Cars has always been the whipping boy for Pixar. The original film in the series is the only speed bump in the studio’s stellar first 15 years, while Cars 2 is widely agreed to be the worst film that Pixar ever made. What made Pixar so immediately beloved was a level of sophistication that most other animation studios lacked. Pixar could make its audience care what happened to toys, bugs, fish, and monsters in our closet. Cars wasn’t a terrible film, but its simplicity came off like the first chink in the armor of the animation behemoth that could do no wrong.
While Pixar was pushing animation forward into a stronger, more acclaimed phase, Cars was a throwback to more basic, simpler times. In many ways, Cars & Cars 2 director and co-writer John Lasseter was like Andy, with the eponymous cars as his plaything. With the first film, Lasseter wanted to recreate the feeling of playing with car toys as a child, while Cars 2 was clearly a spy fantasy come to life. It also didn’t hurt that Cars was by far the profitable series Pixar had ever made. If Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) has to become the James Bond of the Cars universe to help finance masterpieces like WALL-E or Up, then bring on the spy puns.
Rather than representing the worst of Pixar, Cars was more accurately a franchise sandbox to test the limits of what a “Pixar film” actually was. Cars 3 marks the first time the Cars world isn’t led by Lasseter, instead driven by Brian Fee – storyboard artist for the first two films, as well as Ratatouille and WALL-E. With a different director at the helm, Cars 3 becomes the first Pixar films to feel distinctly like a Pixar film. Cars 3 retains the homespun sweetness of the first films, but adds unexpected layers of depth, bringing in the subjects of aging, legacies, and even diversity into a company long criticized for its lack of female representation.
Cars began with Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), a cocky young race car that learned a lesson in humility after a detour in the throwback town of Radiator Springs. Now in the third film, McQueen is the old car at the race. With faster, more high tech cars showing up at the race like Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), McQueen literally can’t keep up. Instead of going for the more computer-based training by his new sponsor Sterling (Nathan Fillion), McQueen follows the lessons of his mentor Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) and returns to his idol’s old raceways. With his trainer Cruz (Cristela Alonzo) in tow, McQueen attempts to return to his younger self, and find the speed to take Storm and his kind on, proving that the old guard isn’t ready to stand aside just yet.
After two previous installments, Cars 3 finally seems to know what makes this franchise enjoyable. For the first time, the races the films center around are actually exciting, thanks likely to the new cowriter Mike Rich, who has a penchant for sports film such as The Rookie, Miracle, and Secretariat. His other co-writers have also seen what works and what doesn’t with Pixar, as Kiel Murray wrote on the original Cars, while Bob Peterson has been a staple of Pixar for years, co-writing Finding Nemo, Up, and The Good Dinosaur. This trio has honed the pros and cons of this franchise with this third film. The film’s slow pace at points is more a sign of the relaxed tone this series often takes, and after the second film, Mater has been mostly relegated to the occasional phone call from McQueen. Cars 3 still doesn’t feel like peak Pixar, but it does feel like a company trying to right the wrongs of its other films.
Cars 3 does away with the goofiness of its first two films (especially #2) and instead sticks to the heart that Pixar always does so well. McQueen’s journey through Cars 3 has an underlying uncertainty to it, and as he tries to find his place in the racing world, that journey’s end is just as unknown to the audience. McQueen’s arc is the type you might see within the Toy Story or The Incredibles series, and comes off as a breath of fresh air in this new, more serious take on the Cars films. Cars 3 is still fun, but the addition of actual stakes and fear of an obsolete future does kick this series up a notch.
Cars 3 doesn’t make the series transcend to the greatness of Pixar’s best, but it is a shockingly solid film considered what came before it. Cars 3 takes the best spare parts from the first two and for the first time, attempts the Pixar level of quality that made the brand so great in the first place. With Cars 3, the Cars universe remains welcome and charming, a slight franchise that reaches for more and ends up creating the best film in the series.