Film Review: Cars 3

The 'Cars' franchise regains some of its mojo as veteran racing star Lightning McQueen faces up to his ebbing powers.
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The ideal for a family film is one that appeals to an audience demographic ranging from eight to eighty. But Cars 3 will especially engage the far ends of that age spectrum: Children will love the bright-colored, talking and zooming vehicles, as they have since this Pixar series first ignited in 2006; seniors will relate to all the talk of an aging champion facing the end of the road. Though it doesn’t quite recapture the charm of that first outing (one of Pixar’s biggest though not always critically adored successes), Cars 3 is a much better model than the misaligned spy adventure that was Cars 2, and should easily speed toward the box-office winner’s circle.

The screenplay by Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson and Mike Rich wisely jettisons the globe-trotting locations and espionage intrigue of the last film to get back to USA basics. (It also helps that dimwitted tow truck Mater, voiced by comic Larry the Cable Guy, has been demoted to his rightful supporting duties after his star turn in Cars 2—Mater is best in small doses.) The focus is squarely on our hero Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), onetime king of the racetrack who is now being literally passed by younger, sleeker, more aerodynamic competitors like arrogant hotshot Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). Following a terrible crash, Lightning is sent to the high-tech Rust-Eze Training Center for therapy both physical and psychological, overseen by demanding trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo).

Cruz’s New Age-y methods and the facility’s high-tech racing simulators only demoralize the homespun Lightning, and the veteran racer soon learns that Rust-Eze’s new owner Sterling (Nathan Fillion) only wants him for his brand value to sell merchandise. (Let’s set aside the irony of Lightning protesting against branding in a Disney movie, especially the lucrative Cars franchise.) Sterling and Lightning make a deal: Lightning can compete in the season opener of the Florida International Super Speedway, but if he loses he must hang up his number and become Rust-Eze’s pitch-auto. And thus Lightning’s Rocky III-like comeback odyssey begins: He convinces Cruz to take his training outdoors—first to the beach, then to a muddy track that they discover to their alarm (in the movie’s best set-piece) is the site of a fierce demolition derby. Eventually, they wind up in Thomasville, the humble town where Lightning’s mentor Doc grew up, and where they encounter Doc’s aged mentor, Smokey (Chris Cooper). Primitive training methods start to show palpable results, but will Lightning have what it takes to beat the speed-record-breaking Storm? The big race brings a delightful surprise that befits this season of Wonder Woman girl power.

Though the evolving relationship between Lightning and Cruz is the welcome center of the film, I would have welcomed even more relationship moments (a la Cars 1) and less NASCAR; this is the most sports-movie-ish of the trilogy. But Wilson is always a warm vocal presence, Alonzo finds poignancy in Cruz’s hopes and dreams, and it’s great to once again hear the late Paul Newman as Doc in flashbacks. As always, the Pixar craftspeople excel in the design department; I especially marveled at the changing photorealistic landscapes during a cross-country montage. Cars 3 won’t go down as a studio classic, but at least the series is back on track.

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