"Cars 3" Review

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As I’ve said and written so many times - “Cars” is my favorite Pixar movie. And I remain one of the few who believe the 2011 International Racing Tour spy caper sequel “Cars 2” is a very entertaining film. Now comes “Cars 3”, which is actually the “Cars 2” everyone thought they wanted.

This movie is all, and I mean ALL, racing. There are no detours or sidetracks in this latest cinematic treatment of ‘the aging athlete’ theme. The once dominant Lightning McQueen is no longer the top car on the Piston Cup circuit. A new generation of young hotshots, led by the smack-talking Jackson Storm (rumored to be named after yours truly), have taken over the sport.

After a brutal injury in the final race of the season (the visuals and sound effects are very intense), McQueen decides he wants to continue racing. But he knows that in order to beat Storm, he’s got to start training like him - which means using the latest technology and training methods, including working with a bubbly personal trainer named Cruz Ramirez, who has dreams of her own.

He also has a new boss - Mr. Sterling, who bought the Rust-eze race team with an eye on making tons of money off the McQueen brand by selling loads of McMerchandise if/when Lightning decides to retire - which he’d rather see happen sooner than later.

McQueen realizes that if he’s going to beat the young guns, he’s going to have to go old school. Problem is, without his late crew chief Doc Hudson, Lightning is lost. Fortunately, Hudson’s former coach, a pickup truck named Smokey (a terrific new character voiced by Chris Cooper) steps-in to lend some much-needed wisdom and guidance.

Jackson Storm and Lightning McQueen battle for the lead in "Cars 3"
Jackson Storm and Lightning McQueen battle for the lead in "Cars 3"

Now, you may be wondering - what about Mater, Sally, Ramone, Flo, Sarge and the rest of the popular Radiator Springs gang? Well, they’re hardly in “Cars 3” - shelved away to make room for these new, highly talky characters who make-up the "3" supporting cast. Mater, arguably the breakout star of the franchise, is so insignificant this time around he actually has fewer lines than the racing commentators. And his “best buddy” relationship with McQueen (who’s in practically every scene) is non-existent.

This is part of what’s wrong with “Cars 3”. The element of fun, such a huge part of “1” and “2” is completely missing. There's an attempt to get some goofy laughs with a demolition derby sequence. However, that scene actually derails the flow of the narrative. And it’s still racing-related. I kept wishing for something - a single diversion in the script - to break-up all the racing talk, training and on track action. But it never comes.

Chick Hicks, Lightning’s old rival, returns to the series - now as a sports talk show host - and he delivers a few clever lines. Michael Keaton, who voiced Hicks in the original, is conspicuously absent.

“Cars 3” is the weakest entry in the “Cars” trilogy, but it still has much to offer. McQueen and Ramirez develop a nice, non-romantic relationship. The Doc Hudson flashbacks (the Pixar team used old voice booth audio from the late Paul Newman to give the character “new” dialogue) give this film the emotional punch that’s always been a core element of this franchise, whether Pixar fans have noticed it or not.

Give director Brian Fee (making his directorial debut) and the writing team credit for their accuracy and attention to detail with all aspects of the racing world, including the addition of a new female sports analyst. The orchestral soundtrack enhances the overall tone in sophisticated, meaningful ways. And the final act does go in a couple of unexpected, satisfying directions.

Should “Cars 3“ mark the finish-line for this saga? Well, Pixar learned from their “Toy Story 3” experience that you never want to slam the brakes on a money-making franchise too soon. But make no mistake - and I never thought I’d say this - the needle on the “Cars” series is just about on E.

Jackson Murphy: Emmy Award-winning Film Critic / Entertainment Reporter. Broadcast Film Critics Assoc. (@CriticsChoice), SAG-AFTRA (@SAGAwards)