First, let’s address the inevitable comparisons. No, the Cars movies are not among the finest films that Pixar Animation Studios has created. Yet, the characters are fun, the car-centric world is extremely clever, and the Disney+Pixar folks make serious bank off all of the toys and character-related merchandise. And we all know also that Cars 2 fits into the category of unloved, or even despised, sequels (it’s still not as bad as, say, The Godfather Part III or Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, but it’s up there).
Now comes Cars 3. Is it a movie that we needed? Probably not. Is it a story worth telling and a movie worth seeing? Most definitely. With Cars 3, Pixar realigns their Cars universe to a place that feels more legitimate, more artistic, more authentic, and, well, more like the Pixar films we know and love.
In Cars 3, Lighting McQueen (voiced again by Owen Wilson) and his fellow Piston Cup competitors (many of which are voiced by current and former NASCAR drivers) are in a groove, succeeding in their profession, and having fun doing it. But their world changes in a big way when a rookie racer named Jackson Storm (voiced with appropriate arrogance and menace by Armie Hammer) starts winning the Piston Cup races with his new design, new technology, and his faster and unbeatable speed. In his attempt to race as fast as the much younger Jackson Storm, Lightning McQueen spins out and has the spectacular and devastating crash that we’ve seen in the film’s marketing campaign.In the meantime, McQueen’s long-term sponsors Dusty and Rusty Rust-eze (again voiced by former Car Talk hosts Tom and Ray Magliozzi, aka “Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers”) have sold their business to Sterling (voiced by Nathan Fillion), a successful businessman/car who has infused the Rust-eze brand with a significant amount of cash and has built a new state-of-the-art training center to develop a new generation of Piston Cup racers. Sterling is willing to let Lightning McQueen re-train at the center to get back in the game; however, he has also given him an offer to retire and become a spokesperson for a never-ending line of Lightning McQueen-branded products. In order to get Lightning McQueen back up to speed, literally, Sterling assigns him to one of his trainers named Cruz Ramirez (voiced by Cristela Alonzo) and McQueen’s rehabilitation journey begins. Will Lightning McQueen’s legacy be a memorable return to racing? Will it be one of product placement and promotion? Or will it be something else entirely?
Yet again, the talent and artistry of the geniuses at Pixar are on full display in the film. Every shot is detailed and beautiful. The Cars-ified world that the characters inhabit is an endless source of wonder and delight.
As is the theme of the original Cars movie, the journey in Cars 3 is really the destination. The film has a very deliberate pace which, frankly, I think is an intentional counter balance/plea for forgiveness for the annoyingly frenetic pace of Cars 2. Director Brian Fee and his expert team take their time in telling their story. As Lightning McQueen and Cruz Ramirez travel down this path together, meet new friends (including Smokey the pickup truck voiced by the great Chris Cooper), think about friends from the past (the voice of Paul Newman as Doc Hudson returns–the team used and re-used vocal tracks recorded during the original Cars sessions), and gain new insights for their respective futures, the pace might seem overly slow. Ultimately, when everything comes together in the final third of the film, I think you’ll find that Cars 3 is definitely a journey worth taking.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars