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Cars 3

Even among all the fantastical characters and settings of the Pixar canon, the Cars franchise is an odd duck. Cars and its sequel are widely regarded as the weak links in an otherwise sterling filmography (at least they were, until The Good Dinosaur happened), set in a parallel universe that didn’t make a single goddamn lick of sense. Sure, the cars were used to make a statement about moving too fast to enjoy the sweeter things in life, but that message got drowned out in a chorus of “What is this car-populated world and how the hell does it work?!”

Something else that drowned out the message was of course the merchandising. The franchise has built a reputation as an extended toy commercial, with characters and concepts designed to be marketed and sold like Hot Wheels. Disney has made no effort at discouraging this image, putting out spin-off films that might as well have been DTV for how obvious they were as cash-ins. That isn’t even getting started on Cars 2, a loud and flashy sequel that shifted the focus away from the established hero in favor of his more marketable sidekick.

Then again, so long as that money went toward making more awesome works of Pixar’s usual creativity and quality, at least we have a silver lining. So it seemed like everyone was content to keep on treating the Cars franchise like a harmless joke. And then this happened.

Of course we all knew that Disney wouldn’t really sabotage their own merchandising juggernaut, and certainly not by killing off the protagonist of the franchise. Even so, you don’t put something like that out there for no reason. The world was watching, waiting to see where the filmmakers were going with this.

In hindsight, we all should’ve known what was coming long before the next trailer was released. Aging and obsolescence were such hugely prominent themes in the Toy Story films, The IncrediblesFinding Nemo, and Up, it makes all kinds of sense that they would be a crucial part of Cars 3.

In this case, it’s about Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson, once again) facing off against a growing fleet of newer-generation vehicles (principally Jackson Storm, voiced by Armie Hammer) at a time when more and more of McQueen’s contemporaries are getting dropped or retired. But of course McQueen doesn’t want to let anyone else tell him he’s done.

In summary, what we have here is your basic sports story about an aging hero training to get his mojo back. This is hardly a new concept — Hell, at least half the Rocky movies were based on it. But what makes all the difference here is that it’s being presented by the creative minds at Pixar. They’ve done far more with less, and again, this is material they’ve long since mastered. Plus, there’s the fact that these characters are cars — As with toys, the concept of getting worn out and replaced with the newest model is a natural fit.

In many ways, this plays beautifully to all the strengths of the original premise. The drawback, of course, is that it draws more attention to what didn’t work, what stopped working, and will never work. On the one hand, this movie stays laser-focused on the coming race, with results that left me wondering why the previous films even bothered with any of the plotlines extraneous to their races. On the other hand, pretty much everyone in the old Radiator Springs crew is now entirely useless, most especially Mater and Sally (still respectively played by Larry the Cable Guy and Bonnie Hunt, who hopefully got a nice paycheck for all the nothing they do here).

Easily the standout of the franchise mainstays is Doc Hudson, voiced by the late Paul Newman by way of flashbacks and recycled audio. Still dead offscreen following the events of Cars, Doc and his mentorship of McQueen are constantly talked about. This makes a lot of sense, because of course he’d come up while McQueen and his fans are reminiscing about his glory days. Additionally, while McQueen recovers from his crash and thinks of how to cope with the inevitable day when he can’t race anymore, it makes a lot of sense that he’d think on how Doc dealt with the same.

Alas, even among the newcomers, the supporting cast is pretty weak overall. Chris Cooper was a fantastic pick to voice the new mentor, but that mentor archetype is pretty much all he does. Nathan Fillion leaves an impression, but that’s pretty much solely because he’s Nathan Fillion — it’s so blatantly obvious from the start that the character is a scumbag that the heel-turn fails to matter when it finally comes. But alas, the booby prize goes to Armie Hammer, through no fault of his own. Despite his prominent antagonist role, Jackson Storm has virtually zero development. He’s not sympathetic enough to be complex, and he’s not arch enough that he’s fun to hate. The character is just kind of a dick, and there’s very little fun in watching him get taken down.

The highlight of the new supporting cast is definitely Cruz Ramirez, voiced by Cristela Alonzo. She’s a newer-generation car who comes on as McQueen’s trainer, though they end up learning quite a lot from each other in unexpected ways. That is to say, the characters don’t expect it — the audience will see every development between them from a mile away. Still, it’s a poignant angle with some cute little moments, and it builds on the central “aging/obsolescence” theme in a satisfying way. Plus, Cruz effectively becomes the new face of the franchise, with a 50-year-old white man passing the torch to a young Hispanic woman. It’s a nicely progressive move.

Another crucial factor is in the new school/old school conflict. Obviously, Storm was created by a new way of thinking, one that McQueen comes to reject in favor of training under methods more tried and true. All well and good. The problem is that the “new way” is primarily computer-driven. In other words, it’s machine-driven. In a world populated by machines. You can start to see the opening of the rabbit hole, right? However, the movie does a decent job of glossing over this, focusing on heart and quick thinking over statistical analysis, and tactile dirt roads over simulations. And again, this whole franchise works sooo much more effectively if you take everything symbolically and metaphorically, rather than literally.

The comedy is pretty brainless, but nothing too awful — more like groaner humor than anything else. The race scenes are okay, though the training sequences in the back half are way more compelling. The standout is definitely an energetic and comical demolition derby at the halfway point. And of course the visuals are of Pixar’s typical sterling quality.

Oh, and of course there’s a short film before the actual movie. “Lou” is set on a grade school playground, where the items in the lost and found have somehow gained sentience and merged together into a single friendly entity. I promise, it’s far more creative, heartfelt, and entertaining than I could make it sound without spoilers. I honestly haven’t liked a Pixar short film this much for quite some time.

Cars 3 is ultimately below Pixar’s usual standard, but still above the franchise’s expected standard. It sucks that the franchise mainstays have to get crowbarred in long after they’ve contributed anything useful, but the characters that do work are nicely compelling. And even if the themes are expressed in machine-driven metaphors that draw attention to how the setting still makes no goddamn sense, it’s nevertheless easy to suspend disbelief because the themes are so beautifully expressed and the filmmakers at Pixar are just that damned good. As a direct result, even if the story thins and everything happens exactly as expected, the payoff is satisfying nonetheless.

It’s no masterpiece, but I still had a good time with it. I don’t think that’s worth a premium ticket, but it’s absolutely worth checking out on a 2D screen.

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