Monday, June 19, 2017

Review: 'Cars 3' is Mostly a Winner

Here we are, a new Pixar film, a new Pixar sequel no less, and an entry in a franchise that you either like or hate... It's Cars 3!

This review contains spoilers!

For the third installment in the anthropomorphic autos series, Pixar and first-time director Brian Fee go back to the roots and serve up a humble, laid-back, and refreshingly quiet road trip. No heady mind-altering thrills to be seen here, nothing groundbreaking either. Just an old-fashioned buddy movie that mostly hits all the right buttons. It's not the gritty racing drama you've been pounded with via the trailers and marketing, nor is it the silly spy blockbuster hijinx of Cars 2.

Cars 3 is very much like the first Cars, so much so that the events of the second movie are never referenced in any way save for Lewis Hamilton and Jeff Gordon's "Jeff Gorvette" cameo. Interestingly, little of the movie - like Cars 2 - takes place in Radiator Springs, but thankfully this movie takes us to legendary racetracks and stops on the East Coast. It's all about Lightning McQueen coming to grips with the fact that he's aging, and that he's being pushed out of his sport by more and more rookies. Some of them come with the cockiness that he once had...

The Radiator Springs gang is also surprisingly not in it as much, they have about as much screen time as they did in Cars 2, which was a little upsetting in some ways because I actually really liked that whole gang from the first movie. I loved hanging out with those chrome-and-metal characters, but Cars 3 understandably is on the move, it has no time for small-town stuff. Lightning's gotta train, Lightning's gotta head out and stay in the game, and thankfully the new faces that he meets on his road trip are great new additions to the series. Only Luigi and Guido stick around, but the old time legend racers that McQueen meets on his journey were great, as was Cruz Ramirez, who ends up stealing the show. Literally!

Cruz initially enters the picture as this fun send-up of some of those fitness junkies you tend to bump into from time to time. I certainly know a few, and that made her character lots of fun at first, until you start to see who she really is when we get to the middle of the picture. Once we get there, the story starts to come into its own, and slowly turns out to be the story of Cruz the aspiring racecar. The first half of this movie, to me, was pretty wonky in terms of the pacing. (There I go again about pacing!)

Structurally, the parts all fit nicely. We see some of McQueen's final days as a top-notch racecar, some Radiator Springs stuff, and his trip to the Rust-eze center in Florida. Unfortunately, a lot of that just breezes by, and the build-up to Jackson Storm feels a bit too quick. I also really liked how McQueen had a jokey friendship with the in-universe son of The King (played by real-life counterpart Kyle Petty, though the character himself does not share my name, haha) and a racer named Bobby Swift. Those brief scenes sort of gave you an idea of how McQueen knew some competitors personally off the track, the other competitors in the first movie outside of The King and Chick Hicks were just that. Competitors.

Another byproduct of this uneven pacing? McQueen's post-crash depression is almost completely glossed over, and kind of reduced to a joke. I'm not saying that it should've been an all-out somber set of ten minutes, and they do kind of show what McQueen went through, but that's a kind of thing that I personally think shouldn't be shied away from. I know Cars is meant to be a cartoonier and breezier Pixar series, but the first Cars nails its more downer moments in my opinion. Here? Well, I feel more could've been done with that idea. I think more could've been done with Jackson Storm as well, but the scenes he's in? He's great, he's basically Chick 2.0. Faster, younger, and ten times more arrogant while having a sly way of undercutting someone's confidence.

For me, the first Cars had great pacing. At nearly two hours long, it really took its time, to the point where some folk felt it dragged in a lot of sections! But see, I like that! In a modern era where animated movies barrel through 85-90 minutes of running time, Cars strolled and it didn't feel like it was missing much. Some animated movies these days go so fast, they leave me wanting more. Cars 3, in its first half, was just that... Monsters University was also just that to me as well, super-quick first half, but controlled and even second half.

Cars 3 starts to shine when it hits its dirty middle, where McQueen and Cruz are accidentally locked into a demolition derby, one of the film's funniest and most exciting scenes. The sort of down-home, backwoods, gritty rock 'n' roll feel is captured quite nicely, and fits the overall energy and setting of the sequence. Little by little, Cruz goes from trainer to who she really is, and that's when she takes the front seat. Her first race makes the climax more interesting, and it's overall a nice send-off. Like Monsters University, this Pixar sequel is not afraid to throw a little reality at young audiences. No, Lightning McQueen most likely won't stand a chance against the rookies, so he accepts that his time is up as a racer, and has his protege live her dream. He has become Doc Hudson, former champion, now a teacher of champions. Wraps up nicely with a good tinge of the bittersweet.

About that... The film may end where McQueen can't do it against all odds, but it is a story that is heavy on the motivation. Encouraging you to seize all the opportunities and when to do it, Cruz's subplot is a great story in itself and the real winner of the picture. I like how the two come together, and if half numero uno had been sharper in the pacing and editing departments, we would've had a serious home run here. Instead, we have a breezy, fun, and lighthearted comedy. Could it have been significantly better? Yes, and I say this as someone who finds the first Cars to be a great, well-rounded film.

What really works? When Lightning meets with the classic racers and Doc Hudson's teacher Smokey, we get some really good scenes with a great retro vibe, particularly a homey scene in a 50s-style cafe. Growing up with gearheads in a rural part of my state, these scenes and the overall tone of the first movie really resonate. All the training scenes on the dirt track are handled wonderfully, and again, that demolition derby! There's some fun to be had in the beach sequence as well. Mater is surprisingly funny this time around, and he's in it for maybe less than ten minutes. It was cool to see Chick again too, arrogant as ever. Bob Peterson fills in for Michael Keaton, and while the change is very noticeable, he still delivers. What can you do when you don't have Keaton?

The rest of the cast scores. Returning faces are delightful, and all the new players fit their roles quite nicely. Armie Hammer gives Jackson the tough guy exterior and the cockiness, Cristela Alonzo succeeds as Cruz the hyped-up trainer and Cruz the aspiring champion. Chris Cooper turns in a fine performance as mentor Smokey, and Nathan Fillion brings a slimy businessman to Rust-eze buyer Sterling. Kerry Washington is a welcome addition, and Lea DeLaria knocks it out as demolition champion school bus Miss Fritter. Once again, the character animators combine those performances with ace work.

Cars 3 is a welcome return to form for a franchise that took a weird left turn the last time around. I actually don't dislike Cars 2, and I feel it could've worked had its structure gotten some fine tune-ups. Here, we have a working structure, but some pacing problems and some little holes here and there. (Will we ever know how Doc Hudson passed away? Crash? Some kind of parts failure?) If you're not big on Cars in general, you won't be swayed, believe me. If you like the series, you'll find a lot to like in this installment.

If this is the end, well it's a fine closing. Definitely the true sequel to Cars, and a whole lot of fun. A pass-the-baton story with some doses of real life, and a great core concerning taking risks and going after your dreams, done right.

... And of course, there's the short film...


Instead of love stories and cute animals, Pixar's newest short seems like a unique variation of Toy Story, but is really a nice tale about a playground bully. With no words and no filler, it gets all of its points across and shows that some bullies, deep down, have their issues too and that they should be brought to light. Simple, to the point, and clever. I'd probably put it a notch behind Sanjay's Super Team, which trails Day & Night on my list of this decade's Pixar shorts, top to bottom.

Another fun movie night from Pixar.

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