Directed By: Brad Fee
Written By: Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson and Mike Rich
Starring: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Armie Hammer, Nathan Fillion
Just how disappointing Disney Pixar’s latest feature Cars 3 is, and just how effective the film is as a piece of storytelling, aren’t reflective of one another. The film itself is innocuous, even sporadically pleasant, marred largely by an uncharacteristically safe and tepid narrative from its reliably bold creators. The disheartenment stems rather from the scent of corporate, moneymaking cynicism which can’t help but linger over the production. Perhaps we’ve been spoilt by Pixar in the past, Hollywood’s chief critical darlings of the animated world for the past 20 years—this, after all, is a studio which has time and again affirmed itself as a beacon of imagination, vitality, and artistic ambition since its debut feature in 1995. And yet, we now find ourselves with 3 instalments of the studio’s most underwhelming property in the Cars series. Creative head John Lasseter contends his Fast and Friendly saga has personal origins, a nod to his youth growing up with motor oil for blood. This may be, but as a viewer, it has become increasingly difficult to divorce Cars the movie, from Cars the merchandising machine.
Cars is an inexhaustible financial juggernaut; a 10 billion dollar enterprise which has left the imposing likes of Frozen and The Avengers in its dust, signalling that whilst the series hasn’t always found traction amongst the critical community, it’s popularity among younger audiences is unassailable. It’s a great testament to Lasseter and co then that certain measures have been employed to win over those series sceptics who have long endorsed the studio elsewhere. Lasseter himself has been substituted out of the director’s chair for debutant Brad Fee, presumably in a bid to revitalise the trilogy by helming it with fresh eyes, whilst within the story the focal point has been shifted and the narrative tidied. Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) finds himself at centre stage once more after an ill-advised detour with comic sidekick Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) in Cars 2, and that same film’s excesses of plot have thankfully been mopped up—out with the convoluted espionage and in with a good old-fashioned underdog tale.
When we join Lightning McQueen for the series’ third lap, the multi Piston Cup winner is on the decline. One by one McQueen’s contemporaries are being ousted in favour of the younger, flashier, technologically superior generation of racers (headed by Armie Hammer’s conceited, custom made Jackson Storm). McQueen is the last of a dying breed, and as such grows rash in trying to keep pace with his youthful rivals, culminating in a near debilitating crash in which McQueen is sent bonnet over trunk and into retirement—almost.
Instead our hero coups up in a Radiator Springs garage for four months and resolves that he will be the master of his own fate—unlike his mentor Doc Hudson (Paul Newman posthumously reprises the role via clips from previously recorded audio), McQueen will be the one who decides when he retires. He’ll reinvent himself, he’ll improve, and triumph over racing’s cocky upstarts, however not everyone in his camp shares his ambition.
When Lightning returns to training he learns that his long-time team owners have sold their business to the corporate minded Sterling (Nathan Fillion), who at first greets McQueen with state of the art training resources, but who quickly determines he’d rather use the ageing star as a brand than an active competitor—an ideally retired face to slap on his products, one that can’t tarnish itself with further losses.
McQueen strikes a deal with Sterling: one more race, and if McQueen wins, he escapes the fate of Doc before him. If he loses, he’ll sell as many mudflaps as Sterling can make.
Lightning is thus turned over to Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) for training, a bubbly, new generation trainer who can’t help but see McQueen as a relic and who champions aerobics and a healthy mind as the recipes to success.
None of it works early for McQueen, who insists, upon failure on a simulator, that what he needs is to get out of the training centre and out into nature, to feel the beach’s sands and forest’s soil on his tires—it’s here that the animation is at its most luminous, through meticulous design these computer based locales are transformed into photo-real vistas.
The film’s story, dealing with ageing and changing of the guard as it does, may appear alienating to its coveted younger audience, but in actuality the film’s against-all-odds, Rocky-esque tale of determination and self-belief is at its core as familiar as it is timeless and universal. The film makes a play for additional currency in Ramirez, the peppy female car who once had her own aspirations of making it big on the tracks, but who never had the nerve to back herself. It’s a noble attempt to incorporate a central female presence into the Car’s films, even if Ramirez’s inclusion at times feels like a forced effort from the filmmakers to keep pace themselves with more empowering animations such as Moana.
Mainly, though, it’s how pedestrian and by the numbers Cars 3 proves that truly harbours that scent of corporate mindedness. Never has Pixar been so content to not take a chance, to ask so little of its viewer. From ageless themes such as the loving wonders of family and friendship, to matters more probing and cerebral, a la the importance of not flinching from one’s own emotions, Pixar has long injected their theses with a fiery ambition and ubiquitous flair. Cars 3 is as charmless as one imagines a Pixar film can be (there are negative thresholds the studio is just incapable of breaking). Where is that cuteness and spirit that morphed a glorified trash can into a symbol of glowing optimism and benevolent humanity? Where is that complexity and diversity of character that allowed two dolls to embody both the insecurities and uncertainties of identity, as well as the parental anxieties of being outgrown by one’s own children? Where is that sophistication which managed to distil evocative emotional truths from a wordless five-minute montage recounting a lifelong relationship? Where is that temerity to critique consumerism, question the necessity of education, and plunge into the gloomy psychology of a vulnerable pre-teen girl, all of which Pixar have done variably over the years?
Not every Pixar outing can be a Wall-E or Toy Story or Inside Out, but what we get with Cars 3 is a film which moves like the very characters it depicts, shifting mechanically from gear to gear in an effort to reach its destination, all without ever achieving true agency. The problem isn’t that Cars 3 fails to equal the likes of Toy Story; it’s that it doesn’t try.