'Cars 3' Review: Better Than The Second Movie, Not Quite As Good As Part One

The Cars movies have been the redheaded stepchildren of the Pixar filmography for just over a decade. While the films are a merchandising cash cow, the 2006 original and 2011 sequel are among Pixar's weakest creative efforts, the latter being their outright worst. A more positive spin on Cars 3 might suggest that the studio has something to prove, that they wanted this movie to exist for reasons aside from selling toys. The good news is that Cars 3 is mercifully a step up from Cars 2; the less surprising news is that it's not quite as good as the original.

Once the cocky upstart of the racing world, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is now unwillingly the older, wiser vehicle being scoffed at by next-gen racers like the smug Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer, in full Winklevoss mode). After he gets into a nasty crash, Lightning tries his hand at beating the newbies at their own game, working with trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) in a cutting-edge training center funded by his new sponsor (Nathan Fillion). When that fails to pan out, Lightning traces the tracks of his old mentor, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), to gain some inspiration, further his legacy, and keep on racing.

Cars 3 has many recognizable hallmarks of a Cars movie: stunning and photorealistic animation, an affinity for old-fashioned Americana, a languorous pace, and Larry the Cable Guy. Regarding the latter point, it's a relief that someone at Pixar (maybe this film's director Brian Fee, studio honcho John Lasseter, one of the screenwriters, or someone else) decided to course-correct after the genuinely obnoxious Cars 2, which puts Lightning's buddy Mater front and center. That film isn't referenced in Cars 3, and Mater is frequently sidelined, showing up to offer moral support to Lightning in the form of well-worn adages like "Git 'r' done!" This new movie is focused instead on Lightning's fear of aging out of racing and becoming broken-hearted and resentful, as he perceives Doc Hudson to have been in his later years.

In its best scenes, Cars 3 focuses instead on Lightning's new trainer, Cruz. Thanks to Alonzo's nuanced, energetic performance, and the portrayal of a woman who wants to break into a male-dominated society, Cruz becomes one of the franchise's most three-dimensional characters. Thus, it's a shame that it took three films for Cars to create a genuinely interesting figure, who isn't even the actual protagonist. The implication that gender and race have held Cruz back while her idol Lightning has flourished is fascinating to a degree (seeing as these are all cars, not humans with gender and racial identities). Alonzo, to her credit, is much more charming than Wilson is, selling a meaty monologue halfway through the film that allows for her emotional arc to reach a satisfying climax. The only crutch is that the epiphany that Cruz can race as well as Lightning comes from his point of view, not hers.

Cruz aside, the story doesn't quite come together. Cars 3 is slowly paced like the original film; as that film's message was all about taking life at a slower speed, it made more sense. This story's all about Lightning getting his groove back, a journey that's hard to get invested in when scenes stretch out past a logical endpoint. Lightning's fear of becoming obsolete and used by his sponsor as a mascot is also oddly (and presumably unintentionally) funny, seeing as the characters in these films are merchandised to death across the world. That fear leads to one of the strangest elements of this film: Newman (who passed away in 2008) has a fair amount of dialogue, taken from unused recordings from the original. Newman was arguably the best part of the first Cars, so hearing him again as Doc isn't automatically bad, but it's exceedingly awkward.

Nevertheless, this movie is all about the legacy we create and leave behind, so having Doc show up via flashback and hallucination makes a certain, baffling sense. Largely, Cars 3 isn't better than the 2006 original, shifting its storytelling priorities throughout the first two-thirds before it figures out that Lightning's personal legacy is less important than giving someone younger and worthier a shot at the big time. The film does eventually get back on the right track, but it's almost too little, too late. Cars 3 isn't without its charms, and ignoring Cars 2 is a smart move, but this film doesn't change the franchise's place in Pixar's history.

Note: As is standard for Pixar films, Cars 3 is preceded by a new short, titled Lou. The primarily dialogue-free short, written and directed by Dave Mullins, is an odd little thing, depicting the battle of wills between an elementary school bully and a good-hearted monster whose body takes the form of a group of items in a school's lost-and-found box. Lou is stronger in its gag-heavy first half than in the more poignant second half, which features a shot echoing Ratatouille's finest moment. Relative to recent Pixar shorts, it's not quite as good as Sanjay's Super Team, but a solid and snappy appetizer./Film Rating: 5 out of 10