First Thoughts on Cars 3 (2017)

*All reviews contain spoilers*

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So… Cars 3. I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I had no expectations for this whatsoever, or at least, no positive ones. After the catastrophe of Cars 2 (2011) – still widely regarded as the only real failure Pixar’s produced – it came as a real surprise to hear that the studio were producing a third installment. I mean, of all the modern classics they’ve produced, why did Cars (2006) become their second franchise after Toy Story? What on earth made them think a third film was necessary, let alone whether or not they could make it good? You may have answered those questions with cynicism, assuming that it was simply a cash-grab, an attempt to sell more toy Lightning McQueens… that was certainly what I thought, anyway. But then, I knew it wasn’t fair to judge it without actually seeing it, and the pedigree of the studio meant that I felt obliged to at least give it a chance. After all, the first one was actually a bit underrated, if current reviews are anything to go by – and surely Pixar wouldn’t go ahead with this, having read all those disappointed reviews of the second film, unless they had a damn good reason.

Before I get into my opinion of the film itself, though, I just want to say a quick word about the accompanying short shown before it: Lou. I always enjoy Pixar’s shorts (and Disney’s, for that matter) and this one was no exception. It tells a simple story about a fascinating being named “Lou,” who is made up of various discarded toys and other odds and ends from around a school playground. His design is pretty obviously based on Finding Dory’s Hank, with his “tentacles” and his manner of getting about, but the inventive animation makes him a charming and enjoyable character to watch. He spends most of the short trying to teach a greedy little boy who’s been hogging all the toys for himself to share, which takes a while – but once the lesson sinks in, it makes the playground more fun for everybody… well, except for Lou. With all of the toys distributed amongst the children, there’s nothing left for him to exist of, which gives the short a poignant but rather bittersweet ending.

Now – how was Cars 3 itself? Well, to answer the most pressing question first – it’s definitely better than Cars 2 (but then, how could it not be?). In fact, this film treats the second one as though it never happened; the events of Cars 2 are never mentioned, nor do any of the characters introduced in it make a return appearance, something I’m sure nobody is complaining about. Instead, Cars 3 seems to be trying to get audiences to take it seriously, to win back the respect earned by most of Pixar’s other efforts and erase the shame of the sequel. This film features more of Pixar’s by-this-point standard photorealistic animation and has some excellent scenery in it, although it doesn’t show off the deserts of the American southwest as much as the first did. The weather is used more creatively in this one, with lots of moody, rainy cloudscapes reflecting the film’s more serious tone – there’s a lot less of Mater here, that’s for sure. The real triumph of Cars 3 is that it manages to shake off that commercialized aftertaste left in our mouths from the last one, and delivers an actual message.

Owen Wilson returns here in his role as cocky racecar Lightning McQueen, with Cristela Alonzo, a newcomer to animation, replacing Bonnie Hunt as the female lead and Armie Hammer taking over from Michael Keaton as the primary antagonist. There are also a number of cameos by actual racing legends and racing-related sportspeople like Lewis Hamilton, Daniel Suárez, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Darrell Wallace Jr., Junior Johnson, Ray Evernham, Shannon Spake, Jeff Gordon, Bob Costas and Darrell Waltrip. In a return to the style of the first film, Lightning is the focus again, as he should be – the main story is that Lightning is now considered to be past his prime, and follows his struggle to accept that. Simple, but effective.

The character dynamics of the film are unusual and modern, which I enjoyed: it was refreshing to see a female lead who isn’t the male lead’s love interest, but is instead an equal, a member of his profession who ultimately proves herself to be just as competent as Lightning himself. Interestingly, though, the role of the actual love interest, Lightning’s wife/partner Sally, is very minimal in this film; this makes me wonder if Pixar were struggling to find enough to do for two female characters. Still, having Cruz Ramirez as Lightning’s main companion here is definitely an improvement (Pixar have clearly taken on board some of the criticism about their male-dominated films). The new characters are largely enjoyable, even if there are perhaps a few too many of them. Cruz gets fleshed out very believably and makes for a much more natural and less irritating presence than Mater did, with Mater himself reduced to more of a cameo role. Jackson Storm is, admittedly, a bit one-note as a “villain,” but he does have a fantastic design which lends him a lot of presence onscreen, especially combined with the realistic style of animation. Smokey felt like a bit of a rehash of Doc Hudson, but I did enjoy his trio of mischievous friends and I only wish they’d had a few more scenes. Mind you, I couldn’t help agreeing with Cruz as she questioned Lightning on his plan to visit this Smokey guy; if he is at least a few decades older than Doc, how is it he’s still alive? Heck, how does car longevity even work?

