Cars has remained something of a strange anomaly among Pixar’s iconic movies and movie franchises. It’s one of the least well-received franchises in the Pixar catalogue, and yet somehow, Cars is a merchandising monster, being by far one of the studio’s (and Disney’s) biggest moneymakers between the various tie-in items with Cars branding that are sold in all manner of stores worldwide. It’s this convenient use of having Cars pay the Disney/Pixar bills that is probably to blame for the existence of Cars 3, which is saddled with the thankless task of following 2011’s Cars 2, considered by many to be Pixar’s worst movie to date.

You might be surprised to hear however that Cars 3 is far from a cynical cash-in. In fact, it’s actually not bad! Granted, it’s still considerably beneath the majority of Pixar’s work, due to the same extra juvenile presentation, and the humour still primarily gearing itself toward children most of all, but for what it’s worth, Cars 3 is the best Cars movie to date. It even better resembles a recognizable Pixar movie at last, since it aims high and tries to take on a surprisingly poignant story about age and succession, as protagonist, Lightning McQueen struggles with being outdone by the ever-growing batch of new rookies on the racing circuit.

If you don’t have any prior investment in Cars, then Cars 3 still isn’t quite good enough to convince you to dive in, even if it is leagues better than the considerably sub-par Cars 2 that came before it. It’s nonetheless praiseworthy to see that Cars has finally found something more to say beyond its simple kiddie premise though, acknowledging that, even if you were a child when you first saw the original Cars in 2006, you’re at least a teenager in 2017, if not a full-grown adult. I can’t see Disney and Pixar abandoning this franchise behemoth anytime soon, naysayers be damned, though the fact that Cars is at least trying to grow up with its audience manages to make this sequel feel a little smarter and more satisfying than what came before.

CHARACTERS

Cars 3 once again stars Lightning McQueen, voiced once again by Owen Wilson, with Lightning continuing to enjoy a lucrative and successful career as a racer within an animated world where everyone is a sentient car. The story kicks off proper however when Lightning finds a new rival in Jackson Storm, voiced by Armie Hammer, pushing Lightning to try and improve his maxed-out stats, which results in a violent crash that has him facing the impending question of whether it’s time to retire from his career as a racer.

You might think that Lightning’s arc follows the predictable beats of a sports comeback story, but you might be surprised at how Cars 3 actually handles its central conflict. The movie doesn’t go quite in the direction that you initially expect, though it still won’t tax the brains of younger viewers too hard, since it does nonetheless telegraph how it all pans out from the second we meet Lightning’s new trainer, Cruz Ramirez, voiced by Cristela Alonzo. Surprisingly, among the new cast members, it’s Nathan Fillion that leaves one of the biggest impressions as Lightning’s new sponsor, Mr. Sterling, who presents a more legitimately interpretive stance about Lightning needing to embrace retirement so that he can reap the rewards of merchandising. It almost feels like a subtle commentary by Pixar on the state of the Cars franchise itself, in fact.

You do see some familiar faces in Cars 3, though the familiar cast of Radiator Springs are given much smaller roles this time around. Bonnie Hunt reprises her role as Sally, where she serves as simple moral support, and the same is true of Larry the Cable Guy’s return as Mater, with Mater once again basically being here solely to provide comic relief for the kids in the audience. If you, like many, thought that there was way too much Mater in Cars 2, you’ll be happy to know that Mater has barely a combined five minutes of screentime in Cars 3, though you may also be a bit disappointed that the familiar Cars cast is pushed so far into the background in this third installment, despite the oft-referenced specter of the late Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson from the original Cars. Despite Doc seemingly being dead and gone in the Cars universe as well, Doc’s character is ironically the most effectively used among the veteran Cars cast, since it’s through him that Lightning has to re-live some difficult, previously unseen history from Doc’s former career, which now reflects his own career as the former student of Doc. I can’t go into it much without spoilers, but it’s telling that, even with Newman having since passed on, Doc remains one of the strongest characters that Cars has to offer, and he’s not even properly in Cars 3!

PLOT

Again, I can’t go too much into Cars 3’s storyline without some considerable spoilers, beyond what I’ve already described. It’s worth repeating however that Cars 3 tries to explore some bigger, more philosophical ideas that will appeal to adults even more than children, standing in contrast to the still-kid-oriented humour throughout much of this sequel. For the most part, this movie doesn’t do too badly at its professional commentary either, especially when it’s not content to wholly go the predictable route with how Lightning finds his place in racing again.

That said however, the movie’s plot is still is easy to call in advance in several places, since Cars 3 doesn’t always do a good job of hiding its blatantly obvious story twists. I doubt that kids will care much about this, but adults may get a sense of missing it by that much with Cars 3, which really does try to give the Cars franchise a higher pedigree among Pixar’s many previous classics, and doesn’t even totally fail at it either. For better or worse, Cars 3 finally feels like an actual Pixar movie in terms of how it tells its story, even if the studio has still clearly spun many better storylines in the past throughout its other brands.

DIRECTION

Brian Fee single-handedly directs Cars 3, after serving as a storyboard artist for the first two Cars movies. It’s perhaps this change in director that may explain why Cars 3 suddenly cares about elevating the franchise, and making more of an attempt to place it alongside most of Pixar’s other work. Frankly, I welcome that, especially since Fee’s direction is generally quite good. It doesn’t forsake the previous manic pace of former Cars movies, which kids will still be delighted with, but it also adds a bit more tact and maturity to how scenes are presented, even if not to the point where Cars 3 abandons children as its primary target audience.

