I don’t review a lot of animated movies, because quite frankly most of them aren’t made for me. I go see plenty of them with my kids, but from so many of them are geared strictly towards kids and aren’t very good from an adult standpoint so why bother? But occasionally one will resonate with you because of it’s subject matter, or because the filmmakers clearly made something that they felt could stand up to the same kind of critical eye that is used on movies made for teens and/or adults. Disney’s Pixar films are examples of such movies; even though they’re visually for the kids they often have themes and in-jokes that are geared towards the parents in the audience. And one of the best ones at that was Cars, released in 2006. It had a lot of heart in its story of race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) learning how to not be a selfish jerk towards the people around him while he was stranded in the town of Radiator Springs. Cars 2 came in 2011, and it had little to none of that. Side character Mater (voiced by comedian Larry the Cable Guy), funny and enjoyable in smaller doses in the first film, got promoted up to essentially a co lead character and proved to be too much of good thing along with a convoluted dual plot that saw McQueen try to win a World Grand Prix while Mater got swept up in an international spy caper. Cars 2 was essentially a toy commercial disguised as a movie; the kids loved it but adults not so much. Which bring us to Cars 3.
Now going in, I was very skeptical of this one. It reeked of one more run for the cash, especially with Toy Story 4 being put into production. Pixar is in the sequel business all the way now, for good and ill. But where the Toy Story sequels are held in pretty high regard both on their own and measured against the original, we’re already dealing with a panned sequel for Cars so the outlook just wasn’t as rosy. Would this be an Ocean’s Thirteen style rebound, or a downward spiral? The story has it’s own loose parallels to Ocean’s Thirteen in that it deals with getting older in the way that those of us in are 40s can recognize – you’re not as fast as you used to be, and all around you the ways of doing business are changing along with the people who are doing it. You’ve lost some loved ones, and your contemporaries are quickly leaving the part of the world you’ve inhabited behind both voluntarily and involuntarily. And you find yourself having to decide whether it’s time to move on from some things in life that you used to be staples of your existence.
The story finds McQueen still racing, and still doing well at first, but soon surrounded by a new generation of race cars using new technology and new methods to excel. And one at a time these new cars are replacing the cars Lightning has been sharing the track with for all these years, as they are getting fired or retiring to make way for the youngsters. And as things start to go south, McQueen’s old sponsors are bought by a young billionaire who wants him to move aside from racing and start cashing in on his brand name before it gets tarnished with a bad season of bad losses at the track. From there we go on a journey of rediscovery of sorts with McQueen and his trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonso), who herself hoped to be a racer when she was growing up but was too scared to take the plunge trying to come up with a way to get him back in the game and compete with his younger competitors. The underlying theme is geared towards the parents in the audience who are facing similar circumstances in their own work and social lives.
Does it work? Yeah. It connected with me, a now 43 year old husband and Dad who can’t just drop in at the basketball court and play for hours anymore without hurting something. And the changes McQueen is seeing at the race track are a lot like seeing the changing of the guard at work as newer younger people pour in and the people who were there when you started begin to retire or move on to other jobs. You’re not a senior citizen yet but you’re not a kid anymore and life as you know it has changed, leaving you with the question of what to do next. And in this case what next for McQueen was finding a way to happily transition into a new stage of his career and enjoy life for what it is. And for this film that transition is shown not just in the finished product but behind the scenes as well; some of the original cast members are no longer with us, namely Paul Newman who played McQueen’s mentor Doc Hudson, George Carlin who played McQueen’s friend Filmore, and Tom Magliozzi who played one of McQueen’s original sponsors. In each case they were either replaced with a new actor (Carlin) or by archived recordings (Newman and Magliozzi).
For all intents and purposes this installment feels somewhat like an apology for the overstuffed, ridiculous second installment of the series (the irony is that Cars 2 has the shortest running time of the three films). The plot is kept a lot simpler and the supporting characters who got too much time in Cars 2 were returned back to their intended purpose here. And in the case of Mater, it was over correction of sorts. Mater is McQueen’s best friend and should play a real role in helping him get from one stage in life to the next; here he was relegated to ‘hey, how ya doin buddy?’ phone calls. That was clearly an attempt on the filmmakers part to get some redemption for giving us way too much Mater in Cars 2, and it took away a little from what was otherwise a really good story of personal growth. I don’t think it hurts the movie as a whole but as someone who watched both of the first two films 100 times with my kids I felt a little shortchanged there.
Overall Verdict: B
One day I’m going to pick one ratings system and stick with it; sometimes I do stars, sometimes I do letter grades, sometimes I do points out of 10. It’s mainly because with different movies different ratings methods are better. My son liked it better than the first one but less than the second one. My daughter who’s a little older liked this better than the second one but not as much as the first. That’s about where I am. I think they waited too long to do it also. The five year old who saw Cars at the theater is now 16 and not the least bit interested anymore.
The underlying theme of getting older and dealing with it was more for the parents than the kids, but it stays kid friendly enough to keep them interested. It lacks some of the heartwarming charm and nostalgia of the first one but does manage to find its way to deliver a decent amount of both. All in all, it’s worth paying to see whether it’s with your kids or even by yourself if you just want to see how it all ends (it’s doing ok at the box office but not so much that a fourth film is guaranteed).