Cars 3 movie review: Lightning McQueen strikes! The final lap is the best one

Cars 3

Pixar saved the best for last. Cars 3 is the most impressive entry in the series.

Cars 3
Director – Brian Fee
Cast – Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Armie Hammer, Nathan Fillion, Larry the Cable Guy
Rating – 4/5

Despite being the runt of the Pixar litter — the trilogy that no one really talks about, completely outclassed as it is by the Toy Story films — there is no other movie or series in Pixar’s glorious roster that inspires a furious debate as Cars.

For a studio that prides itself on spending half-a-decade creating their films, giving them an almost lovingly hand-crafted, artisanal feel, Cars sticks out as Eddie Murphy’s Donkey would in Wall-E. The only reason it made this far, despite mediocre reviews, and ho-hum box office is — and this might surprise you — because it is, thanks to record-breaking merchandise sales, one of the most lucrative brands in the history of film.

Which is why, despite being a trilogy, there was never really a thorough line that connected the plot of the first and second movies. The first Cars was, for all intents and purposes, a sports movie, complete with an underdog hero, a gruff mentor, a small town, and a supporting cast of colourful characters. It was Pixar’s Rocky. Cars 2, for some odd reason, was an international spy movie that made the imbecile Mater the protagonist, which even back then made zero sense for a series about sentient cars.

The road to success has been rocky for Cars, but it has, inelegantly, managed to maneuver it. And as a standalone piece of filmmaking, Cars 3 makes the best decision it possibly could have: It makes a hasty U-turn from all that spy nonsense, returns to its roots, and drives the series back onto a race track. Unlike the first film — which is more a victim of unreal expectations set by members of its family than anything else, and Cars 2, which is indefensibly forgettable — this movie is a joy.

We catch up with Lightning McQueen, played as earnestly as ever by Owen Wilson, at the peak of his game. He is winning race after race, that old spark that we remember from the first film returning as he leaves the competition biting the dust. But then, without warning, a storm arrives. His name, ominously, is Jackson Storm, and he leads a new crop of racers who call themselves the New Gens. They’ve got winning down to a science, and Lightning’s old-school peddle-to-the-metal attitude stands no chance.

Defeated, stripped off his colours, and urged to retire, he returns — in a plot development meant to symbolise the series’ return to its roots — to Radiator Springs, where Doc Hudson, his mentor, made him a legend.

To beat Storm, Lightning journeys across the country, trying to learn again, to rediscover his talent. He is accompanied by Cruz Ramirez, a feisty car with repressed dreams of being a racer.

He sees himself in Storm. He sees his arrogance, and his cockiness. He sees what he used to be before he met Doc. And through this journey, he doubles down on his core beliefs. No one tells Lightning McQueen when to quit. He will go out on his own terms.

And while you shouldn’t really expect this from a Cars movie, you can always count on Pixar to be emotionally truthful. How Lightning is treated here — passive aggressively nudged into retirement, mocked for being outclassed: That is exactly how we treat our sports stars. We like to think that if we made them — untrue, by the way — then we can tell them when to quit. We did it with Sachin Tendulkar, and we’re doing it with Roger Federer.

But these aren’t the questions you’re meant to ask here, of a Cars movie. You’re not supposed to understand how Cars reproduce. Knowing if there is a class structure to their world, or wondering how Tractor Cars, designed to be cows, eat real hay will add nothing to your viewing experience.

None of this matters because obviously, there is no real logic in play here. But I remember watching the first film as a kid, and not once did any of this — the socio-political world of cars — strike me as odd. The movie was about talking cars and that was that. But as with a Grimm Brothers fairytale, it’s only with age that you realise that there was a lot of weirdness going on that you simply did not think about.

Cars 3 is not that movie. It’s not weird. Or, at least, it never alerts you to its weirdness. It’s earnest. Despite dealing with heavier themes than any of its predecessors, it’s this earnestness it clings on to that wins over the darkness. It urges you to buckle in, and ride shotgun in a journey that takes Lightning through his past — and Doc’s — into his future.

Cars 3 was the underdog, coming from behind, facing shiny new competition. It was betrayed by its own family, and challenged by Gru. But it saved its best for last. In its final lap, it won. It became the first film in the series Pixar should be proud of.