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Pixar Sundays: Cars 3 (2017)

No one asked for this. Sure Cars had its fanbase, but after the disaster of Cars 2, why would Pixar continue this franchise?
Okay, I know the marketing gold mine is the main reason but I like to pretend Pixar has more integrity than that. Luckily as of now, there’s no plans for an abysmal fourth movie, so hopefully this is the last we have to suffer. John Lasseter’s heart may not even be in it anymore as this is the first one he didn’t direct, instead handing duties off to a first-timer, Brian Fee. So let’s just get this over with and retaining some hope for Coco, it’s time to look at Cars 3.
Given this franchise’s aversion to original stories, Cars 3 does the has-been trying to prove himself routine. Lightning McQueen is not a young racer anymore and as most of his contemporaries are retiring, new racers are coming to take the limelight. After a bad crash on the track, Lightning does some soul searching, realizing he doesn’t want to be forced into retirement like his mentor Doc Hudson was. Going to an elite training centre, he comes under the tutelage of a trainer called Cruz Ramirez to prepare him for a comeback against his new rival Jackson Storm. But Cruz as it happens, is an aspiring racer herself, and so Lightning in trying to regain his reputation soon finds himself taking her under his wing.
This film was heavily promoted as being a deeper, darker sequel than either predecessor. The teaser was just Lightning’s injured body careening through the air, a stark contrast in tone to anything this series has offered before. However that doesn’t at all portray what the film actually is. Sure the crash is played quite violently for this kind of film and with an attempt at a haunting slow-motion to give it a sense of terminal harm, but afterwards there’s little it does any differently to suggest a more mature direction. The Cars movies (though mostly just the first) have taken after the Rocky films in their characterizations, subject matter, and plot -which is somewhat fair considering most sports movies live in the shadow of Rocky. This movie is a cross of Rocky Balboa and Creed, as Lightning moves between training for a comeback to prove he’s not entirely an old has-been, while also becoming a mentor figure himself to the wannabe racer who idolized him. This is certainly a better focus for the movie following Cars 2, but it’s too heavily steeped in clichés to leave any unique impression. And it doesn’t even do those clichés all that well. Even in the moments where it does come off as kind of good, particularly Cruz’s determination and an okay relationship she has with Lightning as he teaches her, I couldn’t stop thinking how far better it was done in a movie like Creed. The film is dreary and predictable as well, with only a demolition derby sequence in the middle really coming out unexpected. Obviously you know exactly where it’s going to end up, and the road there is pretty dull. The movie also has a predisposition with nostalgia, hearkening back to the first film. A lot of Cars 3 is spent paying tribute to Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson, as if the writers didn’t feel they gave him enough attention in the second movie, which they didn’t. And as good as it is to see the one likeable character from this series given posthumous screen-time with unused dialogue from the first movie reconstituted here, the movie is a little heavy on flashbacks, both from the first movie and this one (I do like that no one acknowledges Cars 2 and that it might as well not exist for how much it influences this movie -the filmmakers want to forget about it as much as we do). This theme also carries over into Lightning’s conflict, with the pressure to retire as many of his fellow racers have done; as well as into a later portion of the movie where Lightning and Cruz train with Doc’s old crew chief Smoky, meeting a bunch of older legend racers in the process. There’s an old vs. new debate subtly employed here, and it seems to come down heavily on the old. The first movie certainly had this too, with the natural beauty theme and the loss of that to modern industrialization. But here it seems to suggest the old ways and the old racers are better, wiser, and there’s no value in the new technological methods to train, or the new racers made in those innovations. Which seems very single-minded to me. It gave off a very “back in my day” vibe, evocative of something like old musicians criticizing the younger generation for getting their start on YouTube rather than in a garage.
