Saying that Cars 3 is better than its predecessor isn’t much of a compliment. What matters more is that it hearkens back to original 2006 Cars and winds up on a surprisingly thoughtful note. The soundtrack even features the voice of the late Paul Newman in a series of flashbacks as our hero, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), remembers how much the encouragement of Newman’s character Hudson Hornet always meant to him.
There’s plenty of high-energy racing and colorful characters to engage kids in the audience, but unlike other Pixar animated films that openly deal with life transitions (outgrowing childhood toys in the Toy Story films, the onset of puberty in Inside Out, old age in Up) this one camouflages its message in a flurry of action. The story deals with the fact that Lightning McQueen is being overtaken by a cocky, high-tech newcomer to the racing scene named Jackson Storm. He’s built for speed and efficiency and has no respect for McQueen or his more congenial generation of cars.
How can Lightning reboot his career and earn back his self-respect in the process? As four-wheel veteran Smokey tells him, “You can’t turn back the clock, kid, but you can wind it up again.”
Like an increasing number of mainstream movies, this one also sends a proactive message to girls: racing isn’t a boys’ club anymore. Comedian Cristela Alonzo provides the voice of Cruz Ramirez, who sacrificed her childhood dream of being a racer to become a trainer instead. Lightning rejects and resents her…at first. (Sallee, the other female character in this series, takes a back seat this time around—no pun intended.)
As a grownup, I wish Cars 3 got to the point sooner than it does. I also wish animated features went back to the time when they clocked in at less than 90 minutes; this is one hour and forty-nine. But millions of kids have swarmed to the first two Cars movies and been thoroughly entertained, so who am I to complain? I’m also the guy who gets a headache from Mater, the friendly tow-truck character voiced by Larry the Cable Guy.
The production and character design are meaningful and clever. First-time director Brian Fee has plenty of experience in animation and also contributed to the screenplay. As we know by now, every Pixar film is the result of teamwork and it always shows. There are plenty of in-jokes and celebrity cameos to amuse parents while kids enjoy the hyperactivity and frequent change of scenery. Randy Newman’s score keeps up at every turn, even invoking Aaron Copland at one appropriate moment.
Cars 3 gains strength as it nears the finish line, and that’s my good-news takeaway from this summer sequel.