The third instalment of Pixar’s Cars franchise – the least ambitious and involving world the company has dreamed up, but still, bizarrely, the most profitable – that’s also, structurally and thematically, an automotive Rocky IV where the cars drive themselves.
It’s almost as if someone at Disney finally sat down and realised that these are essentially sports movies, and that the emotional and dramatic stakes of sports movies are pre-packaged. So Cars 3 is about racing, the winning and losing of races, and the psychology of racers. There’s no getting bogged down in small-town ennui or genre spoofs like the previous two; this franchise has finally recognised that romanticising the sub-culture of NASCAR racing only really works if you keep all of the focus on the NASCAR racing itself.
But… Rocky IV?
So, here’s the skinny: We rejoin Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) a few years into the future, where he and his fellow veteran racers are starting to be outclassed by a new breed of high-tech competitors led by Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) – a record-breaking supercar enhanced by cutting-edge technology, training methods and statistical analysis. McQueen’s fear of his own impending obsolescence leads him to overexert during a race and seriously injure himself, casting doubts over the future of his career.
McQueen’s solution to this is to disappear into the wilderness to “get his tyres dirty”; embarking on a last-ditch, old-fashioned training regimen whilst reluctantly paired with a new-school trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo).
Oh, okay, I’m starting to see it now.
Yeah, the aging veteran is out to prove that the old methods still work, while the arrogant upstart is busy wowing spectators and industry professionals with his remarkable feats of strength – or speed, in this case. But while Rocky IV was rather nakedly a story about the United States punching the Soviet Union very hard, you can mostly read this as a bit of fun-poking at Millennials and a scathing indictment of stats-driven sports culture.
So, is it good?
It’s alright. I personally feel it’s easily the best of the three so far, but I’d be lying if I said I cared for the first two all that much. What matters is that on a purely mechanical screenwriting level, it totally works as a straightforward sports drama. This is handy, because Cars, as a franchise, still suffers from the obvious fact that its long-term existence has been justified explicitly in terms of toy-sales and revenue, rather than artistic merit. Luckily, what Cars 3 really does get right is a third-act plot swerve that takes the story in an interesting new direction, and allows for what I thought was kind of a killer ending, all things considered.
Can you elaborate?
I can, but I won’t. It isn’t so much that it’s a spoiler – it becomes very obvious where the story is going, in a way that I think will be obvious even to the kiddies – but how the movie gets there, and how things ultimately play out, mostly works because it feels like such an organic development of the characters, and that kind of thing is better left for the moviegoer to experience themselves.
Suffice it to say, if you’re one of the dragged-along parents who inevitably ends up seeing this movie, your child will likely love the big finale.
What about the parents, though?
That depends. It’s still a series aimed at kids specifically rather than families as a whole, but it’d take a real grump not to find Cars 3 tolerable, at the very least. And while most of the deviations and subplots exist for structure more than any kind of substance, there’s one in particular about McQueen’s new corporate sponsor (Nathan Fillion) wanting him to retire in order to become a “brand” that feels as if it’s pitched squarely at adults who’ve seen their favourite athletes sell out and never quite got over it.
Do you recommend it, then?
I’m not entirely sure a movie like this really needs a recommendation. Most of the people who see this will be forced to by their offspring, and what’s important is that the kids will dig it. If you liked the first two, either because you were forced to endure them or you’re someone like me, then it’s a safe bet you’ll have a good time with Cars 3. Take that for what it is.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.