At last, Cars 3 is here! The sequel that nobody asked for to a film that is itself a sequel that nobody asked for to a film that was pretty ok by Pixar standards is finally here and we can all rejoice!
Before we begin, we have to address the elephant in the room; why do they keep Cars sequels? It is not as if Cars is a beloved film. Critically, the three cars films make up the three lowest rated Pixar films on Rotten Tomatoes, with Cars and Cars 2 making up the two lowest rated Pixar films on IMDB as well. If these films aren’t renowned by critics or fans, then they must surely make a killing at the box office, right?
Only three Pixar films have made less than Cars at the box office, and two of those are the first two Pixar films in Toy Story and A Bug’s Life. And Cars 2 didn’t fare much better, as it is right in the middle of box office earnings for Pixar films, and at $560 million, comes in almost $80 million below the average box office earnings of Pixar films.
If the Cars films are neither the best reviewed Pixar films, nor the most successful at the box office, then why do they keep being made? One word: Merchandising.
In 2011, John Lasseter stated that the merchandise sales of Cars had exceeded the $10 billion mark. This makes the Cars franchise one of the most successful merchandising franchises in cinematic history, with only Star Wars able to top it.
Now that it is abundantly clear why Pixar keeps making Cars films, it is time to take a look at their most recent offering. Cars 3 is far from Pixar’s best film, but it is definitely better than Cars 2.
The film opens up with Lightning McQueen continuing to dominate the racing scene. He, alongside some other veterans of the Piston Cup are dominating each race until a newcomer begins to push them out of the spotlight. Jackson Storm leads a new generation of high tech cars that are pushing the vets into early retirement, and McQueen is the last of the old guard to fall. After a devastating wreck, McQueen has to go through a Rocky IV style training montage before he is able to return to his former glory, and show those youngsters whose boss.
The main issue with Cars 3, as is the case with each of the other two Cars films is that the characters are weak. Perhaps there is some sort of psychological issue with trying to relate to characters that, while having human personalities, are quite clearly cars. Regardless, Lightning McQueen is one of the weakest protagonists of any Pixar film, and Owen Wilson does not carry the same sort charismatic voice acting performance as other Pixar leads. He often sounds flat and uninterested, and one cannot help but imagine Owen Wilson up on the screen acting in his very distinct way.
Compounding issues was the antagonist. Armie Hammer was a little more convincing as the voice of Jackson Storm, but the character itself left a lot to be desired. Storm was only ever presented as a cocky challenger to McQueen who led a new wave of cars coming to knock out the old veterans. He wasn’t developed enough outside of being kind of smarmy. There was not enough animosity between him and McQueen, and so when he is finally overcome at the end, there was not enough satisfaction.
Jackson Storm feels more like a sidekick than a primary antagonist.
Fortunately, there is very little of Mater in this film, which was one of the biggest downfalls of Cars 2. Mater was too heavily featured in that film, and considering how annoying that character can be, having that much exposure wears very thin near the end of the film. In his place we are introduced to some new characters, headlined by Cruz Ramirez, voiced by Cristela Alonzo. Her character is one of the most interesting and compelling in the entire franchise, and her introduction into the series is very refreshing for this franchise.
While the film is amusing throughout, through most of the second act, it appears as though it is an exact rip off of Rocky IV as mentioned earlier. McQueen seeks out Smokey (Chris Cooper), who had taught his old mentor, Doc Hudson. Once they meet, they begin to train in the wilderness with throwback methods while Jackson Storm utilizes the most high tech and sophisticated training methods ever created. Sound familiar? All of the pieces were in place for a painfully predictable ending which would see McQueen have to utilize a bunch of crafty tricks in order to overcome the pure talent and speed of Storm, the poor man’s Ivan Drago.
Enter Cruz Ramirez, a trainer who never achieved her dream of becoming a racer. The entire time McQueen is training, he is accompanied by Ramirez, who was serving as a rabbit for McQueen. And as the climactic race is heating up, McQueen makes a drastic decision: he wants Ramirez to finish in his place while he guides her as her crew chief. There were small hints of this coming throughout the film which made this conclusion pay off far more than the alternative.
Cruz Ramirez shines as the strongest character in the entire franchise.
Cars 3 is a fine film. In the pantheon of Pixar movies, the entire Cars franchise is this oddball series of films that can never really stand up to most of their peers. But this iteration is a step in the right direction. After the mess of Cars 2, (which threw away a potentially very fun story of McQueen racing other cars from around the world in favor of a silly spy plot with Mater) Cars 3 goes back to what made the first film so acceptable. It is simply a story of a character trying to achieve their dreams as a racer, and though it cannot exceed average by Pixar standards, it does manage to come out as the best of the three Cars films, with some of the best characters and elements of the entire franchise.