If the Cars series is Pixar’s stab at making sports movies, then Cars 3 is the Rocky 4 of the franchise. Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) makes for a good Rocky Balboa stand-in: an ageing champion, past the peak of his powers, struggling to stay relevant as younger athletes rise up the ranks. There’s even an Ivan Drago equivalent here in the form of Jackson Storm (voiced by Armie Hammer), a smarmy new competitor whose speed leaves Lightning in the dust. And while Ivan Drago in Rocky 4 used steroids and the overwhelming power of Russian surliness to beat his opponents to a pulp, Storm uses the latest in vehicular technology to dominate the racing circuit in the Cars world. It’s old versus new, the pure versus the enhanced. You can guess where this is going.
Or at least you think you can guess, until Cars 3 swerves and breaks free of the sports movie template and reaches its sweet, heartfelt climax. Fans of Pixar have long thought of the Cars franchise as one of the the animation studio’s least interesting efforts, and while Cars 3 doesn’t reach the heights of a Toy Story 3 or an Inside Out, it’s the best the series has ever been.
You could take that as faint praise, given that the first Cars was Pixar’s most mediocre early effort, with the sequel taking a strange detour to become a middling spy comedy that focused on the redneck pick-up truck Mater. The Cars franchise has always been more of a merchandising force than a critically revered one, something which Cars 3 addresses in its own way. After McQueen finds himself continually losing to Storm, Sterling–the new owner of McQueen’s sponsor company Rust-eze–wants to make a change. Instead of focusing on racing, Sterling wants to capitalise on McQueen’s legacy, primarily through plastering his face on a wide range of products. Any loss tarnishes that legacy, so Sterling gives McQueen an ultimatum: if he doesn’t win the next big race in Florida, then he has to retire from racing altogether.
McQueen, ever an optimist, readily agrees, and is partnered with Cruz Ramirez, a trainer at Rust-eze who specialises in the modern methods Storm utilises to get an edge over everyone else. A lot of the film’s humor stems from the clash between the old school McQueen and the modern Ramirez. McQueen, the ultra-capable racer who honed his craft on dirt tracks, does so poorly in his high tech training that he crashes through the Rust-eze simulator. Ramirez, whose background in racing is purely virtual and theoretical, finds herself bogged down in the sand when McQueen makes her race on a beach. It’s fish out of water times two.
More doesn’t necessarily mean better, though, with the first half of Cars 3 feeling rather flat, and every joke, gag, and reference feeling a little strained. Things pick up midway as the film subtly shifts its focus more towards Ramirez, who we learn has long dreamed of being a racer, but never had the confidence to feel like she belonged in the sport. Cars 3 is never overtly political, but its message of girl empowerment and the struggles women face in being recognised as being capable is traditionally male-dominated fields is clear. By its end, Cars 3 becomes a redemption story for both McQueen and Ramirez, and it results in some heartfelt emotion, a first for the series which has so failed to deliver that emotional punch the best Pixar films deliver. Cars 3 isn’t on par with the studio’s best, but if this is McQueen’s last race, then it’s a great end to this otherwise uneven series.