Cars 3 is just ok, except for when it’s not.
The following review will be making infrequent allusions to SPOILERS. Proceed with caution.
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is old. He’s real old, you guys. He acts like a jolly old dad, but he’s actually even older than that. He’s old. So old. So old. He’s practically three axels into the Cars Universe’s equivalent of the nursing home already! He’s just so old, folks! He’s over the hill, past his prime, down on his luck. He can’t keep up with this new breed of racers because he’s SO OLD and they’re SO YOUNG. He might as well be literally falling apart every time he steps out onto a racetrack, he’s so old. He’s so old that he probably remembers the very first ever race since he was one of its competitors. He’s so old that he’s witnessing all of his friends move on from racing and is having a massive midlife crisis as a result of it all. He’s SO OLD that his camp councillor was Jesus Car-hrist himself! HE’S SOOOOOOOOOOOO OOOOLLLLLLLLLLLLDDDDDDD-
If you found that prior paragraph unnecessarily redundant and lacking in any nuance or subtlety, maybe even with a whiff of condescension about it all, then welcome to the world of Cars, you must be new here. Cars is unique in that it’s a series that does get way, way too much hate from the populace at large – anyone would think that this series of two official films, one of which even Cars 3 wants you to completely forget ever happened, and two spin-offs that had nothing to do with Pixar, killed the studio’s legacy and storytelling stone-dead – but also is absolutely and inarguably the worst thing that Pixar have done, even with their increasingly-rocky 2010s output so far. Now this is not nostalgia talking, since I have re-watched a bunch of Golden Age Pixar in recent months and they do all largely hold up, and it’s not to say that the original Cars is a bad film; it’s perfectly ok. But the Cars series has largely faltered due to that thing I spent the entire opening paragraph doing, something that almost none of their other films have suffered from: condescending.
Again, let’s, for now, scrub Cars 2 from history, since it was a total mess on every conceivable level and, as mentioned, even Cars 3 ignores its entire existence, and focus on the original Cars. Cars is fine. It’s ok. Theoretically, it works to much the same blueprint as prior Pixar movies, it has some decent visual designs and technical animation, and is narratively solid. But Cars’ main problem, and there are many individual little problems that stop Cars from being great (including its failure to excel in any single aspect of its design), is that the whole film feels, for lack of a better term, condescending. It lacks subtlety or any nuance, and feels so tangibly desperate to please that it ends up coming off as a little insulting. All of its characters are thinly-developed stereotypes, it regularly reaches for low-hanging fruit in its jokes both for the kids and especially for the adults – lower-back tattoo and flasher jokes should the domain of lower-deck Simpsons episodes, not a Pixar movie – it calls excessive attention to every last one of its celebrity voices (and multitude of cameos) in ways that even mid-2000s DreamWorks films would consider to be too much, and its ultimate message (about learning to take life slow) was smushed into viewer’s heads like so many grapes being wrung for wine juice.
It’s too much, too desperate to be loved and understood, and too unintentionally insulting as a result, like a clown at a birthday party full of jaded drunks. Cars 3, which once again would like for you to completely forget the existence of Cars 2 please it is sorry about that, does not divert from this formula, which once again means that this ranks near the absolute bottom of Pixar’s roster. That being said, Cars 3 is in no way a bad film. It is resolutely, unabashedly, unreservedly, unremittingly, and unstoppably ok.
For one thing, it seems that the Cars creative team – this time not counting John Lasseter among its ranks in any creative capacity, with directorial duties being turned over to Brian Fee, making his directorial debut – collectively had the epiphany that Cars, being set in the realm of motorsport, would probably be most comfortable narratively if they just made a sports movie. So they did, with the film pitching itself as a comeback story where Lightning McQueen finds himself being pressured into retirement due to his age, encroaching slowness, and a horrifying crash at the film’s start, but puts it all on the line in one last race where he is determined to shut down smug up-and-comer Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). There are a couple of genuinely fun sequences, best of all being a visit to a Crazy Eights demolition derby; the animation occasionally looks fantastic, sometimes evoking the same intentional disconnect between photorealistic environments and deliberately cartoony characters as The Good Dinosaur, although it’s not as consistent in that aesthetic choice as Dinosaur; and the new cast of characters, especially Lightning’s new trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), are largely a joy to watch, far more so than the Radiator Springs gang who here are once again relegated to the film’s absolute margins.
