It’s official: I’m just never going to “get” Pixar’s Cars universe.
Despite the studio’s ability to make me care for friendly monsters, plastic toys, foodie rats, wisecracking bugs and personified emotions, I’ve been left cold by the adventures of Lightning McQueen and his buddies. There’s just something about their design that makes it hard to connect. Aside from their windshield eyes and bumper-lips, these are still just vehicles moving around roadways and tracks, and something in me resists suspending disbelief, no matter how wonderfully Pixar animates everything.
And it’s not that I haven’t tried. There’s a lot to like in the first film, an ode to small towns, Americana and the pleasures of slowing down. It’s gorgeously rendered and the world is imaginatively created, but I feel like it would resonate more if this journey weren’t being taken by sentient automobiles who exist in some weird world that I don’t quite understand (and whose implications are chilling to think about). It doesn’t help that the jokes are so pun-reliant and pitched at kindergartners; the film is a collision of adult contemplation and adolescent humor that never quite works. Disney steered completely into the kiddie lane for “Cars 2,” ditching the grown-up elements, centering the story on Lightning’s irritating pal Mater, and delivering a frenetic, loud, bathroom-joke-heavy sequel that is easily Pixar’s nadir.
But kids ate it up. My son loves Lightning McQueen, and “Cars” is one of the most successful merchandising behemoths in the Disney empire. So of course “Cars 3” is cruising into theaters this weekend, complete with a new paint job for Lightning that ensures kids rush out to get the latest toys.
Like Rocky in “Rocky Balboa,” Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is feeling some stiffness in his fender and an ache in his engine, but he’s not ready to be declared obsolete just yet. Much like Rocky in “Rocky III,” he finds himself taunted by an upstart, the super-fast Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). Despite the fact that all his buddies are retiring and that a horrendous accident sidelines McQueen (Just like Rocky in “Rocky V”), he wants to keep racing and vows to go out on his own terms. He teams up with a timid trainer named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) to undertake a primitive, bizarre training regime while Jackson’s getting better and better on his simulators and high-tech equipment. Just, of course, like “Rocky IV.”
Yes, Pixar, once a haven for original storytelling, now cribs from every sports movie — particularly the saga of the Italian Stallion —to tell a story about a racer past his prime. But while the story sputters in and out and the film is bogged down by the standard frustrations I have with the “Cars” franchise, this one finds enough heart to keep it off the junk heap.
Not that it’s an easy go for the first 30 minutes or so. I don’t know that I ever totally bought that McQueen was aging out. Despite a scene in which he’s been stripped down to primer, he looks just as shiny and robust as ever, and Wilson’s voice has always had an innocent, youthful energy to it. While the wreck that initially pulls him from racing is quite horrendous (remember, these are sentient cars; when their tires blow up it basically means their feet have exploded), the movie quickly breezes past whatever funk the racer was in, a narrative shortcut that seems beneath Pixar. It cheerfully moves on with a “you can do it” optimism that belies its premise about the views toward superstars who might be past their prime.
It doesn’t help that the first half of the movie takes place in Radiator Springs, the Route 66 film town populated by a collection of ethnic and cultural stereotypes, from the Italian roadsters who scream about the “Paparazzi” to the burn-out VW van to Cheech Marin’s Ramone. There’s also Mater, the embodiment of every corn-pone hick character ever, played with obnoxious joy by Larry the Cable Guy. And while his role is greatly reduced, one scene of Mater is still entirely too much Mater. The rest of the characters in the town and the racing world are all puns on famous NASCAR drivers and automotive celebrities. The only non-McQueen character from the first film who had any resonance, the Porsche Sally (Bonnie Hunt), is only around for a few scenes. I was ready to check out 20 minutes in.
It’s not until about halfway through that McQueen faces any real resistance to his comeback. Lightning’s sponsor Sterling (Nathan Fillion) grows concerned when the aging star crashes and burns on a simulator course. He reveals his new plan: to have Lightning quit racing and endorse a line of themed merchandise (let’s pause to appreciate the irony of a “Cars” movie attempting to say anything about cheap cash-ins). Lightning refuses and decides to train on his own, racing across the beach and visiting the tracks where his mentor Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, in surprisingly effective flashbacks) honed his skills.
It’s in this back half that “Cars 3” finally clicks, digging past the sports cliches and finding its beating heart. As Lightning and Cruz travel across America (Americar?), the film pauses to take in gorgeously rendered landscapes and vistas, going for long stretches with nary a pun. There’s a fun detour at a demolition derby, but for the most part, it’s more thoughtful and slower-paced than the second film. As McQueen realizes his best efforts still aren’t putting him on Jackson Storm’s level, he begins to question whether his time on the track really might be up. It might be cliche, but the film manages to dig into that insecurity in the way only Pixar seems to know how. I also appreciated the backstory given to Cruz, a wannabe racer who missed her shot and became a trainer instead. The film seems to take awhile to settle on a tone for Cruz — the writers can’t decide whether she’s an overly peppy trainer or a skittish, airheaded dreamer. But once the movies finds its groove, it moves the story toward an unconventional but refreshing end.
Even more touching is a section where Lightning and Cruz return to Doc’s old hometown, where racing stars from long ago saddle up to the bar for a pint of oil and to trade old stories. This pause, which of course leads to the old-timers training Lightning for his last race, is warm-hearted and hints at some unexplored depth to the “Cars” universe. There’s discussion about sexism and discrimination in the racing world, and the camaraderie between the actors (Chris Cooper, Margo Martindale and Isiah Whitlock Jr.) is warmer and more engaging than any of the conversations had in Radiator Springs. Forget the Piston Cup; I want a prequel about these three.
This newfound heart leads into the movie’s effective final act, in which a story about growing old and overcoming obstacles becomes one about the joy of mentorship. You’ve seen the story about old pros turning trainers before (you saw it, of course, in “Rocky III” and “Creed”), but Martindale, Cooper and Whitlock bring welcome heart and warmth to the franchise and energize the story as it speeds to its finale.
Yet, while “Cars 3” managed to get under my skin in a few instances, it never stuck to my bones the way the best Pixar movies do. It’s still an unwieldy mish-mash of adult emotion and juvenile humor, to the point where my son went back and forth between saying “that was cool!” to asking “why is everyone sad?” (he also asked “Is Lighting McQueen dead” at one point; something I don’t think should have to be asked). The film’s emotional beats, while effective, feel more nakedly manipulative than we usually get from Pixar; maybe I just know the studio’s formula too well now. There’s a nice twist to the climax, but director Bobby Fee wants to have his cake and eat it too, finding a way both for Lightning to discover the joys of growing older and still indulge his youth, as if they can’t bear to part with the setup for more adventure. I know, I know. It’s a kids’ movie, I can’t take it too seriously. Except Pixar has set a precedent and raised a bar, something none of the “Cars” movies tend to be able to clear. It’s not a multi-car pileup like the last film, but never feels like less than product, an inferior offering from a studio that should be better than this.