A rare misstep for the at-the-time infallible Pixar, Cars was an oddly comprehensive attempt to distill nearly a century of American car culture into an animated children’s film about anthropomorphic automobiles. The 2006 film, so steeped in misty-eyed nostalgia, was more interested in pandering to a fetish for rural Americana than in telling a compelling story or making any coherent sense out of its thinly conceived universe. Seeming to recognize the original’s sluggishness, 2011’s Cars 2 made a disastrous overcorrection, completely betraying the first film’s sleepy homespun vibe with an overstuffed and utterly generic spy caper centered on the franchise’s most grating character: Mater, a buck-toothed tow truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy.
With Cars 3, Pixar attempts another course correction, eschewing the clunky action-comedy trappings of Cars 2 in favor of more predictable, straightforward story about Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson)—now an aging racing veteran on the downward slope of his career—seeking to prove himself to a new generation of cars. He particularly sets his sights on defeating a high-tech speedster, Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), whose sophisticated data-driven approach to driving has bolted him to the top of the racing world. McQueen signs on to train at a state-of-the-art facility owned by rich executive Sterling (Nathan Fillion), who tasks spunky young female trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) with getting the veteran in shape to beat Storm.
Heavy on training montages and intergenerational torch passing, Cars 3 is an old-fashioned sports film at heart. Swap out the talking cars for boxers or baseball pitchers and the film would sit comfortably next to such films as Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa and Robert Lorenz’s Trouble with the Curve, twilit dramas about a fading athlete struggling with age-old conundrums: how to know when to retire and how to do it with dignity. It’s the sort of counterintuitively mature theme that’s marked Pixar’s best output, but while Cars 3 may be the least objectionable entry in this series to date, it never hits the bittersweet emotional highs of films like Up and Toy Story 3.
Cars 3 is content to explore the end of McQueen’s career with a series of pre-packaged sports-film clichés—an old dog trying to learn new tricks, struggling with a sport that seems to have passed him by, and facing, for the first time in his career, a sense of vulnerability. The template turns out to be a natural fit for the Cars universe, organically integrating racing into the fabric of the film and rendering it with a visceral sense of speed, excitement, and struggle.
Cruz is a welcome addition to the world of Cars, a plucky foil to McQueen who’s also a three-dimensional presence in her own right, much more richly developed than one-joke characters like Mater and Luigi (Tony Shalhoub). Cruz’s presence also allows the filmmakers to bring some social conscience to this sometimes backward-looking series, exploring the discouraging pressures placed on young female athletes while also nodding toward the historical exclusion of women and racial minorities from racing.
But while such efforts are admirable and deftly underplayed, they also serve to highlight how nonsensical and ill-defined the film’s world fundamentally is: Why are there male and female cars at all? Do they reproduce? And what does it mean for a car to be “black,” “white,” or “Hispanic”? Films in the Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. series take delight in delving into the fanciful but clearly delimited universes they’ve created, while, even after three movies, the Cars franchise simply replaces human figures with automobiles. Like its two predecessors, Cars 3 doesn’t seem to care about defining the contours of its universe or exploring the possibilities of an all-car world.