Review: ‘CARS 3’ Finds a Comfortable (If Unremarkable) Gear

The world of CARS is still utter lunacy, but there’s something satisfying about this unwanted third installment.

I used to watch you on TV, flying through the air. You seemed so fearless. I wish I knew what that felt like.

–Cruz Ramirez

The discussion about the practicalities and assumedly bizarre history of the Cars-verse is more interesting than the films themselves. Ever since the lukewarm reception to the first film eleven years ago, Pixar has notably avoided answering the unanswerable questions these films pose. Where do baby cars come from, and how do they grow? Can they cannibalize each other for parts? A character makes a joke about the Popemobile — does that mean there’s a Car Jesus? Cars 3 includes a school bus rampaging in a demolition derby sequence — what’s the need for that?

Lately, perhaps in search of a new narrative besides “Ugh, another Cars film,” there’s been a shift in attitude on the part of critics and film bloggers: where the logical inconsistencies used to be annoying, the product of half-baked world-building, now there’s something strangely endearing about them. Matt Zoller Seitz, over at, wrapped his fun review of this latest film around these questions:

The rural Southern caricatures (many of these cars have bad teeth!) imply that geographical distinctions between the American North and South in our world hold true here as well, which in turns could mean there was a Civil War that pitted car against car, and that their descendants still argue over whether the war was about slavery or state’s rights.

Thankfully, Pixar has reciprocated the off-angle interest in their least-critically beloved franchise. It’s been six years since the widely maligned Cars 2, an off-brand spy caper starring the series’ most insufferable character, and the events of which this installment entirely ignores. With the studio currently in a cold streak (Inside Out excepted), they seem to have realized that if they were going to keep their biggest money-spinner — the joy of boys aged 3-10 everywhere — going, they owed it to themselves to return to basics. On screen, anyway. Off screen, there are stories like this ScreenCrush interview with Cars creative director Jay Ward, who posits his own non-canonical theory: it’s a post-apocalyptic world, where automated vehicles have taken on the souls of their former owners. More officially, there’s also this self-imposed rule: “You’ll never see the doors open, because the brain and the eyes are in there. We don’t want anything falling out of the side.” Yikes.

What does all this mean for Cars 3? As you can imagine, your kids won’t care about any of it. They’re just here for Lightning McQueen, and for the cool racing sequences. But for you, intrepid parent/Pixar completist, you can know that as you sit there, pondering the horrors of car reproduction, mortality, and its rigid caste system, the folks at Pixar are winking back.

Anyway, strip all that aside, replace these unsettling motor vehicles in your mind with flesh-and-blood humans, and Cars 3 is a decent sports movie — in fact it’s surprisingly satisfying, in a latter-day Rocky sort of way. Directed by first-timer Brian Fee and with seven credited writers, it hits on universal themes like getting older, inequality of opportunity, and (I’d call it a spoiler, but it’s pretty well telegraphed in the first 15 minutes) finding fulfillment in passing the torch to the next generation.

Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson, underrated in these films) is on the tail end of his illustrious career, but still riding high — until a new wave of young, high-tech, considerably more angular race cars, led by Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), starts replacing McQueen’s generation one by one, taunting him about his inevitable retirement. One day, McQueen pushes himself too hard to keep up, and after a horrific crash, finds his season over and his career in jeopardy. His new sponsor (Nathan Fillion) isn’t sure if he still has it, but agrees to let him train up for one more race: if McQueen loses, he retires to a life of paid public appearances and product endorsements.

Amusingly, considering the entire aisles of Cars-themed products at the store, McQueen wants to be more than just a brand. “I’ll decide when I’m done,” he repeats often, echoing every professional athlete that stayed on just a season or two too long. In a team sport, like the NBA or MLB, a veteran could still provide indispensable leadership. But in auto racing, you’re all on your own, and all you can play for is your own pride.

There’s something genuinely interesting happen just under the surface of Cars 3 that the film doesn’t have time to fully explore. In this bizarre world, again, these characters are largely “born” (I guess) into their roles. Mack the big rig is a big rig. Mater can’t be anything other than a tow truck. The hippie Volkswagen van could never be a race car. But McQueen, at least until now,* is privileged. He has only been a race car, and never lacked confidence in his own ability, nor opportunity to show it off. That’s why the secret weapon of Cars 3 is one of its new characters, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo).

*Just where, again, all these new hyper-aerodynamic cars are suddenly coming from is another question for the internet to mull over. Is there a Cars equivalent of plastic surgery, or are they being bred? And which answer is less unsettling?

We first meet Cruz as the lead trainer at her high-tech facility, where cars use driving simulators, electronic trackers, and sabermetrics to squeeze out every drop of performance. She has a passion for the sport, and natural talent beyond training, but because she’s not a flashy sports car — and because she’s a girl — she’s never gotten the chance. McQueen is dismissive of her and her methods at first, unsure of all this newfangled data and technology when he just wants to drive, baby… until he realizes he’s part of the problem, and checks his privilege.

A scene late in the film expands this a bit further, a conversation with some old-timers of Doc Hudson’s** generation — including another female racer (Character Actress Margo Martindale) and a car played by The Wire’s Isiah Whitlock, Jr., who knowingly delivers the line “If we’d waited for an invitation, we might’ve never raced.” Somehow, this sequel that no one asked for becomes one of Pixar’s strongest attempts to address social justice, but it’s just a sidebar; the film’s primary focus is still on McQueen’s comeback trail, leading to the climax where he finally realizes what we’ve been waiting the whole film for him to realize.

**Hudson is still voiced by the late Paul Newman, who passed before the making of the second film, but his dialogue is assembled from flashbacks, deleted scenes, and outtakes. It’s a little bit weird, but re-casting him would have been weirder. And how do cars “die,” anyway?  

It’s a predictable plot, but an honest one, aided by Wilson and Alonzo’s vocal vulnerability and some of Pixar’s most stunningly photo-realistic animation yet. The aforementioned demolition derby sequence has its own Tex Avery-inspired madness. Yet the film also embodies some of Pixar’s recent struggles: the humor, never the Cars franchise’s strongest element, is particularly spotty here (though thankfully, Larry the Cable Guy is isolated to just a few scenes), and Hammer’s smirking villain doesn’t even have two dimensions, let alone three. Mostly, the film has to work twice as hard, and deservedly so, to make the case for its own existence. It can’t fix the conceptual flaws that have plagued the series since the beginning, but Cars 3 succeeds in passing its predecessors on an emotional level. That it will also pay for this November’s original, far-riskier Coco is a bonus.

Updated Pixar Rankings:

1. Ratatouille
2. Toy Story 2
3. The Incredibles (my personal favorite)
4. Monsters, Inc.
5. Inside Out
6. Wall-E
7. Up
8. Toy Story 3
9. Finding Nemo
10. Toy Story
11. Finding Dory
12. A Bug’s Life
13. Monsters University
14. Cars 3
15. Cars
16. Brave
17. The Good Dinosaur
18. Cars 2

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