'Cars 3' still has a lot left in the tank
- By Teddy Durgin -
Franchises are getting so many sequels, prequels and follow-ups these days that studios can literally blow $100 million or more making an installment just to apologize for the previous failed episode. "X-Men: Days of Future Past," for example, was two hours and 12 minutes of basically erasing the entirety of "X-Men: The Last Stand."
"Cars 3" is a slightly different beast. And, as a result, I have a lot of respect for it. You see, "Cars 2" was pretty much universally loathed by anyone with double digits in their age. In fact, it has almost become a rite of passage to turn 10 and suddenly hate the film. Whoever thought making Larry the Cable Guy's Tow Mater the main character and Lightning McQueen the support should have been Segway-ed off of Pixar's beautiful corporate campus in California with his/her office contents and never allowed back again. The truly great thing about "Cars 3?" It never mentions the events of "Cars 2!" It's like the film never existed. And Tow Mater is given about as much screen time as Jar Jar Binks in "Attack of the Clones." Just enough to continue selling the toys. But not enough to mar the movie in any significant way.
Instead, the film belongs completely to Owen Wilson's Lightning McQueen, who was once the hotshot, showboat upstart of the racing circuit in this alternate world of mutated, sentient vehicles. But now he's the old car being supplanted by a new generation of souped-up, high-tech rivals led by the sleek, supremely cocky Jackson Storm (voiced by Armie Hammer, the sleek actor who's name actually sounds like a character in an animated film). Storm blows past him and several of Lightning's longtime rivals during one race early in the film, and McQueen suddenly realizes he has to push himself harder in the next one if he has any chance. He does, and the result is a terrible, viscerally disturbing crash that puts him out until the next season.
In that time - the whole middle part of the film - "Cars 3" becomes a variation on one of the "Rocky" movies with the beaten former champ having to regain his confidence and learn to fight... er, drive a different way before attempting a comeback. He briefly licks his wounds... er, dents, back in Radiator Springs with all the familiar faces of the first two flicks. But the film really takes hold when Lightning travels to a high-tech training center and meets new team owner Sterling (Nathan Fillion) and, even more importantly, new coach Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). Cruz had dreams of becoming a racer growing up and watching McQueen do his thing. But it didn't work out for her and decided that she could make more of an impact coaching.
The heart of the film comes in the generational divide between McQueen and Ramirez coupled with the lingering memories Lightning has of his cherished mentor, Doc (the late Paul Newman, who's spirit is jump-started here thanks to some unused audio outtakes from more than a decade ago). The film has a lot to say about the importance of mentoring, the acceptance of one's limitations and the transitioning of skills and lessons from one generation to the next. It's a film that both embraces and honors old traditions and recognizes how vital it is to similarly embrace and honor change, progression and the future.
I still don't put this franchise up there with Pixar's greatest efforts like the "Toy Story" franchise, "Up" and "Monsters Inc." It's still a 90-minute toy commercial, first and foremost. And the studio missed a golden opportunity to cast "Smokey and the Bandit" legend Burt Reynolds to voice Doc's mythic mentor Smokey, who McQueen tracks down for counsel. Instead, Chris Cooper is cast, and he's just passable. Newman was great because he was such a major star AND a well-known celebrity auto racer.
Ah well. At least there was some real care put back into the storytelling here. And the animation is amazing. "Cars 3" does more than spin its wheels. It propels the franchise forward.
"Cars 3" is rated G.