CARS 3 – Review
As we creep along to the midway point of Summer, this can only mean one thing at the multiplex (aside from added matinees): another installment of a big studio franchise (formerly a series) will be occupying several screens. We’ve already had a new Alien, and another Depp pirate pic as the Planet Apes and Transformers wait in the wings, along with that wall-crawling wonder. I suppose we’re due for an animated sequel, but this one’s from the most celebrated studio of the last couple of decades, Pixar. Aside from Toy Story, they avoided follow-ups to their other hit films until 2011 when the CARS gang refueled for CARS 2. Then one of the other hits got a prequel, MONSTER UNIVERSITY, and another spawned last year’s box office smash, FINDING DORY. Now here’s the automotive, track-burnin’ “hat trick” as good ole’ number 95, Lightning McQueen roars back onto the cinematic raceway to thrill lil’ speed demons everywhere with CARS 3.
Since we last saw McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson), he’s still collecting trophies at races all around the world. Though he heads back to Radiator Springs to rest up with pals Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Sally (Bonnie Hunt) between competitions, Lightning is feeling the heat from a new breed of young, streamlined vehicles, especially “up-and-comer” Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). Unfortunately Storm and his pals “get into McQueen’s Head” prompting him to take risky chances, which leads to a devastating crash. While he heals up back home, McQueen’s managers over at Rusteze get bought out by the big mud-flap mogul, Mr. Sterling (Nathan Fillion). Sterling’s mainly interested in marketing the McQueen name, slapping his image on all manner of products, but insists that Lightning will return to the race circuits after training at his ultra-high tech, state of the art facilities. McQueen is eager to work out on the giant screen simulated track, but first he must endure the exercise program led by trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). Lightning has no patience for these “silly” warm-up and jumps onto the simulator before he’s ready, wrecking the machine. During its repair, McQueen takes Cruz along with him for his own training program, including racing along the beach. Later they zip through the forests and sneak into a backwoods race (which is really a demolition derby). Lightning fondly recalls the lessons taught to him by his mentor Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) and decides to locate Doc’s old trainer Smokey (Chris Cooper). He’s gotta’ hurry because the big championship race is coming. Can Lightning redeem himself or is it time to retire to Radiator Springs for good?
The veteran voices of the previous CARS flicks expertly recapture their characters, particularly Wilson as a more mellow and wiser version of the great #95. The old confidence seeps through, but he’s got a greater appreciation of the sport’s history, especially the “fabulous Hudson Hornet”. As for the newbies, Hammer is an excellent villain, all cocky and arrogant, a guy who seems to truly enjoy the “trash talk”. Storm’s sleek and speedy, but doesn’t come equipped with any empathy. The breakout is the energetic, enthusiastic Cruz voiced with great energy and excellent comic timing by Alonzo.
I’ve got to lay my cards on table and say that the original CARS is one of my least favorite films in the Pixar cannon (just slightly above A BUG’S LIFE). The fact that it would have two sequels before any follow-up to THE INCREDIBLES annoyed me to no end (they’re finally working on one, thank you Brad Bird). But when the teasers and trailers starting appearing for this installment, I was more than a bit intrigued. As opposed to the dimwitted spy hijinks from CARS 2 (putting Mater as the main focus was a huge mistake), this looked to be going dark, with images of McQueen hurling to his doom. Sure, they’re not gonna’ kill this merchandising “cash cow”, but they do follow through somewhat. That crash figures in, but the script (credited to seven writers) tackles more adult issues such as loss and the realities of aging. The new guys, the young racing Turks are just going to get faster and faster, and McQueen may have to accept it. What was hidden in those teasers was the emergence of Cruz has a new hero, a speedy four-wheeled sister to the current queen of the box office, Wonder Woman. She signals a new direction, much like teenage Andy giving his beloved playthings to shy, little Bonnie in TOY STORY 3. I was also pleasantly surprised at the big part the memory of Doc Hudson, voiced by the much-missed Paul Newman, figured into the tale. He was briefly referred to in CARS 2, but here he gets the proper tribute. As for the look of the movie, well those Pixar wizards still work their magic. Two great sequences truly stand out. McQueen watches old footage of Doc Hudson, that seems like real news clips till we see Doc’s big blinking eyes. But the best action set piece is when McQueen and Ramirez cover themselves with mud (and phony numbers) and enter the big Thunder Hollow (an homage to Robert Mitchum’s classic THUNDER ROAD) race which turns into a “crazy 8” demolition derby, dominated by a tricked-out school bus that seems right out of a Mad Max flick. It’s thrilling and very funny. And thankfully Mater stays in Radiator Springs and doesn’t take over this entry (a little of him goes a looong way). Oh, and be sure you get to the theatre on time, so you don’t miss a minute of the charming short that precedes the feature, a playground fairy tale called “Lou”. The main event still seems a tad long (maybe it would work better as a one hour TV special), but CARS 3 careens over the end of trilogy curse and sends everyone off to that great salvage yard in the sky. But…I wouldn’t count on that final lap just yet.
3.5 Out of 5
I’ll be talking about this and other currents films this Friday, 6/16, on the Paul Harris Show from 4:15 to 5 PM on KTRS 550 AM. Stream it or tune in live.