Disney/Pixar’s “Cars 3” is a welcome and enlivening road trip back home to Radiator Springs and this time, the whole gang is along for the ride. It seems the animation powerhouse more or less learned its lesson after a string of critical flops starting with “Cars 2” and ending with “Planes: Fire and Rescue,” as they manage to recapture just enough of the token Pixar charm to justify the revival of one of its more iconic storylines. It’s certainly rusty around the edges, but at its core lies a story faithful to the original and one bound to resonate with audiences of all ages.
After a promising opening minute harkening back to the intro of 2006’s “Cars,” the film falters as it accelerates a little too quickly off the starting line. While the original took its time and methodically paced its development of renegade rookie Lightning McQueen and his initiation into the world of NASCAR-style professional racing, this movie appears to be in a race of its own to usher in the narrative’s internal and external conflicts. There’s simply not enough time in the first act to digest the events as they unfold or appreciate the underlying message the writers are seeking to convey. The reintroduction of beloved characters such as Mater, Sally, Luigi and Guido (even over-the-top egomaniac Chick Hicks) help to alleviate some of the tension, but nostalgia alone is not enough to overcome the anxiety brought on by the hastiness of the film’s assembly.
The second act is where “Cars 3” really hits its stride. The story arc finally comes into view and the depth of McQueen’s struggle takes center stage as he strives to find his place among the pack of young and emerging cutting-edge talent. It’s an eternal and universal struggle that director Brian Fee represents with expert precision and proficiency. Number 95 is thrust into a Darwinian landscape where he must either adapt or make way for the new order and watch from the sidelines as his career becomes nothing more than a distant memory. There are some memorable sequences that chronicle this campaign markedly well, from extended aerobics sessions, to a particularly unfortunate bout with a virtual reality racing simulator and even some appropriately-timed jabs targeting the racing legend’s age. The structure here strongly favors the original film in the best possible way and delivers a consistent level of entertainment as the movie races into the third act. Regrettably, it is at this very moment that things begin to break down. The plot becomes expressly transparent and predictable and loses its luster almost wholesale. All promise of an exciting payoff is quickly squandered as the conclusion can be seen coming from a substantial distance. And by the time the credits roll, the resulting impression is nothing but complete, unadulterated disappointment.
Visually, Pixar is in full form. The photorealism is magnificent and can oftentimes be mistaken for practical, in-camera cinematography. Profound improvements in computer imaging technology enable details as subtle as lighting to stand out in a manner previously unobserved in feature-length animation. Environments are also fastidiously rendered with such perfectionism that every blade of grass and each square inch of the race track feels inexplicably alive. Sound design and script are shoddy at best — apparently tasked to the b-team while the rest of the crew is hard at work on “Coco” — for the overwhelming majority of the film. And whereas Armie Hammer’s appearance as Jackson Storm is exceptionally well-acted, Owen Wilson’s vocal performance as Lightning McQueen feels tragically uninspired.
Final Take: While Disney and Pixar have certainly atoned for the sin of releasing “Cars 2” (and the two spinoff “Planes” films) to the world, “Cars 3” isn’t as good as the original. It simply lacks the sort of “Disney magic” that Pixar films in particular have managed to capture over and over again. I would love to have seen more of Armie Hammer’s Jackson Storm as he presented a unique challenge and was established as a more than worthy adversary to Lightning McQueen. I also missed Mater’s presence throughout the story, but perhaps this is simply a case of Pixar overcorrecting for giving him his own movie back in 2011. That being said, it is a good movie — especially for younger audiences. In the screening I attended, there were several younger children, and they all enjoyed their fair share of laughs and giggles over the course of the 104-minute presentation. In the face of its short list of errors, “Cars 3” excels at being exactly what it needs to be: an uplifting, feel-good, family-friendly presentation with a solid moral core.
Parental Guide: Perfectly safe for all ages. No disclaimer necessary.
Recommended Format: Although I didn’t see it in 3D, I’d be comfortable recommending any available format. Disney/Pixar releases have a great track record in both 3D and standard digital formats where their animated works are concerned.
The Verdict: 6/10