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FILM REVIEW: Pixar Skids Again With Joyless CARS 3

FILM REVIEW: Pixar Skids Again With Joyless CARS 3

Early on in Disney/Pixar’s Cars 3, a louder, faster, more explosive (and cuter) rookie named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), billed as “the new generation,” threatens the racing viability of the old codgers, particularly the chipper Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson). So fresh just eleven years ago, but so perilously stale today.

It is hard, of course, not to view the entire setup as yet another thinly-veiled analogy for the tension between the movies of old and those of today, driven by bombs, slickness, and supposed superficiality. But the trick these Cars are playing are on the audience—not on each other—by simultaneously forcing them into wanting the nostalgia of yore and the fascination of new.

Thus it is that in the latest iteration of the franchise—the only one in Pixar’s impressive repertoire to hold a “rotten” score from reviewers—a mostly predictable racing plot is setup with all the uninteresting twists and turns of its predecessor and by countless other training-to-become-great sports movies that have preceded it. Supposedly buoying this film is the question of when the star of the past should call it quits. One character offers a wily thought: “the young will tell you when it’s time to stop.” He means racing, but he really should have said “the young will tell you when it’s time to stop making unnecessary sequels.” It’s a truism, if you replace “international dollars” for “the young,” in any case.

But because the cash has not stopped flowing the wheels will continue to spin (even though Cars 3 definitely has a wistful goodbye, pass on the baton feeling to it). McQueen, with the help of a large cast of amusing characters that span talent such as Larry the Cable Guy, Chris Cooper, and Tony Shalhoub, must conquer the new challenger by training hard and, you know, setting his mind to it. The combination of longing with pizzazz makes it feel like a strange combination between Rocky and Fast and the Furious. 

And this being a post-modern Pixar movie (meaning, post Frozen, post Maleficent), you also know you should expect a plucky heroine. Here you get here in the form of McQueen’s new trainer Cruz Ramirez, voiced by Hispanic comedienne Cristela Alonzo.

The problem with Cars 3 boils down to how surprisingly unfunny it is. Other than the obvious play on words with “Cruz” (cruise), one is treated to groaners such as “life’s a beach, and then you drive, and “faux wheel drive.” Largely absent are the clever quips that characterize this studio. Nor, for that matter, are there any of the touching and deeper themes that are so subtly explored in movies like Inside Out and Toy Story. Here, the Peter Pan-like growing up anxiety feels contrived and unconvincing, particularly because you know that, this being a racing film, the outcome cannot be completely in doubt.

On the other hand, given that Randy Newman is involved, the entire project has a majestic score that is hard to ignore. Arguably the price of admission is covered by the delightful tunes to which the otherwise endless training/racing sequences are set. The animation is also, as you’d expect, both flawless and exhilarating, and there is as usual nothing other than perfection in the production of this film.

But the same cannot be said about its heart though. Perhaps it is the racecar setup that lends itself to easy outs of corniness that causes the writers to keep falling into constant potholes. At one point offered a merchandising deal in retirement in lieu of continued embarrassing racing, McQueen proclaims he does not want to cash in on easy sales. For him, the reward is the thrill of the race. Maybe the execs behind this film could learn a thing or two from their hero.

Or one could also point to some of the supposed life lessons for missed opportunities. In one of the many lazy-facile lessons that the anthropomorphic cars regurgitate, we are told that “challenges are what you make of them.” It is true, of course, that setting your mind to it can help dominate demons and overcome challenges. In public speaking courses, one is usually given the advice of “imagining the audience in their underwear” to overcome the jitters. But, in Cars 3, I’m afraid, it’s the emperor, or the race drivers, that really have no clothes.

Grade: C

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About The Author

J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam, a voting member of the New York Film Critics Online, has been a movie lover since he saw the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in theaters at a tender age, and has been a devoted student of American film history every since. His favorite films range from Back to the Future to West Side Story, depending on the time of day, and has a mildly unhealthy obsessions with the Academy Awards. Any similarity with the slightly unstable writer in the seminal 1944 film 'The Lost Weekend' is pure coincidence

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