Within the film itself, one of the highlights is the much-hyped crash scene that was teased in some of the earliest trailers, leading to fan speculation that Pixar might actually be killing Lightning off. I honestly wouldn’t have put it past them, but I can confirm that this actually is not the case – still, it’s a surprisingly chilling scene, especially for fans of the original film where the same thing is seen happening to Strip “the King” Weathers. This scene offers a glimpse of Pixar at their best, even in the midst of one of their less ambitious offerings. That said, the ending seems just a little bit convoluted – I mean, is tag-teaming like that even allowed in the middle of a race? Even the characters seem surprised at the turn things take! Although I appreciate that Pixar were shooting for a happier ending, it sort of feels like they lost their nerve and couldn’t go through with the more realistic ending; Lightning couldn’t be allowed to lose completely. They also jam in the rather dubious suggestion that Doc enjoyed coaching Lightning more than his own glory days as a racer (I find that hard to believe), which is presumably an attempt to soften the “blow” when Lightning effectively steps down and assumes that same role at the end. At least that does give them a chance to show off a bit more of fan favourite Doc though, using some creatively handled pieces of dialogue from the late Paul Newman combined with some nostalgia “old-timey” animation.

Overall, Cars 3 is actually impressively mature, perhaps even a little too much so – I noticed many of the children in the audience at my showing were distracted, chattering and running about, not really following the story. It was quite a “talky” film with lots of slow, dialogue-heavy scenes, but there were also enough of the action-packed racing scenes to balance these out. My first though upon leaving the theatre was actually that it reminded me a lot of Monsters University (2013). Like Cars 3, that film was also considered rather superfluous and didn’t receive particularly enthusiastic reviews, but the other thing the two films have in common is that they both deliver a truly unexpected message at their cores. Both films seem to be trying to prepare children for reality, by teaching them that while it’s important to try your best to achieve your goals, it’s equally important not to get too attached to specific dreams which might, after all, prove to be too difficult to accomplish. Lightning McQueen and Mike Wazowski both have to learn to accept their limitations; in spite of their best efforts, ultimately, neither of them is capable of achieving their goal. Both films do make it clear that compromise and flexibility are useful when trying to overcome this, and both characters do end up working in their desired fields (albeit in different roles than they’d intended), but the message is still a rather bleak one for what is primarily a kid’s film. Pixar seem to be saving their more unconventional narratives like these for the films which nobody expects much of, allowing them to slip under the radar, so to speak.

Cars 3 also felt like the anti-Zootopia (2016) – in that film, Judy Hopps is able to overcome her limitations in one short montage and achieves her dream in typical Disney fashion. I’m not saying that’s always a bad thing to see (everyone wants the hero to win some of the time), but it’s just a nice change to see a film that isn’t afraid to treat kids with some maturity, showing them a hero who doesn’t technically get what he wants, but still manages to make things work and doesn’t just roll over and cry about it. (One other film it reminded me of, with its story of an aging professional trying to return to his career, was The Incredibles {2004} – the one everyone wants a sequel to!).

Of course, Lightning’s theme in this film is paralleled nicely by Cruz’s story. She represents the opposite of him, the rookie who doesn’t believe in themselves enough to reach their full potential and has to be given the confidence to try. This all ties together with Lightning’s narrative, giving him a chance to retain a position in his beloved racing career while also stepping into his hero’s shoes and becoming the kind of mentor he once had himself, a role which better suits the new “him.”

One thing about Pixar is that they’ve never been afraid to go against type – after years of clichéd happy endings, your gut tells you to expect Lightning to win his race and defeat Jackson Storm in the film’s climax, once he’s overcome that brash arrogance and listened to his trainer (it’s no surprise that the film has drawn comparisons with the Rocky series as well). But this doesn’t happen because, in the film’s bold and simple statement, he simply isn’t capable of it. Although neither he nor Jackson are based on any single real car model, their designs incorporate elements of various ones – I watch a lot of Top Gear, and I thought Jackson looked somewhat like the legendary Bugatti Veyron, which is the fastest street-legal production car to date and can hit speeds in excess of 260mph. Given how impressive Jackson is made out to be, it would have been almost a let-down to see Lightning beat him, as it would have destroyed all of the build-up of Jackson’s character and weakened the overall plot. All I can say is, I have to hand it to Pixar – they really know how to defy expectations, and I can see why they felt that this was a story worth telling. They took an opportunity which could have been used merely for marketing, but instead, they learned from past mistakes and used it to try and teach their audience something for a change. I love Disney, but given their upcoming slate of sequels, I feel like they could learn something from their brothers and sisters at Pixar.

EXTRA NOTE: I’m really looking forward to Pixar’s Coco at the end of the year and will definitely be doing a “First Thoughts” review on that one. It looks very promising so far, and no, it is not a rip-off of The Book of Life (2014)!

 

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52126178 – credit for the poster

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