Cars 3 (2017) (Review)

Ah, Cars. The runt of Disney Pixar's litter; the black sheep, if you will. Whenever anybody collates and ranks the animation giant's filmography, you are pretty certain to find the 2011 sequel unceremoniously dumped at the bottom of the pile - as I have done in my ranking, and as the Rotten Tomatoes' Pixar scorecard indicates. Literally, nobody likes it and the 2006 is only slightly more favoured, particularly when it compares to extortionately high bar set by the likes of Toy Story, Inside Out and Finding Nemo. Can Pixar save their least successful franchise in its third outing, or is the motorcar series finally out of gas?

Cars 3 focuses on an maturing Lightning McQueen (voiced again by Owen Wilson) and his determination to prove to a new generation that he is still the best race car in the world. Experiencing somewhat of an identity crisis as a new wave of supercars enter the arena - including his most intense revival, Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) - McQueen is coached by trainer and racing technician, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), in a desperate, last-ditch attempt to make his upcoming season the most successful yet. 

Quite frankly, Cars 3 is exactly the film you expect from this middle-of-the-road franchise. It is not aggressively bad or particularly awful - just complete mediocre, only tolerable animation that already appears past a prime it never really achieved in the first place.  Cars 3 adheres so close to the formula presented in the first two films that it threatens to render the entire film pointless: we see races, petrol-guzzling, friendships, rivalries and a fight against the odds - not a lot else, and certainly nothing new. For a studio championed for its boundary-busting, genre-defying collection, Cars 3 is pretty damn basic and uninspiring.

 The cartoon characters that populate this franchise are not nearly substantial enough to fuel three films worth of material (it barely scrapped one film out of them), despite some generally fine and/or solid performances from the voice cast. Owen Wilson is good enough but McQueen as a character, three films in, is still dull; in fact, you are rooting for the newest character of the bunch - Cruz Ramirez, voiced by the impressive Cristela Alonzo - than any of the returning alumni. Larry The Cable Guy is charismatic as Mater but they do not understand what to do with the comedy sidekick, suggesting he is one for the scrapheap, sooner rather than later.

With the characters running out of gas pretty quickly, the two Cars sequels have been required to lean on its visuals to keep audiences engaged (it's been an unbelievable eleven years since the original). In that area, Cars 3 is solid, with some impressive set pieces, including a prolonged stretch on Fireball Beach demonstrating what Pixar can achieve; it never reaches the upper-echelons of the likes of the lush Finding Dory, the inventive of Inside Out or the sheer detail of Toy Story 3, but it is skilful and visually-captivating enough. Director Brian Fee does a fine job in exploring these set pieces in a mixture of new ways, avoiding a complete rehash of previous films' set pieces effectively. Fee does fails to streamline the 109 minute feature into a tighter 90 minute piece though. That run-time, pushing towards the two-hour mark, is completely unjustified and unneeded.

Pixar's Cars franchise has always felt more geared towards the younger demographic than any other release in the animators' collection and that continues to be the case with the second sequel. Even with a slight attempt to inject this outing with themes more familiar to older, more mature audiences, it still feels strictly 'for the kids'. From the clear parallels between the 'Storm' and 'Lightning' rivalry to the plain-as-day flashbacks to highlight the commonalities, everything is spelt out in a rather simple way. Again, that would be fine coming from most other animators, but Pixar have always felt above that exposition and spoon-feeding.

Cars 3's screenplay from Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson and Mike Rich delivers more of the same and relies on audiences' experiencing an nostalgia to a series that connected with too few to be moving. Paul Newman's death provides the film with a couple of bleary-eye moments but it is often too-heavy handed to emerge naturally or profoundly, meaning it strikes you as somewhat misguided and laden. The trio struggle with pacing and momentum too, with some decent moments padded out with slow, often tiresome stretches: again, a trimming would alleviate a lot of that concern.

Credit must be awarded though for the wonder it pulls off with Cruz, delivering a powerful ending that scratches deeper than a Cars film has before. Its ending is surprisingly sophisticated and smartly conveys an importance of claiming your own power, in a satisfying, if grandiloquent manner. Furthermore, while the script splutter in its attempts at humour, the visual gags land with more success, with a few moments that raise a handful of smiles and appreciation from older audiences fed up with the almost stale cartoon characters and otherwise child-orientated humour.

In a pretty lacklustre race, this third Cars film pulls only slightly into the lead. While that doesn't take away from the fact a franchise need not have left the gate at all, at least it illustrates signs of progressions. It's a visually solid picture, with a new character that does most own the heavy-lifting in terms of narrative excitement and theme work - but it lacks an emotional sophistication and satisfying justification to the whole thing, struggling to shake the feeling that we've been there, done that. Hopefully we have come to the end of the road for the Cars franchise because there is only so many mediocre animations you can make before your whole reputation is diluted.

To quote a well-known comedy, 'stop trying to make Cars happen - it's not going to happen".


Summary: Cars 3 is an occasionally enjoyable but entirely unnecessary sequel to Disney Pixar's least inspiring franchise. Let this be the end of the road for Cars, before it finally runs out of gas