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‘Cars 3’ Cruises With Lightning (Movie Review)

I think of Pixar’s Cars franchise as a harmless source of income for the acclaimed studio. Yes, Pixar is matched more frequently now by other animation studios than when Finding Nemo came out, so Cars is put down for so clearly resting on a lower tier than other Pixar efforts. I am no different as far as general regard for the Cars films goes and while you may think this summation is leading to a declaration of how Cars 3 changes everything, it isn’t. Cars 3 does its job. It’s a decent animated effort that is entertaining enough and the best of the series thanks to some additional emotional weight.

Rather than continue the tradition of rehashing plots of obscure 1991 movies (Cars went for Doc Hollywood, while Cars 2 used If Looks Could Kill), Cars 3 heads back to the 80s. As much as I would have liked to see a Cars plot modeled after The Shining or Raising Arizona, this film settles for Rocky III. Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has enjoyed a long run as one of the top racers but suffers a severe loss after being upstaged by Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) and the new generation of high-tech racers. This means watching a story about Lightning having to find himself and figure out a new way to be a winner again.

Now the film is not exactly Rocky III, both because Hammer is no Mr. T and the story by various talents including storyboard artist-turned-director Brian Fee attempts to do more. No, despite early trailers selling the idea that Cars 3 would take a dark and gritty turn from the globetrotting silliness that was Cars 2 (which I did enjoy), this entry isn’t going for Bing Bong tears. The film merely goes back to more personal stakes for Lightning, in addition to adding a co-lead to sell audiences on where things may be headed.

I’m referring to Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who helps Lightning in his training and has plenty of racing talent herself.  Those wondering if Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) would help Lightning on his journey will be disappointed/relieved to know that he’s on the sidelines for most of the film. Fortunately, the younger Cruz is merely happy to help and inspired by racing, as opposed to being a love interest. It makes sense, as there still Sally (Bonnie Hunt), who now spends two Cars films in a row not being involved in the fun and barely being talked to by her boyfriend. It’s a little off-putting, but also speaks to the fine line this film walks.

Cars 3 wants to be a comeback story, but it does dig into what has been a male-driven series. It’s inherently interesting to follow Lightning, as he’s the lead of this franchise, but you also have Alonzo, and Hunt, as well as Kerry Washington and Lea DeLaria, playing significant roles. At its worst, one can see a level of condescension coming through in the way Lightning and business car Sterling (Nathan Fillion) treat Cruz. However, one can also look at how these characters are involved in the first place, with nothing to suggest it mattered who was cast to voice these cars as far as gender. Perhaps it’s a limited perspective, but this is also a kid-friendly movie about talking cars.

I could apply the same amount of thought to the complexities that come from over-thinking how this world works (and I have and will continue to do so – car religion? car wars? car dinosaurs?). Suffice it to say, Cars 3 isn’t about to change the world, and while I encourage filmmakers to work harder, there’s also the general satisfaction to look at what this film does right. For the most part, I would say Cars 3 does get a lot right, even if it is running on fumes at some points.

There’s an emotional arc in place that almost nails every aspect of what it’s trying to do. Watching Lightning’s journey allows for a good look at how far the character has come from the brat he was in the first film. Additionally, after being put in the background in the second movie, Lightning’s story is allowed more emotional resonance in regards to Doc, voiced by Paul Newman in the first film (his last). Thanks to unused audio recordings, Cars 3 has a chance to reconcile a key relationship in a way that’s fitting, adding another layer to Lightning as a character.

Cars 3 is also a fun kids movie, which I should emphasize more. It’s emotionally driven, like the first film, but it continues to show joy for being in a world of cars. There are some clever car-based jokes, but it’s the racing filmmaking that stands high. The race track sequences are enjoyable enough, but there is a great visual delight to be found in a destruction derby scene, along with a nighttime ride that highlights what Pixar is capable of as an animation studio.  Cars 2 may have been the epitome of seeing an animated version of a kid playing with his toys cars, but Cars 3 makes that mean something.

Even if we’re not breaking much new ground, Cars 3 does what it needs to in rounding out a questionable franchise. Yes, this series gets by more on merchandising sales (commented on in the film) and passion from Pixar CCO John Lasseter than from the majority of Pixar movie fans who like Woody, Buzz and all the others more, but the effort is here. The film is more grounded and features some richer material to work with, even if it comes at the expense of getting plenty of good ol’ jokes from Mater. Cars 3 crosses the finish with some rust, but mainly its pride intact.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Video Game Player, Comic Book Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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