The Cars franchise has always felt like a bit of an outlier for Pixar. While Cars is a respectable enough entry in its pantheon of digitally animated productions, Cars 2 has become widely regarded as one of (if not THE) worst Pixar films to date. With the release of Cars 3, Pixar has made some notable attempts to correct course, but those efforts are not entirely successful. While the third entry in the Cars story is a significant improvement over the previous film and a pleasant enough love letter to the legacy of the series as a whole, its inconsistent narrative and lack of depth seem to indicate that Cars will remain on Pixar's lower tier for the foreseeable future.
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is on top of the world. The once scrappy underdog has achieved the fame and success that he fought to earn in the original Cars, and the last few years have seen him become the undeniable champion of the racing industry. Times change, however, and McQueen finds himself forced to change with them when a younger and endlessly more high-tech racer named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) steals his thunder. Faced with the prospect of becoming obsolete (and his own refusal to give up racing), McQueen signs up with a slick new sponsor named Sterling (Nathan Fillion), and an energetic new trainer named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) to take back his title from this new generation of racers.
Cars 3 shares many narrative parallels with the original 2006 film, and there are a ton of great ideas at play in this story. The problem is that the final product is ultimately an incredibly disjointed story that tries to go in several different directions at once. It attempts to spin a lot of narrative plates simultaneously, and as a result, typically reliable performers like Armie Hammer, Nathan Fillion, and Kerry Washington (who portrays statistics expert Natalie Certain) don't get much to work with for the bulk of the film.
Hammer's Jackson Storm feels like a particularly wasted opportunity. For all of his similarities to the Lightning McQueen we knew from the first movie, Cars 3 never takes the time to explore who this newcomer is, or why we should care about his rivalry with our hero. He is merely an obstacle for Lightning to overcome, and the result is not terribly engaging or compelling -- even with a solid vocal performance behind it.
That said, Lightning McQueen's inconsistent motivations throughout the story represent a perfect encapsulation of the film's biggest issues. His central goal is simple and straightforward, but the way in which he wants to achieve it changes from scene to scene with little sense of cohesiveness. One minute he thinks he needs a high-tech training facility to get better, and the next minute he asserts how he needs to get back to basics and train like the old-fashioned racers. It's a collection of sequences, but it's not one cohesive story. Because of this, Cars 3 constantly feels like it's going back to square one, and the film never earns the momentum required to give its climax that emotional punch that it needs.
Another aspect of Cars 3 that sets it apart from other Pixar films is the fact that it received a G-rating from the MPAA -- as opposed to the PG-rating that most Pixar projects usually get. There's nothing inherently wrong with a Pixar movie that skews towards a younger crowd, but Cars 3 feels bogged down by its comparatively more-infantile sensibilities. It is not that Cars 3 doesn't go for laughs at every possible opportunity; it's just that an overwhelming number of jokes ultimately fall flat. Even with the more grating "comic relief" characters like Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) taking a backseat in this film, the car puns and slapstick humor can only take this story so far before it grows tiresome.
That is not to say that there aren't some solid concepts to watch out for. The legacy of Doc Hudson (the late Paul Newman) plays a considerable role in Cars 3, and the weight of his passing provides some of Lightning McQueen's best moments in the entire film. In fact, much of Cars 3 feels like a belated eulogy for Paul Newman and Doc Hudson, and those quieter moments definitely deliver the typical Pixar pathos that's missing from other sections of the story. These moments will almost certainly play well with people who have stuck with the Cars franchise through thick and thin, but they are not enough to save the film from its bigger issues.
Special credit is also due to the voice actors who get more screen time. Owen Wilson once again delivers an affecting performance as Lightning McQueen, and newcomer Cristela Alonzo is a total scene-stealer as the perpetually enthusiastic Cruz Ramirez -- especially once we learn more about who she is and what she wants out of life. Their dynamic precisely mirrors the Doc Hudson/McQueen relationship from the first film, and Cars 3 feels like it could set up some great future stories between them. With that in mind, it raises some important questions about where the Cars franchise could go from here now that Cars 3's has mostly provided audiences with a soft reboot of the core series. If there's a legitimately great story here, it will likely rise to the surface if we ever get Cars 4.
In the end, Cars 3 is a definite improvement over Cars 2, but it does not even come close to achieving the emotional or dramatic heights that we have come to expect from a proper Pixar film. There's enough charm in the third Cars film to draw in young audience members and longtime fans, but beyond that, this is not the comeback we were hoping to see.