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CARS 3 (2017) review

June 17, 2017

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written by: Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson and Mike Rich (screenplay) & Brian Fee, Ben Queen, Eyal Podell and Jonathan E. Stewart (story) 
produced by: Kevin Reher
directed by: Brian Fee
rated: G
runtime: 109 min.
U.S. release date: June 16, 2017

 

After two spins as driver, Disney/Pixar godfather John Lasseter has passed the steering wheel to storyboard artist Brian Fee, who’s making his directorial debut with “Cars 3”, the second sequel in the franchise. Of the movies in the Pixar canon, the first movie wasn’t a huge critical hit nor did would it rank that high amongst moviegoers and  the cross-continental “Cars 2” did a great job at being such an odd and bizarre misfire, yet both movies looked really good and utilized some great voice work from its cast. For the third movie, the screenwriters here basically returned to the formula that worked just fine for “Cars” presenting a surprisingly nice role reversal that observes themes of middle-age insecurity and discovering the opportunity to pass on knowledge and experience that a dreamer desires. It turns out, this qualification might even edge out its previous two runs around the track and, er, globe.

Celebrated award-winning race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) continues to enjoy his popularity on the Piston Cup Circuit, with pals Bobby Swift and Cal Weathers (Kyle Petty), but they all eat dust when brash hotshot Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) blows past them. In no time, McQueen loses his title to the sleek new hi-tech vehicle and a new generation of cars designed to be faster, better and more efficient than existing veterans. Shaken with insecurity, McQueen hits a figurative and literal wall, resulting in a devastating wreck that sends him licking his wounds back in Radiator Springs, where it all began. Despite the support of his reliable friends there, like Sally the Porsche 996 (Bonnie Hunt) and his best pal, tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), McQueen now finds himself longing for input from his late mentor Doc (Paul Newman, unused audio from “Cars” is used here in flashbacks) and questioning his relevance.

 

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Enter smooth and charming sponsor, Sterling (Nathan Fillion), who recently bought out McQueen’s longtime sponsors at Rust-eze – someone who wants to capitalize on McQueen’s name into a marketing brand.  (NOTE: Don’t get me started on what a vehicle is going to do with brand profits. There’s enough dizzlying nonsense in the logic of the world Lasseter and company have created for these movies – I touched on it in my review of “Cars 2“, but Matt Singer does a better job than I ever could here). McQueen is encouraged by the interest, yet hesitant sign the dotted line. When Sterling promises rehab, training with race technician Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) and a chance at racing the Florida 500, McQueen agrees and embarks on a sophisticated regiment that’s foreign to him. While Ramirez has faith in her hero McQueen, she isn’t quite sure what to do with McQueen’s mental state, yet once they get out of the confines of the training center the two inadvertantly discover that they both have something to offer each other.

This is where the screenplay from Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson and Mike Rich (based on a story by director Fee, Ben Queen, Eyal Podell and Jonathan E. Stewart) takes off and gets surprisingly interesting, focusing on the working relationship between McQueen and Ramirez. It takes time with Ramirez for McQueen to slowly begin to realize his own ego has gotten in the way of accepting this new stage in his life (certain parents in the audience will relate). They go on some unexpected adventures together, like being tossed into a muddy demolition derby at the nearby Thunder Hollow – which finds the two barely surviving the zealous and aggresive monster school bus, Miss Fritter (Lea DeLaria), in a battle royale mud fest –  but it’s when Ramirez shares how she always wanted to race and why she never pursued it that finds McQueen realizing what a total jerk he’s been and we see something surprisingly touching come out of a franchise that previously had a sequence where Mater was navigating a bathroom stall in Japan.

McQueen and Ramirez develop a greater understanding and appreciation for each other when the arrive at Doc’s hometown, in search of McQueen’s mentor’s mentor, Smokey (a fitting Chris Cooper), in a last ditch effort to get his mojo back. Of course, there is the requisite final race (and win) back in Florida and the getting-back-to-the-roots-to-achieve-redemption is a tired-yet-true storytelling trope, but it all works here. “Cars 3” may come full circle back to the kind of story that the first movie had, but it also reminds us that while we can’t go back, we can embrace where we’re at and help someone else embrace their potential in the process.

 

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The big surprise for me was seeing an unexpected subplot of female empowerment in this movie. It’s something that’s almost welcome to see in movies, but especially in one that’s typically targeted at young boys. As Ramirez, Cristela Alonso (someone I admittedly had never heard of until now) delivers a confident and strong character, but what becomes most memorable about her is the humility and gratitude that eventually shines through. It’s a welcome sight to see in a female supporting character, considering they’re usually represented as either sassy and sarcastic or inconsequential and vapid.

Even if you’ve scoffed at this franchise or wished Pixar had never made sequels to their first movie, there is definitely something to appreciate here for all ages. I’m speaking from experience, having been among those who saw how “Cars” become more well-received as toys and merchandise than any whelming appreciation for the actual movie. It’s funny what time and life can do to change your perspective on movies you otherwise were set on deriding, but that’s what happened to me with these movies. I hold that none of the “Cars” movies are the best in Pixar’s oeuvre, but I’ve looked beyond the annoying “Ka-Chow!” and developed a fonder appreciation for the first movie, with its quirky characters and exquisite Southwest landscapes. I also hold my position that the ambitious “Cars 2” is such an odd mess, but it did give us Michael Caine as a cool spy car and some grand locations. Basically, I’ve settled down on my annoyance with the franchise as a whole, even before sitting down for this movie.

Ironically, something happened to me while watching “Cars 3” that I didn’t expect. I was surrounded by my usual colleagues at the screening, but the theater was also full of families – meaning children could be heard and not seen. Usually, this would be an annoyance, but my heart softened as a I realized that this is the perfect audience to see this kind of movie with. Will they ask questions out loud? Will I hear belly-laughs from the back row? Will there be squirming and crying? Yes, yes and yes – and like the Grinch finding his heart, none of that bugged me. In fact, it warmed my heart (well, not the squirming and crying) and helped my viewing experience in that it made me appreciate the wonder and enjoyment a child can gain from these movies. It’s a reminder that sometimes the qualities of certain movies can be accentuated when seeing them through the eyes of a child.

So, as long as there are children, especially boys (even man-children), the “Cars” movies will continue to be well-received and light up the box office. “Cars 3” would be a great place to, um, re-tire, but we’re no dummies. At least this time around there’s a few welcome surprises as a formula that works is given a new coat of paint.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

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To hear more of my thoughts on “Cars 3”, listen to my guest spot on fellow critic Ian Simmon’s podcast, Kicking the Seat! 

 

 

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