Mostly, it’s just ok pleasant-enough viewing, and is at least a damn-sight better than Cars 2, which admittedly isn’t saying much. In effect, Cars 3 is trying to pull a Toy Story 3 and trade off of the Cars brand in order to mine said prior investment for power in its examinations of aging and mortality. And whilst there’s an inherent dubiousness in trying to do the same thing to a series that has run for 11 years with only one on-message film that’s at-best just sort of ok, as a series that ran for 15 years with two classic on-message movies, I’m willing to admit that I just may not be the audience for this one in the same way that I was with Toy Story 3. Cars may not carry any weight or nostalgia for me, but that doesn’t mean that a generation younger than I am will feel the same way – Cars is a merchandising juggernaut, after all.
So, even with those qualifiers and admissions that the film is basically ok, why did the experience of watching Cars 3 still frequently irritate me so? Well, it all comes back to that central tenant of the Cars series: its rampant, mostly-unintentional condescension. This is a series that I can’t even say treats subtlety as a foreign concept, because that would imply that it’s ever once been made aware of the word and could subsequently express confusion over its purpose. That opening paragraph is merely the tip of the iceberg in the film itself, which beats the information of Lightning McQueen being old down to the Earth’s molten core, then beats it back out to the other side of the planet for good measure, and then punts it across the solar system repeatedly just to make absolutely certain every last molecule occupying space in the cinema screen, regardless of whether they are even capable of sentient thought, got the message. One could cynically say that this occurs because the mechanics of the Cars universe are still so frustratingly vague that you might genuinely not know otherwise – and that is the sole reference to how threadbare the mechanics of Cars are that you are going to get in this review, because that horse has been beaten to death almost as much as this film tells you that LIGHTNING MCQUEEN IS OLD – but the result is a film that starts making tip-toes across the line from condescending to something altogether far worse: contempt.
Cars 3 hates millennials. Cars 3 really hates millennials. Fittingly for a series which initially started as a love-letter to the kind of postcard-perfect Real America that never actually existed outside of movies and tourist paraphernalia, Cars 3, as a result of leaning fully into “Old White Guy Midlife Crisis,” has gone full “get off my lawn, you whippersnappers!” Also partially out of necessity for its being a sports movie, the film takes great joy in depicting these new, high-tech, rookie rivals as self-absorbed, snooty, disrespectful douchebags of the highest order. In comparison to McQueen’s generation, who race for the thrill and clown each other light-heartedly like good ol’ buddies, Storm’s generation is actively contemptuous of anybody even slightly their senior, thrilling in taking their old inspirations down a peg or seventeen, and only finding joy in the act of winning. These cars aren’t Real Racers, cos they rely on expensive simulators, statistics, probabilities, and fancy new assists to guide them through perfect lines every time! They don’t get their tires dirty, they don’t know about the purity of racing!
Granted, some of this comes out of necessity of Cars 3 being a sports film, and with how the film concludes there is eventually a “ceding of the torch” admission that maybe not everything these hip young Millennials subscribe to is necessarily The Worst. Plus, as somebody who goes through on and off periods of being a motor-racing fan, there is a legitimate set of questions to ask about the dichotomy between driver and technology in the sport as the years go on. At what point does the driver’s skill become mostly irrelevant? Does this price more-modest constructors out of competition? Are these technical aids sapping the thrill and excitement out of racing? These are all valid questions, ones that could allow Cars 3 to turn into the automotive counterpart to Moneyball; there’s even a statistics-obsessed pundit, Natalie Certain (why is every character in this series saddled with obnoxiously terrible names), who seems to derive more joy from the spreadsheets chronicling the sport than the sport itself.
The problem, however, is that Cars 3 is only tangentially about this stuff. Instead, it’s primarily about Lightning’s “Old White Man Irrelevancy Midlife Crisis” and that ends up colouring the view of the rest of the film as a result. So such questions only end up as more gristle for Lightning’s anxieties and insecurities about getting older and being left behind by the world around him, which feeds into their simplistic, one-note, and very conservative depictions in-story. Because we see these things as Lightning does, we are encouraged to empathise with him and his feelings towards these things. We end up only seeing Millennials as nothing more than arrogant punks who need to be taught proper respect to their elders, to see these new tech upgrades as nothing more than tools of the entitled, and for those who focus too heavily on the science and statistics of the sport as curmudgeons who need to be forcibly reminded of what Real Racing looks like. All as a result of that limited viewpoint and total lack of any semblance of subtlety or nuance.
