The bar for Pixar’s Cars 3 wasn’t set all that high–but at the same time, it was surrounded by high stakes. After Cars 2‘s general failure at re-capturing what people originally enjoyed about Cars, the third installment was seen as Pixar’s chance to do one better and live up to their good name. Cars 3, it was hoped, would be the sequel that had the same heart and storytelling as the first movie.
Did it succeed? To make a long story short: Yeah, mostly.
Let me start with the positive: Cars 3 is miles, leagues, light-years better than Cars 2. It represents a return to the soulful, sensible storytelling Pixar built its brand on. Cars 3 is beautifully animated, and as with (almost) all Pixar movies, it has a decent story and some genuinely funny humor. It’s on par for a Pixar movie, which means that it’s in general a good movie. It has all that down.
Cars 3 is not as good as the first Cars movie. It doesn’t have the same brisk yet quiet plot, the same rock-solid character arc and sense of pace. In fact, Cars 3 is a little clunky in terms of pacing specifically–the flow of the story is somewhat, if you’ll pardon the pun, stop-and-go. What rescues it from feeling mediocre in comparison to the first movie is its unique themes. While the first Cars was about a young star athlete learning humility and openness, Cars 3 is about… an older, seasoned athlete learning humility and openness.
Cars 3 follows Lightning McQueen, the main character of the Cars franchise, as he reaches what looks like the end of his racing career. As a host of rookie racers with fresh skills and technological enhancements take to the track, everyone seems to agree that Lightning McQueen’s racing days are over–everyone, that is, but Lightning himself. Desperate to continue doing what he loves, McQueen is forced to team up with a young trainer named Cruz Ramirez, as he discovers a new aspect of following your dreams.
In many ways, Cars 3 is about the gap between generations. (It’s very easy to draw parallels to Baby Boomers and Millennials; at least, that’s the first conclusion I came to while still in the theater.) It’s about an older athlete who’s starting to slow down, who’s realizing that he’s not on the cutting edge anymore, that he can’t rely on his speed alone as technology and technique marches on without him. The movie’s plot forces Lightning McQueen to confront the creeping fear of aging and retirement, which he sees as an ultimate loss of purpose. This is a conflict regularly faced by each generation as they age and are forced to work with the younger folk, who seem to want nothing more than to replace their elders.
The entitlement and smugness of the younger generation (insert a tired quip about millennials here) is represented by Jackson Storm, an unbearably egotistical young racer who’s perfectly tuned to be as fast as is physically possible for a race car. He throws his victories in Lightning McQueen’s face and is utterly assured of his own skill and status. He’s easy to hate, and it’s clear that he represents the Ultimate Millennial™, the person every thinkpiece writer over fifty-five sees as the enemy.
Fortunately, Jackson Storm isn’t the only pseudo-millennial character the movie has to offer. The other representative of the younger set is Cruz Ramirez, a racing trainer assigned to help Lightning McQueen get back on track. Cruz represents the uncertainty, caution, and crushing self-doubt that many millennials wrestle with. To explain further would be to spoil some of the movie’s pivotal emotional points, but the relationship between Cruz and Lightning is ultimately one of the best parts of the film. The character of Cruz keeps the movie from veering into a tired rant against Those Darn Millennials™–and it allows the movie to make some subtle points about representation and the different kinds of confidence between generations, to boot.
Cars 3 is very much a kid’s movie–but below the surface, it seems more geared toward the parents in the audience. It’s not a perfect movie. The plot feels rushed in some places and too slow in others, and some of the dialogue is rote. The ending, in my opinion, was too neat and tidy, and should’ve been more like the ending of the first Cars. But Cars 3 does represent a welcome return to the heart and soul that’s supposed to characterize Pixar movies. It’s a well-made film with thought-provoking themes and an interesting plot–even if it does drag a bit at times. Like many of Pixar’s newer movies, Cars 3 has its flaws. But, ultimately, it is a thoroughly enjoyable movie. And I for one am very glad to finally have a genuine, decent sequel (and possible conclusion) to the Cars franchise.