CARS 3 (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated G
(for all audiences)
Released:  June 16, 2017
Runtime: 109 minutes
Director: Brian Fee
Starring: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Larry the Cable Guy, Bonnie Hunt, Armie Hammer, Nathan Fillion, Tony Shalhoub, Cheech Marin, John Ratzenberger

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The word “obscene” is not an adjective one normally associates with Pixar, but that’s exactly the kind of cash grab that Cars 2 was. Nothing more than a merchandise promo in feature length form, that eye-popping but soulless sequel is the low point for Hollywood’s premier animation studio.

The prospect of a third felt not only unnecessary but truly cynical, so it comes as a relief to find that Cars 3 is a nice heartfelt tune-up for the anthropomorphic racing car franchise. It’s no classic, but after a bumpy start this finds its heartfelt inside lane once again.

With a three-act structure that goes, respectively, from conventional to sentimental to surprising, Cars 3 starts sluggish but finishes strong. Our introduction back into this world is barely better than where we last left it. Sure, it starts colorful, cute, and fast-paced, but the script doggedly sets up the story’s premise and conflict, one that predictably laps what you’d expect from a third go-around.

Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), the sport’s top race car, is passed up by the latest hotshot rookie Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), causing McQueen to confront the possibility that retirement may be forced upon him even while he still has a need for speed. One more race will tell the tale, and it could be his last.

Yawn. The movie has energy, but inspiration it doesn’t. Plus, the humor isn’t even half-hearted, barely squeezing out racing puns and little else.

The remainder of the film’s first third meanders through a hodgepodge of better sequences: a brief soul-searching return pit-stop to Radiator Springs, followed by an overwhelming high tech training center, and then an undercover entry in a dirt car mudtrack event. There’s some clever bits here and there, thankfully, and the smooth, even graceful car animation still ranks among some of Pixar’s best work, but on the whole it feels like a random collection of leftover ideas scrapped from the first two films.

The best thing to emerge from all of this is Cruz Ramierz (relative newcomer Cristela Alonozo), the top trainer at the state of the art racing facility. She is a feisty, motivational coach who knows which buttons to push in order to get the best out of her racers. A lively bond forms between Cruz and McQueen; it’s sometimes oil-and-water but always amiable and charming. Better still, they both have things to learn from each other.

Like the original, Cars 3 is at its best when it slows down for meaningful character moments. The film’s middle section downshifts considerably to this end and, subsequently, ramps up its appeal; McQueen and Cruz find an old town off the beaten path with a special history that, for Lightning, strikes a deep personal connection.

There, he’s mentored by an old retired legend named Smokey (Chris Cooper). On the surface this narrative turn bares an all-too-familiar construct to the dynamic between McQueen and Paul Newman’s now-deceased Doc Hudson, yet it’s also where the movie finds itself. It does so by rediscovering the heart that fueled the first film to begin with, one that came from a very personal place for Pixar chief John Lasseter, and it proves meaningful to watch McQueen reconnect with those core values once more.

This is where Cruz comes into her own as well, rising from sidekick catalyst to a character with dreams and passions of her own, driven by her own sense of urgency (and agency). Cruz’s arc is as fulfilling as McQueen’s, and both get an emotional turbo boost by the fact that their journeys are inextricably bound.

Indeed, the film’s final stretch proves to be much more of a payoff than I was anticipating, especially when the race takes an unexpectedly meaningful turn. McQueen discovers how he can retire on his own terms, and in a way that is magnanimously selfless.

Cars 3 could be a fitting, satisfying end to a series that briefly lost its way, but it could just as easily be a set up for a Next Gen upgrade reboot that would be more welcome than I’d have previously believed.

Regardless, even for a sequel that was made primarily for Disney’s corporate coughers than it was to meet any fan demand, it’s heartening to see Pixar invest its soul once again into the story that it’s telling. No wonder the film ended up working so well; that soul ended up being at the heart of Lightning McQueen’s story, too.

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