn’t have enough talent. This is compelling, but it is undercut in a world where cars can have their engines swapped out if they want to be faster. It is not a very effective life lesson for the kids.
Another weak emotional component to Cars 3 is Lightning’s grief over the loss of his former crew chief, racing legend Doc Hudson (the late Paul Newman, returning via material recorded for the original Cars). The first film just did not establish a profound enough relationship between the racers to elicit the heartache Cars 3 aims to deliver. You can tell the character’s heavy influence on the film is a ham-fisted means for the Pixar staff to mourn the loss of Newman. With all respect to the actor, the excessive memorializing detracts from the storytelling.
There is an especially fun sequence in Cars 3 in which the characters enter a demolition a derby. This scene explores some backwoods, gritty territory in the motor world that viewers haven’t seen in the series. The sequel also takes a step in the right direction by diminishing Mater’s role almost completely. On the other hand, many of the colorful characters from the original film such as Sally are barely involved either, and the additions such as Cruz aren’t as memorable.
Despite its flaws, Cars 3 is more character-driven than Cars 2, and features a storyline that fits more naturally in the Cars universe. However, it doesn’t offer any of the ingenuity Pixar has built its reputation on. The studio’s next film, Coco, slated for this November, looks to deliver more of the sophistication achieved in Ratatouille and Inside Out. The Cars franchise continues to be Pixar’s lemon, but Cars 3 will serve as acceptable filler while we wait for Coco.