Rehabilitation was something the Cars franchise badly needed following the legacy-denting disaster of Cars 2. The saga of Lightning McQueen and his lovable friends never qualified as one of Pixar’s finest hours; still, the 2006 film that started it all – despite its odd premise – had some resemblance of a beating heart under its chrome surface. The same, however, cannot – by any means – be said about its sequel, which failed to hide the fact it was certainly put into production not because someone inside the company’s Emeryville headquarters had a bright idea regarding what to do with that universe, but due to how Disney felt the need to sell merchandise for young boys. As a consequence, moviegoers were treated to a 90-minute toy commercial that not only lacked a plot and a heart but that also saw a secondary comic-relief character be thrust into the spotlight.
It goes without saying that the reason Cars 3 exists is the same fuel that powered its predecessor: Disney’s wish to sell toys. After all, nothing else could explain Cars – one of Pixar’s least-revered products – has now as many installments as the brilliant Toy Story, while other properties that could receive organic sequels lie locked away in a jailhouse overseen by Lotso, the hugging bear. Yet, where Cars 2 ran of fumes during the entirety of its running time, Cars 3 feels a lot more genuine: the former meaninglessness stood still and lacked a purpose that would justify its existence; the latter moves the universe forward to what seems to be a natural conclusion to the racing life of its star.
In Cars 3, Lightning McQueen has grown old. He has not lost a bit of his jovial attitude and youthful energy; however, new technology-infused cars are slowly arriving to compete for the Piston Cup, and little by little McQueen and his peers are being replaced by team owners and sponsors. Desperate to keep up with the youngsters, following a series of losses, and struggling to accept a smaller role in the races and an inevitable upcoming retirement, the seven-time champion pushes himself to the limit during one of the championship’s rounds and suffers a terrible accident that brings his season to an end. While the media speculates and insinuates McQueen’s crash will be the final chapter of his career, he is left to do some soul-searching and training in order to come back to the track to prove he still has energy to burn and also to retire on his own terms.
As such, Cars 3 sheds an unexpectedly intriguing light into the life of a superstar that has to cope with the fact a newer generation of up-and-coming hotshots is leaving them in the dust. It is not exactly a plot thread that is universally relatable, but it works: it engages the audience in the obstacles McQueen must overcome during his rehab, which seem to be unsurmountable given the unstoppable powers of Father Time; it carries some level of originality; and it pushes the franchise towards an inevitable and sensible ending, which hopefully will indeed be the final cinematic outing of the property.
Given its setup, Cars 3 runs the serious risk of being a movie that announces the full extent of its story’s arch right in its introductory act. By the time McQueen realizes he needs to return to racing and prove he can still beat his rivals, it is easy to visualize a training routine of ups and downs that will culminate with an unlikely victory that will silence his media detractors, and awe his younger and smug competitors. In a way, that is precisely what happens in Cars 3, as McQueen struggles to balance his traditional approach to training with the new technological regimes of the sport; has problems accepting he is not longer the fastest car in the cup; has a major confrontation with his new trainer, the likable and good-hearted Cruz Ramirez, who grew up dreaming of being a racer while watching McQueen’s victories; and eventually finds a way to come out on top.
However, Cars 3 – showing glimpses of the brilliancy that still lies within Pixar – follows that road by taking some unexpected detours that make the journey worthwhile. Cruz is an excellent character. By serving as McQueen’s main companion and bringing her own conflicts and backstory to the table, she shoves Mater (from whom, following Cars 2, the audience needed a much necessary break) to the side and anchors the movie in emotion rather than in humor, which is right up Pixar’s alley of greatness. Moreover, by traveling off the beaten track, literally and figuratively, Cars 3 puts McQueen back in touch with the legendary, and now deceased, Doc Rivers, who through flashbacks and stories told by his old racing peers brings vital levels of character development for both McQueen and Cruz, with the former learning a thing or two about the unmeasurable value and joy of teaching and passing the torch to others.
Despite its heart and purpose, and even though it carries some of the best scenes to ever appear in a Cars movie (which, for some, is not saying a whole lot), Cars 3 is still held back by a couple of issues. Firstly, there is the fact that its detours do not totally save its arch from being somewhat predictable, making it fall below the impossibly high threshold of quality Pixar set up for themselves – one that the very recent Inside Out proves they can still reach. Secondly, and far more aggravating, is how the solid ninety minutes of Cars 3 are almost completely squandered in a climax that has got to qualify as the most hamfisted act Pixar has ever launched towards the silver screen.
The conclusion of Cars 3 is not completely outlandish because during the entirety of the movie there is an underlying theme, which is very well disguised, that leads up to it. Therefore, it is clear the movie’s final act was constructed with the purpose of serving as a delightful moment of epiphany to the audience; an occurrence that would make all of the film’s pieces fall beautifully into place. However, its execution leaves a lot to be desired, and no amount of suspension of disbelief (even for a movie where cars talk) could make what happens in the final moments of Cars 3 outlandish but acceptable, and it is clear some rewriting and adapting (extra work that perhaps Disney did not want to afford) would be necessary to make the execution match the excellent intention.
All in all, however, even if it carries an ending that happens through means that may dynamite the experience as a whole to some, Cars 3 is a good movie. It may fall by the lower echelon of Pixar flicks, where Brave, Cars, and Monsters University lie; but, at the same time, it floats far above the cringe-inducing experiences created by Cars 2 and The Good Dinosaur. With Cars 3, Pixar leads its least-admired franchise to a conclusion that comes off as natural and, to some degree, necessary, and therein exists the greatest victory of the movie: instead of making viewers wonder why it was produced in the first place, it takes them on the wheels of a journey that is a pleasant and entertaining ride. With Cars 3, McQueen and his peers can ride into the sun with some dignity, leaving the racing tracks on a sweet note, like a superstar who retires on their own terms and when the time is right.