It’s fair to say Cars has always struggled as a franchise. The original movie misjudged audiences appetite for rural Americana, indulging too heavily in Lightning McQueen’s misguided tale of arrogance. Attempting to correct this, 2011’s Car 2 ended up crashing spectacularly as it shifted into a bizarre spy-flick nobody asked for. Yet despite critical indifference, the movies have shifted a heap of toys and tie-in merchandise. So it’s no surprise to see Pixar (and Disney) returning to the well once more, this time in the form of Cars 3. Does it deliver, or is the franchise running on empty?
Cars 3 is the tale of Lightning McQueen’s descent from the top of the racing world. As newer, faster cars emerge to take his throne – McQueen is forced into another bout of soul-searching. Jackson Storm in particular becomes the lightning rod for this frustration – usurping McQueen’s position and pushing him to the brink of irrelevancy. The remainder of the movie see’s McQueen dealing with these insecurities; trying to find relevance in this new landscape.
The problem Cars 3 faces is creating emotional depth in a one-joke world. The premise of the Cars universe doesn’t lend itself well to the kind of emotional grandstanding this film reaches for; fumbling awkwardly as it tries to make the audience care. The central conflict is relatable to the audience, but only because we understand why the fear of irrelevancy is a driving factor to humans. To the cars in Pixar’s universe however, there’s never a satisfying reason given. Why is McQueen scared of retiring? None of the cars around him seem all too concerned with that prospect. Will he be melted down and sold for scrap? Will he be moved to a car retirement home?
If this sounds like a nitpick, it’s the single biggest plot thread in this movie. That fear is what causes McQueen to enter his redemption arc. It’s what pushes him to fight back against the voices telling him he’s had his day. There’s no stakes presented if the alternative isn’t fleshed out. Even when the movie could do this (several of McQueen’s peers retire themselves, presenting a great chance to showcase what happens) Cars 3 only offers up tired clichés and weak hand waves to the audience.
If all this sounds like over thinking, why does the movie make such grand efforts to slam emotion in the audiences face? From dragging up recordings of Paul Newman (Who voiced McQueen’s mentor Doc Hudson in the original film) to a plot that screams “Is this the end of Lightning McQueen?” – it’s forever pushing that one agenda. Except without the subtle nuance or appropriate deliver (Are kids really going to connect with a film that wants them to care about retirement issues and mid-life crisis’?)
Things aren’t better elsewhere. The movie seems more content to lean on weak ideas, quips and shallow character development. McQueen’s journey to “the big race” is nothing more than a series of excuses to drag laughs from the cars concept – and not very good ones at that. McQueen gets stuck in some mud – “hilarious!” the movie screams. He gets a few training montages – “character development! we’re told. Except it really isn’t. Not for McQueen, and certainly not for Jackson Storm – who might as well just scream “I’m the bad guy” every time he opens his mouth.
The only interesting character in this entire flick is Cruz Ramirez, McQueen’s trainer. Her story arc is way more interesting and has a decent payoff at the end – but it’s far from the solid character building you’ll find in other Pixar outings. Her clashes with McQueen mirror the frustrations of the audience, as we watch the film spiral out of control.
The problem with Cars 3 is that it’s not a good film. Adults will check out the moment they realize it’s a pale imitation of better movies (like Rocky) while kids will find the themes of “retirement” and “irrelevance” too obscure. There’s a bit of racing here and there, but there’s not enough here to justify sitting through the rest of this mess.
Cars 3 should have been a series finding its bearings, but really it’s a series just proving that it doesn’t have what it takes. Much like McQueen, the state of Cars 3 leaves me to wonder just what is left for this pointless franchise to do next. A tired, slog of a film that neither excites nor engages on any of the levels it thinks it does.
Can we send this franchise to the scrapheap, please?