In “Cars 3,” Lightning McQueen’s mind is strong, but his flesh is weak. Er, metal. His metal is weak.
For his third lap around the cinematic track, the Owen Wilson-voiced red racecar faces a great horror: his impending obsolescence. When the movie opens, he’s eating up pavement quicker than any other car on the circuit, until Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) comes along. Storm, a set of trim black angles trained on virtual simulators, quickly zips past McQueen in the standings, doling out arrogant, backhanded compliments to the former champ.
The one that hurts McQueen the most? “Elder statesman.” Eleven years ago, in the first “Cars,” he was the brash young whippersnapper humbled by the simple folk in the small town of Radiator Springs. He learned to be a graceful winner. Now, he’s faced with an existential crisis – he’s not that old, but is nearly archaic compared to the new models, which are the highest of tech. He pushes himself too hard in an attempt to best Storm, and wrecks spectacularly.
McQueen falls into a funk, painted with dull gray primer and moping around his garage. He finds renewed inspiration in his former mentor and coach, Doc Hudson, who passed away prior to the events of 2011’s “Cars 2,” along with the actor who voiced him, Paul Newman. Which prompts one to wonder, what happens when a car in the “Cars” universe dies? Can a car die of old age? Did Doc get in a bad accident? What happens afterwards – is the chassis buried in the junkyard, or is it crushed into a cube and placed in a memorial urn?
I have so many questions. One of them may be answered here, when McQueen emerges from his depressive state and reveals he’s been doing a lot of “soul searching,” which may be just a figure of speech, but might also confirm that the cars do, indeed, have souls. He’s determined to train like the new racers and reclaim his trophy status, with the help of a rich new sponsor, Sterling (Nathan Fillion) and a plucky young trainer, Cruz (Cristela Alonzo).
The most admirable quality of “Cars 3” is its unexpected plot twists, which exist within the confines of the ramshackle narrative jalopy where the protagonist works diligently in the lead-up to the big climactic race, which, of course, is do-or-die for the hero’s career. (It’s also set in a 250,000-capacity stadium, reminding one that urban planners in the “Cars” world have it made, because they don’t have to worry about external parking for that many patrons.)
Although past favorite supporting characters – such as grating hillbilly tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and McQueen’s sweet Porsche girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt) – make appearances, their roles are de-emphasized as McQueen establishes an unexpected friendship with Cruz, and the two cars seek out Doc Hudson’s trainer and friends for some old-school wisdom and assistance.
Part of the two unlikely partners’ journey finds them competing in an amateur demolition derby on a muddy track, a noisy and wacky sequence that might entertain the kiddies but annoy their parents. One of McQueen and Cruz’s competitors is a big, belligerent school bus, which made me wonder, who rides that bus? Were there once humans in the “Cars” universe, and if so, are they extinct? Did artificially intelligent cars rise up and eliminate humankind? Is this franchise an automotive version of “Planet of the Apes”?
The primary arc involving McQueen’s maturation is thoughtful and modestly reflective, the element that will compel older audience members to maintain their attention. “Cars 3” is more in line with the first in the series, which celebrated the nostalgia of life off the expressway and on Route 66. In the new film, McQueen looks back at the dirt tracks on which Doc attained his glory, looks ahead to a shiny, technology-driven future, and tries to find a place for his soul, such as it is.
My main complaint with the movie is, a good 20 minutes passed before it gave me a decent reason to laugh out loud. It’s less sentimental than the first “Cars,” which is good, and less utterly forgettable than “Cars 2,” a movie that stands as a blight on the stellar Pixar name. It’s gorgeous to look at, as usual, its animation detailed and colorful. But the comedy is spotty on McQueen’s quest to get his groove back – whoever wrote the line “Life’s a beach, and then you drive” deserves to be flogged with a radiator hose – rendering “Cars 3” a reasonably enjoyable family entertainment, but a middling entry in the illustrious cartoon studio’s canon.
Note: As is custom, the film is preceded by a Pixar short, and it’s delightful. The inventive “Lou” balances charm and weirdness in telling the story of a playground bully taught a lesson by the anthropomorphic combined contents of an old lost-and-found box. It features almost as many laughs in six minutes than the feature attraction does in 109.
2.5 stars (out of 4)
MPAA rating: G
Voice cast: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Nathan Fillion
Director: Brian Fee
Run time: 109 minutes