You know the saying of Newton’s Law that “everything that goes up must certainly come down.” That applies almost without question to the world of cinema as well. The Pixar Animation studio has enjoyed one of the strongest track records that Hollywood has ever seen. Starting with the beloved Toy Story films of the late 90’s, and continuing through to the mid 2000’s, Pixar really looked like they could do no wrong. Everything they touched seemed to turn to gold, no matter how peculiar the premise of each story was. It’s really remarkable that they can take oddball concepts like a rat who wants to be a gourmet chef, or a senior citizen who makes his house fly with a million balloons, or a love story between two robots in a post-apocalyptic world and turn them into beloved animated classics. But, somehow for over a decade, the Pixar brand was one that signified quality, and unparalleled success. And then the market changed. In a way, Pixar has become a victim of it’s own success, because with the run that they had for so long, the pressure likewise grew for clearing the bar that they set so high for themselves. Not only that, but the studio was also received increased pressure from their parent company Disney to produce sequels to all their big hits, in order to keep those lucrative brands going for many more years. Because of all that pressure, Pixar has made an effort to shift gears and devote their time and money to making future adventures with their most beloved characters. That unfortunately has led to an era of inconsistency with Pixar’s output of films. While they sometimes still manage to deliver sequels that everyone embraces (Toy Story 3 and Finding Dory), others are also met with a level of disappointment from fans (Monsters University). Thus, we see Newton’s law play out, as the once infallible company is now suffering through a pitfall of lowered returns on their time and effort.
No where is that more evident than with the very divisive direction that they have taken with what is now the Cars franchise. The first Cars was a generally well liked film from both fans of Pixar and the general audience. Set within an alternate world where humanity is replaced with sentient vehicles, who exist in a parallel society like our own, the concept was a novel one for Pixar and it helped it to stand out. While in no way one of their all time greats, it was still a beautifully constructed feature that represented the craftsmanship of the studio at it’s best. But what is probably most surprising about Pixar is how well it performed as a brand. Movie grosses aside, Cars surprisingly has become the most profitable film that Pixar has ever made when it comes to merchandising. You’d be hard pressed to visit any Toys R’ Us or toy department in any store and mall across America and not find at least one product branded around this movie. The characters of Lightning McQueen and Mater are seen everywhere, even when there is not a movie out to cross-promote with them. It’s because of that highly profitable exposure that Disney has pressed Pixar even harder to churn out more movies in this franchise, whether they wanted to or not. Because of this, we now have a trilogy of movies, created over an 11 year span which is just insane for the usually meticulous studio (keep in mind, 11 years is the same number of years in between Toy Story 2 and 3). The downside of pushing out sequels this quickly (not to mention the existence of the Planes spin-offs) is that the lack of quality control, as Pixar isn’t allowed the time to carefully craft a story as they are fond of having usually. So, what ended up happening was that the beloved first Cars was followed up with a very lackluster sequel in Cars 2 (2011), which became the first critically panned film in the studio’s long history. Their perfect streak was over, and what went up now was preparing to come down. Since then, Pixar has attempted to right the ship, acknowledging the failure of Cars 2, and this year, we see them returning to the franchise to in a way make amends. The only question is, did it work?
For those who are looking for a follow-up to the plot of Cars 2, you won’t find it here. Cars 3 is more in line with the continuity of the first Cars, and 2 almost seems to be deliberately forgotten altogether in this film. We find Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) at the top of his game as a multi-race champion on the professional racing circuit; enjoying the spoils of celebrity status along the way. While still making his home-base in the small town of Radiator Springs, where his best friend Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and his girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt) show him love and support continuously, Lightning continues to travel the world, facing little challenges along the way. That is until he’s beaten in a race by a flashy new rookie race car named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who’s been equipped with the latest technology that makes him almost impossible to catch up to on the track. Feeling intimidated by this new arrival, Lightning pushes his body to the limit, which unfortunately causes him to crash during a race, breaking both his body and his spirit. Seeing Jackson Storm sit on the throne that once used to be his causes Lightning to try to compete once again, but this time trained with the same high tech gadgetry that benefited Jackson. His corporate sponsor Rusteze takes on new corporate management under a flashy, corporate car named Sterling (Nathan Fillion), who teams Lightning with a new trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who we learn is just as new to the world of racing as Lightning is to technology. Over time, Lightning and Cruz form a bond as they both seek answers to the directions of their lives. In a way, Lightning finds it as they take a pilgrimage to the stomping grounds of his old mentor, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, voiced through archival audio), where they encounter Doc’s old trainer, Smokey (Chris Cooper), who helps the duo train the old fashioned way. But, is it enough to beat Jackson, and is Lightning ready to continue the life he had before, or see a different way.
