Like the first two, Cars 3 is a heap of good fun when it’s switched on and turbo-ed up but not much of anything else when it’s parked in the driveway. It has a good-hearted story and is populated by charming characters, but the Cars movies have always been at the mindless end of the Pixar production line. It’s like they’re built for speed with little attention given to handling or endurance. I can go back time and time again to Ratatouille (2007) or Inside Out (2015) and feel enriched each time. But with Cars, what you see is what you get. There’s no room for seconds.
What we get this time is yet another racing story that involves the hot-headed Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson). McQueen has been the head honcho for many years, but now he and the old guard are in danger of ceding the track to a new breed of racecar, one built with science instead of passion. This means quicker speeds, sharper cornering, more downforce, better slipstreaming, all that stuff. McQueen is forced out of the races, sinks into lonely depression and despairs of ever finding a way back to high speed glory. He is bought over by a new sponsor who introduces him to Cruz Ramirez, the spunky lab tech who once failed at being a racecar and, alas, finds herself saddled with babysitting the next generation of top racers.
Cruz is the movie’s best character, because she represents the mistakes of the past and is voiced by Cristela Alonzo, that comedienne of such vibrancy we can almost picture her bouncing about with joy as she delivers her lines. She transforms Cruz first into a kind of loveable goofball as a lab tech, and then into a devilish driving machine when she gets a taste of the racetrack. I’ve always found Lightning McQueen to be a bit of a bore as the hero, but paired with the zeal of Cruz’s good nature he’s more tolerable, and she’s way more fun. Some of the movie’s best scenes are when Cruz is the focus and McQueen watches on from the sidelines.
Other than that there isn’t so much of a plot as a series of pitstops to 1) tighten the bond between McQueen and Cruz while still preserving the integrity of the G rating, and 2) provide a few sensational sequences to capture the imagination of the kids in the audience, like when McQueen and Cruz find themselves shovelled into a demolition derby and end up racing for their lives against a deranged school bus.
Elsewhere, Nathan Fillion voices Sterling, the wealthy advertising tycoon who decides to front McQueen. Armie Hammer is Jackson Storm, the new head honcho who’s not so much a villain as a sportsman (sportscar?) who just wants to win. Chris Cooper enters the story as an old mentor to McQueen’s old mentor. And much of the cast of the first two movies returns, albeit thankfully in smaller doses. A little Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) goes a long, long way.
Cars 3, I suspect, will not bore the parents who’ve brought their hyperactive kids to the movies on a Saturday. It is slick and very brisk in parts, especially when Cruz is on screen. But because both Cruz and McQueen have so many introspective issues to deal with, the quieter moments may be too much for the younger ones to sit through. Oh well, who am I to say? I’m neither a parent nor a toddler. I had fun with this movie, but I’m ready for Pixar to wow me once again with something inspired.