The Cars movies have never elicited huge responses from Pixar fans, outside of a niche audience and young adults who were introduced to the first film early on and fueled the merchandising that would keep this franchise alive and running. And it would be wrong to suggest that Cars 3 is anywhere close to the high standards set by some of Pixar's biggest titans, the most recent being Inside Out.
That said, Cars 3 is pretty great. Even for Pixar. Here's a spoiler-free discussion about a movie that genuinely surprised me with its wit and heart.
Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is now a veteran on the circuit, and though he deeply loves his life as a racer, a new generation of faster rookies are pressuring his sponsors to coerce him into retirement. Hungry to end his career on his own terms, Lightning embarks on a series of unconventional training "exercises" to get the advantage on the younger generation.
One of the first things I realized while watching the film is that it's clearly uninterested in persuading the naysayers. This is a Cars film that won't grab everyone, but it will deeply satisfy fans of the first film, and to that point, it's remarkably better than its predecessors (we'll just ignore that Cars 2 exists, since Cars 3 does the same).
There's a heavier punch here and a poignant message about aging athletes that's great storytelling removed from the "cars are alive" concept. And unlike the first Cars film, Cars 3 adds a lot of fun and thrill to balance out the emotional beats.
I'm still trying to decide what I think about Cruz Ramirez, Lightning's trainer, voiced by Cristela Alonzo. I enjoy the somewhat original alignment of her character, who is younger than Lightning but still his trainer. That's not a dynamic you see very often in these types of sports movies, and it moves forward in some interesting ways.
It should be noted right away that Jackson Storm (the cutting-edge racer voiced by Armie Hammer) is one of the weakest villains Pixar has ever done. At first, I thought this was inconsequential because the film doesn't spend much time worrying about him aside from the early goings, but then I remembered that Chick Hicks, the villain from the first Cars, was also inconsequential but still an interesting character. He's in Cars 3 hamming it up as the showboat announcer who can't let go of his one-time Piston Cup win — and honestly, that's the sort of characterization Jackson Storm is completely lacking. He has no memorable lines or unique drive. He's just a cookie-cutter sports movie villain you've seen many other times.
Aside from that, I have a few nitpicks that aren't nearly as major. The third act is predictable and could have been guarded more closely to preserve suspense. But it never ruined the film for me because the entertainment value wasn't solely on the drama.
I also hesitate to get onboard with one of the film's striking subplots about white male privilege (seriously). Without giving much away, there's a complicated message here that I'm not sure the movie handles as tastefully as it thinks it does. I hope I'm wrong, and it'll take another viewing or two to grapple with this, but at the very least this is a far more thought-provoking aspect of the film than I could have ever expected from the Cars franchise.
To better explore my feelings, I sat down to do a full video review of Cars 3, explaining exactly why I think this is a worthwhile film for a lot of Pixar and animation fans who've become disillusioned by this franchise — and Pixar as a whole:
Cars 3 races into theaters on June 16, 2017.
Are you excited about Cars 3 or just...eh? Sound off in the comments below! And be sure to connect with me on Twitter: @JonNegroni