So, in many ways, this film is a return to basics for the Cars franchise. It’s less of a mindless side story that Cars 2 turned out to be, and more of a continuation of themes that the original had begun, becoming far more of a character driven story centered around Lightning McQueen. But, does that make it any better than Cars 2. Well, yes and no. There is a big issue that I had with watching Cars 3, and that is the sad reality that I just didn’t care what was going on in the story. For the first time ever watching a movie made by Pixar, I felt absolutely nothing upon seeing it. That’s pretty much unheard of for this studio. This is the company that specialized in being able to draw a variety of emotions from it’s audience. People wept openly in screenings of Up (2009) that I went to, after witnessing that now legendary opening montage. Not only that, but Pixar’s films are almost always laugh out loud funny and edge of your seats thrilling. Cars 3 was about as uninspiring as I’ve ever seen a Pixar movie ever get. It’s about as involving to me as any sub-par History or Travel Channel series that I’ll put on TV as background entertainment while I’m working or cleaning up my apartment. It just lies there, filling time that I could have better spent somewhere else. Despite this, though, it does nothing offensive either to garner any significant hatred either. My disappointment with the movie really is just in lamenting how pointless it all is. Keep in mind, I hated Cars 2 as well, and it might generally be a worse movie overall. But, it still got a feeling out of me regardless, even if that feeling was pure distaste. Cars 3 just feels like the first Pixar movie ever made to me that doesn’t feel like a movie at all. It’s that tedious feeling that made me really feel in the end unsure about the future of Pixar as a brand.
First of all, I have to stress exactly why this movie is a failure, and that’s mainly due to the lazy execution of the story. In a way, every Cars film has been derivative of some other film. The first Cars was an exploration of the hot shot from the city learning the homespun values of the countryside motif that Hollywood has revisited many times over the years. In particular, critics pointed to the Michael J. Fox film Doc Hollywood (1991) as a direct inspiration for the plot. Cars 2 was a spoof of spy films from the 60’s, particularly with James Bond and Alfred Hitchcock’s “wrong man” thrillers, shifting focus away from Lightning McQueen and onto the sidekick Mater. Cars 3 borrows it’s plot from a lot of comeback sports stories like the Rocky sequels. Now being derivative is not a problem as long as you provide your own unique spin on it. The first Cars did just that, making it feel fresh and not overly familiar. Cars 2 was too dumb to ever work as a genre throwback, or a movie in general. The extra insult of Cars 3 is that it take it’s tropes and just plays them out to the letter, diverting in no way in order to make it feel unique. No matter what plot point the movie threw my way, I just knew how it was going to play out, because I’ve seen it all before. The mentor/student relationship, the shenanigans that befall our hero through training, the inevitable final race showdown; it’s all too familiar. There is even a moment where the character Cruz Ramirez reveals to Lightning her childhood dreams and how she had to abandon them, and I knew right away that this was an obvious set up for the finale. And sure enough, the movie followed that playbook exactly. Pixar is a studio that very often subverted expectations with it’s storytelling, or at least were able to hide the cliches well enough to make us not care about them. Here, we can clearly see that this was a story that was not thought through with the same kind of care, and was purely slapped together to quickly role out into theaters, never once offering the audience a challenging and provocative experience. Pixar’s storytelling was once the exception, and now, it’s fallen into mediocrity, feeling as generic as everything else that Pixar once stood proudly over.