And that inadvertent condescension-bordering-on-contempt is what fatally hamstrings the film’s other primary thematic thread. See, Lightning’s trainer, Cruz, who is younger than him and idolised him growing up, never wanted to be a trainer. She wanted to be a racer, clearly still does, but she never followed her dream because she never felt like she belonged out there on the track with all of the other racers. Cruz is a woman who wants to break into the near-exclusively masculine world of motor-racing but was unable to do so because that realm refused to welcome her, always made her feel lesser, contemptuously insulted her for the sole fact of her being a woman, despite her being inarguably the best racer on any track she gets put on.
This is a thematic goldmine, and, whilst it does still have some power as a result of Cruz being a supremely loveable character and Cristela Alonzo’s relentlessly charming performance, it’s something that the Pixar team bungle spectacularly. The first reason is because Cars 3 is trying to do a story about institutional sexism without ever once openly mentioning gender, instead chickening out with generic variations on “you don’t belong here,” despite it very clearly and blatantly being about said. I’d say that this might be something that the inevitable Cars 4 could be saving, but the film’s mad scramble to unring that bell after the climax – seriously, the stubborn refusal to directly specify sexism and racism as the things that intimidate people like Cruz from competing in the sports they love is insulting – firmly puts pay to that idea.
More damningly, however, is again the fact that this is not Cruz’s story. It’s Lightning’s. He is our POV, and so we instead experience these issues not as issues in their own right, but in how they relate to Lightning and his “Old White Guy Midlife Crisis.” Instead of this being a story about Cruz gaining the self-confidence with the help of a trusted friend and idol to follow her dreams, it’s instead more about how Lightning’s late-blooming wokeness finds him a new career path – and one that lets him pay tribute to his own deceased mentor, Doc, at that, because heaven forbid these stories about beating down patriarchal barriers not be primarily about the White Men who helped. Cruz does get a moment or two in the climax to herself, the film desperately trying to reposition itself as a duel-protagonist narrative in this late-stage, but the finale ends up mostly about Lightning and his contributions, which makes sense given the fact that he’s the protagonist, but resultantly makes a tangibly well-intentioned story arc come off as super condescending, minimising the person it’s ostensibly supposed to giving the moment to.
(It’s worth noting that, of the seven people credited with writing Cars 3 in some capacity, not a single one of them are women. This is why you need women in the writer’s room; every last one of these men are clearly writing with the best of intentions, but this is the kind of glaring oversight that occurs when you don’t have that additional perspective.)
Despite all of this, Cars 3 is ok. It’s perfectly watchable entertainment that works narratively, has some likeable characters, and some decent sequences. It doesn’t excel at anything and, despite bungling many of its thematic cores, it’s not terrible in any respect either. It’s just ok. If it weren’t for that relentless inadvertent condescension, I’d have little substantial to say about the film and this review would have been at least half of the length that it is. But, then again, if it weren’t for that inadvertent condescension, what even would Cars have been to begin with? What’s been the series’ most crippling bug has also been its only unique feature. Its characters have never had the depth or interest of The Incredibles; its emotional depth has never so much as dipped its toe into the shallow end of Monsters, Inc.’s deep reservoir; and even each film’s best sequences are light years behind the highlights of A Bug’s Life. Apart from that tangible sense of each film talking down to its audiences, both young and old, I’ve never found anything in this series that sets it apart from the glut of Pixar wannabes we’ve weathered in the decades since they revolutionised the feature animation game.
Unlike most other critics, I’m not going claim that the Cars films exist purely for cynical, toyetic reasons. These films clearly mean a lot to someone – Lasseter’s inspiration for the original came from a cross-country family road trip, so this series is inarguably near and dear to his heart, at least – it’s just that the actual films themselves don’t give any reasons to be beloved. They just… exist. Being ok. Maybe this unwavering commitment to resolute, consistent mediocrity is its own kind of power to somebody, but I’m just not seeing it. Maybe I never will. All I do know is that Cars 3’s finale blatantly rips-off the finale to DreamWorks Animation’s Turbo from 2013; with the flip and everything. 2,700 words and that one sentence is probably the most damning thing I can say about Cars 3.
Callie Petch sucks ingenuity down through the family tree.