During the latest Piston Cup, Lightning McQueen (Wilson) begins to realise he’s being outpaced by newcomers, including the flashy Jackson Storm (Hammer). After a nasty crash, he has to decide if he’s going to learn how to compete in a changing world, or retire like so many of his contemporaries.
The Cars franchise is the black sheep (or should that be sedan?) in Pixar’s catalogue. The one series where it seems profit is placed above artistry. The first film cruised along pleasantly enough, but despite some good-looking vistas and trademark attention to detail, it didn’t boast the usual rigorous character work, often feeling like the product of one of Pixar’s underpowered competitors. And the less said about the sequel’s overblown spy cul-de-sac, Pixar’s nadir, the better. All this leaves the third film with more distance to cover on its journey to respectability. And it’s surprisingly effective on that front.
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Away from the globe-spanning spy-jinks of Cars 2, this sees us getting back to racer Lightning McQueen’s more personal story of ambition and legacy. This was certainly the right direction to take, even if the new film seeks to channel the spirit of the first a little too blatantly.
There are so many call-backs to characters we’ve met before, the plot has little room in which to move at times, especially with the many real-life racer cameos designed to play to a specific speed-loving audience. Do we really need Lewis Hamilton voicing an on-board computer system called, with an astounding lack of imagination, ‘Hamilton’?
Do we really need Lewis Hamilton voicing an on-board computer?
We are, however, treated to the welcome return of Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson, taking an enjoyable detour into his history as a racer, which serves to teach Lightning some life lessons. Although, with his lines taken from vocal recordings originally laid down for the first movie, it does again raise the ethical quandary over reanimating deceased actors, even with the family’s apparently enthusiastic consent.
But Cars 3 works best when it shifts the focus slightly. McQueen is still the pivotal character, but new additions, especially Christela Alonzo’s Cruz Ramirez — hired to train Lightning with the flashy scientific methods that the whizz kids are all employing — add value. The clash of old-school grit and determination versus new technology is well mined by the story, which offers a few refreshing turns among the usual platitudes about self-belief and trusting in your friends.
And there’s definite entertainment to be found as the wheeled veteran tries all manner of tricks to figure out his future, such as racing on a beach, heading home to Radiator Springs and, most amusingly, accidentally entering a demolition derby where the aim is to survive an encounter with a bullish school bus voiced by Orange Is The New Black’s Lea DeLaria.
Of course, it all looks great, with typically beautiful animation and a few good gags sprinkled among the set-pieces. But Pixar has always been about heart and invention, and those are still lacking slightly for this new chapter of the saga.
By driving back to the core homespun wisdom of Cars, the third film is a course correct from the second. But this is still not vintage Pixar.