In general, it’s the blandness that I disliked the most from this movie. I want my Pixar movies to be something special, and this one was not in any way. But, at the same time, it doesn’t insult the series itself like Cars 2 did. I think 2 still stands as Pixar’s worst film, just because of how purely it used every minute of it’s run time to be aggressively obnoxious. It was loud, in-your-face, and thoroughly pointless. It also made the huge mistake of relying too heavily on the talents of Larry the Cable Guy as the voice of Mater. Mater is best used in small doses, and to it’s credit, Cars 3 does reel back the character significantly. Mater only appears in a handful of moments, as does most of the supporting cast of the first movie. It may not be such a big loss, but I do miss some of the character interactions that made the first Cars such an appealing narrative. Lightning’s relationship with Sally is sadly minimized here, which was such a major part of the first film’s appeal, and that’s a waste of the talents of someone like Bonnie Hunt, who should be in this more. The newer characters in general are a mixed bag. I unfortunately didn’t care all that much about Cruz Ramirez. She’s not an offensively misplaced character in this story, but her journey was so uninspiring and cliched that it just never endeared her character to me. Jackson Storm is an even more uninteresting new player in this movie, and probably the blandest villain Pixar has ever made. He never inspires menace or charisma; he’s just an empty shell. Some of the secondary characters fare a little better. I particularly liked Chris Cooper’s Smokey, who makes a great stand-in for the very much missed Doc Hudson. There’s also a great bit with a maniacal school bus named Miss Fritter (voiced by Orange is the New Black’s Lea DeLaria) in what is probably the movie’s only stand-out scene, as Lightning and Cruz find themselves stuck in a demolition derby. Good characters ultimately lift up lackluster material, and sadly there are just not enough of them for this movie.
One other positive that I will say for this movie is that while it doesn’t feature the usual finesse of story-telling that has defined other Pixar movies, it still manages to hold up in the visual department. It may not be the most groundbreaking and visually resplendent Pixar movie to date, but Cars 3 still represents the fine craftsmanship that sets the studio apart. The backgrounds in particular are really beautiful in this movie. The filmmakers clearly know how to create a sense of atmosphere in these movies, and that becomes particularly impressive given how frequently this movie moves around in setting. While the novelty of a car-based world has worn off from the first movie, I still like taking in the small little details that the movie puts into each of it’s environments to show the little car-based twists on familiar everyday objects. When the movie allows itself to slow down and have us take in the scenery, it’s when the movie works at it’s best. This includes beautiful recreations of places like a sunny day at a coastal beach, or a fog-filled day in the valleys of the Great Smokey Mountains. You can tell that the movie benefits from the advances that Pixar has made over the years with movies like Brave (2012) and The Good Dinosaur (2015) in trying to accurately capture the feeling of experiencing the great outdoors. The first Cars was a step forward in that process, but Cars 3 looks more advanced, with regards to how the scenes are lit, exposed, and textured. It is certainly a beautifully looking film; I just wish that this artistry was attached to a better story. At least it shows that while their story-telling talent is suffering, it’s animation and environmental development departments are still firing on all cylinders and showing off what they can really do.
So, again, this movie does little to make me care any more for this franchise. The damage done by Cars 2 was too severe, and Cars 3 does very little to make a u-turn for this series. And honestly, is this really a series worth saving. The first Cars worked fine on it’s own; it was a simple story about rediscovery set within a unique alternate world. Unfortunately, the success of the merchandising around this film has caused Disney and Pixar to abandon their high standards in a pursuit to exploit this world for more money, and that makes every sequel and spin-off feel like a cynical cash grab. And that’s something that I just don’t want to see a company like Pixar fall into. They made it their mission to always put story first, and Cars 3 seems very much like the exact opposite of that. They should’ve recognized long ago that they have explored all that they needed to explore with the first movie. I’m not saying that sequels from Pixar are a bad thing; Finding Dory was quite good and Toy Story 3 is an outright masterpiece. But, when you go into a movie that bears the Pixar name, you should expect something that is going to movie you in some way, and Cars 3 never once did that for me. I just sat in the theater feeling nothing, and that in itself made me feel upset in retrospect. Is it possible that Pixar abandoned it’s high standards for a cynical cash grab. Solid recent efforts like Inside Out and Finding Dory make me hopeful that this is just a speed bump in Pixar’s track record, just like Cars 2 was, and that they’ll be back strong with their next effort; the very promising Coco (2017) which comes out in November. Until then, Cars 3 will unfortunately represent another down-point for the company. I wish I never would have had to see the day when Pixar failed to illicit any emotion out of me, and now that it has passed, I hope that it never comes around again. Everything that goes up inevitably comes down, but the best thing about gravity is that nothing is meant to stay down either. Pixar has fallen, but it can easily come back up again.