Jacob Richardson | 20/06/2017
A remarkable improvement on the dismal failure of Cars 2, Cars 3 is a narratively strong, if occasionally cliche, look at poignant themes. It’s also surprisingly diverse.
Picking up on a wildly successful Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) as he wins a series of races and banters with his equally matched competition, the third installment in the series does away with his “I’m too good for this” persona. Instead, Lightning is shocked when he is beaten by newcomer Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) - the first in a new breed of younger, faster, trendier cars. Soon enough, McQueen’s races are empty of his usual friends, instead filled with these new rookies fresh off a virtual simulator track.
After his final race of the season ends in a devastating crash, McQueen teams up with new Rusteeze owner Sterling (Nathan Fillion), ever-eager trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) and Doc Hudson’s former coach Smokey (Chris Cooper) to get back into shape in an effort to not only beat Storm, but to recover his place in racing society.
Cars 3 is remarkably strong from a narrative perspective, particularly when compared to the shambles that was its predecessor. McQueen struggles with getting old, and while a lot of the humor that derives from the central drama is well-worn in the annals of cinematic history, the theme provides a solid structure. McQueen’s arc is particularly strong, and with poignant parallels drawn between McQueen’s journey and that of his old mentor, along with a clever subversion of the first film’s ‘fail, train, win the race’ structure, Cars 3 will have you smiling more often than cringing.
Also unique are the antagonists. Unlike the outlandish plot of the second instalment, this iteration sees a relatable real world concept with villains who aren’t outrageously evil. Storm is a trope we have seen countless times before in sporting dramas - the young hotshot with a big mouth. But he is the fastest car on the track, and Hammer infuses him with more pathos and sympathy in the little dialogue that he has than McQueen had in the first film when he was the hotshot. Meanwhile, new sponsor Sterling is a businessman in pursuit of sales, and his reluctance to put McQueen on the track is, if anything, understandable. If he is rude and dismissive to Cruz, it’s no more than a stressed, real-life business person would be.
Which brings us to Cruz. Paired up with McQueen (after a smart choice to remove Mater early on in the piece), Cruz brings a bubbling enthusiasm to the world that skews away from the ‘look at me, I’m so stupid’ vibe of Mater in Cars 2, and brings her in as an equal to McQueen. Indeed, early on she is very much his superior, humorously jibing away about his rusted joints and “getting oil to places it hasn’t been in years”. It’s welcome, then, when she is set-up as the future of the franchise. There’s commentary sprinkled throughout around the place of women in professional racing, and while the sport may not be catching up in the real world, it is certainly welcome to envisage the potential that Cruz will lead the franchise from now on.
That’s not to say it’s all great. Cars 3 isn’t as clever as it would like to be, with many of it’s jokes either skewing very young or, if they are intended as asides to adults, still so asinine and immature as to get you offside. And exposition, perhaps necessarily for a movie delivered to this age bracket, is delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. But while it’s dialogue may be riddled with cliche and immaturity, the arcs of our two leads are such a welcome subversion of the first film, and so well-paced, that the occasional bowel function joke is forgivable.
While the first film was an original and successful look at a world built around cars, and the second was a failed experiment of expanding that universe and experimenting with genre, Cars 3 sprints where the others stumbled - successfully transforming a genre piece about aging into a cars-based film that delves into the idea of our place in society, and how to age with grace.