Still, even if Fee doesn’t totally manage to hide where the story is going, he does manage to effectively sell some of Cars 3’s surprisingly emotional moments, both in the animation and the dialogue. Cars 3 will probably present the first time that any established adults will have much of an emotional connection to the Cars franchise, and frankly, eleven years later, we’re long overdue for that. The humour will still be funnier to children than it will be to adults, but even adults will find some great funny scenes in Cars 3 too, even if the heart and drama will probably win out for older viewers. Still, that kind of emotional gratification in Cars 3 remains well ahead of the rather simplistic inspiration behind the first two Cars movies.

MUSIC & SOUNDTRACK

Randy Newman returns to compose the soundtrack to Cars 3 once again, after sitting out Cars 2 in favour of frequent blockbuster composer, Michael Giacchino, which helps with Cars 3’s more recognizable Pixar flavouring in this case. Newman’s score is still very poppy and sugary however, as if Newman didn’t get the memo that Cars 3 suddenly wants to try harder to appeal to older viewers, at least relative to the previous Cars movies. Still, the score works, even if it doesn’t totally jive with the higher emotional and professional commentary that Cars 3 is going for, as if it’s scared of suddenly alienating the young children that have given this franchise so many heaps of their parents’ money since 2006.

The rest of the audio work is also only so intense, naturally, but surprisingly, Cars 3 does seem to punch the sound mixing up an additional gear. Scenes like Lightning’s story-altering crash, which was all over the trailers too, along with a highlight scene in a demolition derby, are surprisingly loud and strong for a movie that seems like it’s primarily marketing itself to kids. Perhaps this is another piece of Cars 3 wanting to woo adults a bit more than its predecessors did, and I suppose that’s fair enough, since the small ratcheting up of intensity is welcome during the races that still serve as a key part of the story. Some theatres even offer an IMAX cut of Cars 3 to boot, cranking up the sound strength even further, though this cut of the movie is fairly rare in domestic territories especially, so you may be hard-pressed to find it. Still, even if it doesn’t completely stop caring about scaring children, it’s nice to see Cars 3 provide a few more genuine thrills for even adults this time.

VISUAL EFFECTS

Cars 3 represents the same simple, colourful world that the previous Cars movies created, though there are some added details and environmental effects thrown in to acknowledge the evolution of CG animation technology since 2006 and 2011. This is still certainly not on the level of many of Pixar’s more visually arresting movies, especially since Cars 3 is much more removed from using the animation as a legitimate storytelling device compared to certain Pixar champions like WALL-E and Up, for example, let alone many of Disney’s in-house animation powerhouses like Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen, but the visuals get the job done in this latest follow-up. If nothing else, children will continue to be entertained by the vibrant presentation and speedy animation, especially when a few flourishes like paint sheen and tire indents are added to the characters in Cars 3, when they weren’t clearly present before.

As for the 3D presentation, it’s not bad, and is above the quality of most of Pixar’s apathetic 3D jobs. The 3D doesn’t often enhance the racing, but it does add a heightened sense of scope if nothing else, enhancing the atmosphere, and providing a little more of a sense of depth to an otherwise simple-looking world. There are a couple of instances where the 3D is pushed a little further, such as in the previously mentioned demolition derby sequence, but it’s not really obnoxious at all. By that token, you could see Cars 3 flat in 2D and not really miss that much, but if you like 3D movies, then Cars 3 does gain a bit of added fun and immersion in its 3D cut, so you might as well go that route. Either way, you’re getting the usual standard of Cars animation, with a few additional flourishes, which is to say, animation that predictably emphasizes performance over flair.

THE VERDICT

Many will see the declaration that Cars 3 is the best Cars movie to date as faint praise, since it’s not like Pixar’s Cars movies have done much to set the cinematic world on fire, beyond raking in a ton of cash for the merchandising overlords at Disney. It is nonetheless worth acknowledging however that Cars 3 is a step up from the two former Cars movies, and an especially big improvement over Pixar’s low point of Cars 2 from 2011. If you’re still sticking by Cars, or have some young children that may like it, then I do recommend seeing Cars 3, which surprisingly manages to exceed expectations in a Summer movie season where the vast majority of major movie releases have disappointed audiences so far.

It’s still a Cars movie, so you do need to understand that Cars 3 is not suddenly going to start standing with the finest Toy Story movies, nor beloved Pixar classics like The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, WALL-E, Up, or Monsters, Inc., but at least Pixar has proven here that even the Cars franchise can find something meaningful to say when a sequel is put into the right hands. The director change really seems to have benefited Cars 3, and since Disney is no doubt already thinking about how to expand the Cars franchise further from here, I guess there are worse things than more Cars movies, should they keep striving for Cars 3’s approach in future. Then again, you could also be forgiven for just wanting to wait the extra five months for Pixar’s more promising-looking Coco this November, comfortable with the knowledge that the inevitably massive merchandising funds brought in by Cars 3 can at least be put toward larger and more ambitious Disney/Pixar productions.

Cars 3 Review
Cars 3, if nothing else, manages to be the best Cars movie to date, providing more heart, inspiration and commentary in an earnest attempt by this franchise to grow up with its audience.
CHARACTERS70%
PLOT75%
DIRECTION80%
MUSIC & SOUNDTRACK75%
VISUAL EFFECTS85%
THE GOOD STUFF
  • Surprisingly effective themes of aging and finding renewed relevance
  • Lovable new cast, particularly Cruz and Sterling
  • Same fun, zippy animation that kids especially will love
THE NOT-SO-GOOD STUFF
  • Still easy to predict the final result of the story before long
  • Original Radiator Springs cast is pushed into the background
  • Many adults will still find the humour a bit too juvenile
77%Overall Score
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