Owen Wilson is front and centre again as Lightning and to be fair, he seems to be trying a little more here than in the previous films. But his character still isn’t much more than your stock sports movie lead. That might have been averted if his girlfriend had a larger role and we saw maybe a glimpse of his personal life, but Sally’s got all of four scenes in the movie to remind us she exists and is still with Lightning (would it really be that unbelievable if they’d broken up at some point?). Honestly, I kind of feel like Bonnie Hunt deserves more. Of course her background part is expected considering once again, the Radiator Springs gang are mostly forgotten. But luckily this time that includes Mater. He’s still annoying when he shows up and has an ear-bleedingly obligatory “get ‘er done” forced in there, but he’s incredibly downplayed -which goes to show that Pixar listens to at least some of their criticisms. As usual, there are a ton of sports personality cameos like Bob Costas, Lewis Hamilton, Richard and Kyle Petty, and a couple wasted performances from talents like Kerry Washington and Character Actress Margo Martindale. Generally though, the new cast fare much better than anyone. Sure Chris Cooper as Smokey and to a lesser extent Armie Hammer as Jackson are phoning it in, but Cristela Alonzo is actually giving a pretty decent performance as Cruz. If her character arc wasn’t so stereotypical she might have been the highlight of the movie, and so easily could have been, as there’s a bit of a funny personality to her. If the whole movie was about an already retired Lightning training her as the next great racer, with an emphasis on their relationship and her insecurity, this could have been a perfectly solid film. Similarly, Nathan Fillion isn’t bad as Sterling, Lightning’s new manager, getting in a few digs at Lightning’s “branding” and possibly even some self-mockery at the egregious commercialization of the Cars franchise itself. Oh, and there’s a character and buddy of Lightning’s called “Cal Weathers” -get it??
For the most part, Cars 3, though monotonous, avoids dumb contrivances until the end. Lightning has to perform the big race, but his confidence has been shaken after being beaten by his own protégé on a training track. But he still believes in her and has, since the standard outburst scene, encouraged her to follow her own dream. So in a ridiculous plot device, he stops after the first lap and throws her in as his replacement. She’s given his racing number which apparently means they can get away with this. And of course with him coaching her from the sidelines using the typical references from their experiences earlier and helping her overcome Jackson’s taunts, she realizes her self-assurance and wins the race. Because Lightning technically started the race it means they both won, something only revealed when everyone just assumes Lightning’s going to have to retire now. There is so much in this climax to call bullshit on, and I doubt even many of the kids watching it would buy some of the stupidity! It’s also just constructed to maintain a status quo. Because he still “won”, it means Lightning can still be a racer, and there’s no point in that. It would’ve made sense and even made for an interesting character development if this did force him to retire but on good terms. And then he could just stay Cruz’s trainer. It brings his story to a close, satisfyingly if you’re a fan of the character. But no, he has to still be a racer just in case they decide after all to go ahead with Cars 4! I know I’ve brought this movie up a few times already in this review, but it’s really good and comparable: it would be like if Rocky showed up in Creed to throw the opening punch in Adonis’ match and then been declared winner alongside him. It would actually take away from Creed’s victory as it does here with Cruz. They’re implying Lightning’s become the Doc to Cruz anyway in the final moments, so it really doesn’t make sense to make it all about him again in the end.
The animation for this movie is very good though, it’s nice to look at. You can see the effort put into these effects, the music is a marginal improvement to the previous films, and it is good to see them on the road again for a large part of the story. Cars 3 is also certainly not the embarrassment to Pixar that Cars 2 was. There was a clear attempt to do better in this movie. But that’s a comparison to this studio’s rock bottom, and on its own, Cars 3 is still not good. Between the run-of-the-mill story, unambitious characters, and just a lot of general blandness, it’s a movie that isn’t as offensive as its predecessor, but is rather likely to go down as the most forgettable movie in the Pixar canon.

Lou is fun to watch. Essentially it feels like an alternate interpretation to the Sid confrontation scene from Toy Story. In that this is also about a bully getting his comeuppance of sorts from some anthropomorphic objects. On the school-yard, there’s a bully who frequently steals toys and other playthings from other kids, angering a living pile of objects in the school’s lost and found box. After all the other kids go inside, the pile called Lou (named for the missing “L”, “O”, and “U” letters from “Lost and Found”) goes after the bully’s backpack and stolen toys causing a very eclectic and creative chase sequence. Upon discovering the bully’s name is J.J. and that one of his old toys, stolen by another bully, is in the box, Lou ransoms it for J.J. until he returns all the other childrens’ toys; dissolving in the process and teaching J.J. a lesson in kindness. I love the animation and creativity in the whole chase, particularly in the way Lou moves around, it’s definitely an echo of Hank from Finding Dory. Lou’s composition is interesting as well, with the hoodie for a mouth and baseball eyes hitting an even note between cute and creepy. And the heart of the short is in the right place. This kind of lesson has been done plenty in childrens’ television so it’s nothing new here, but it’s executed nicely enough to perhaps make a difference on some real playground.

Next Week: Coco (2017)

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