Cars 3 (2017)
Directed by: Brian Fee | 109 minutes | animation, adventure, comedy, family, sports | Original voice cast: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Nathan Fillion, Larry the Cable Guy, Armie Hammer, Ray Magliozzi, Tony Shalhoub, Bonnie Hunt, Lea DeLaria, Kerry Washington, Bob Costas, Margo Martindale, Darrell Waltrip, Isiah Whitlock Jr ., Bob Peterson, Guido Quaroni, Tom Magliozzi, John Ratzenberger, Kyle Petty, Lewis Hamilton, Lloyd Sherr, Junior Johnson
Although the series is the least successful creatively from the animation studio Pixar, ‘Cars’ (2006) has turned out to be a great cash cow. No animation film – no, not even ‘Frozen’ (2013) – sold more merchandise than ‘Cars’. In particular, the image of the fast race car Lightning McQueen adorns many boys’ rooms. That commercial success, according to the makers justified a second film, ‘Cars 2’ (2011), and now there is even a third film, appropriately (but not very original) called ‘Cars 3’ (2017). The nice thing about the third part is that Pixar makes fun of the fact that ‘Cars’ has brought in a lot of money, mainly because of the merchandise. We call that self-deprecation. ‘Cars 3’ is more akin to the original than the sequel; the second part is due to its strong focus on McQueen’s silly buddy Mater, who accidentally ends up in a world of espionage, an odd one out. In part three it’s all about racing, racing and racing again!
‘Cars 3’ starts with a spectacular racing scene. The battle for the prestigious Piston Cup has started, but Lightning McQueen is no longer as fast as in its heyday. He is overtaken from all sides by cutting-edge younger racers, led by the arrogant Jackson Storm. In an ultimate attempt to overtake him, McQueen makes a horrific crash. The end of his career as a racing champion now seems really in sight. When he’s fully patched up, McQueen thinks about his future. He prefers to decide for himself when he retires, so he decides to give it one more try. His sponsor Rust-Eze has been bought by the wealthy mud flap manufacturer Sterling, who has already mapped out McQueen’s retirement provision: he can live on his former fame by selling products with his image (see the wink there) and a young racer takes his place in and keeps the brand strong. However, Lightning McQueen wants one more chance to make it as a racer and the two strike a deal: if he wins the first race, he can keep racing for Sterling. If he loses, it’s over.
Because the youth nowadays uses modern training techniques – wind tunnels, simulators, treadmills, that work – Lightning is assigned a personal trainer in the person of Cruz Ramirez. She has to help him get in top shape for the game in Florida. Modern training techniques are not for Lightning, however, and as Jackson Storm breaks one speed record after another, he persuades Cruz to fall back on ‘old-fashioned’ training methods such as beach and track races. It includes the memory of his old friend, the late Doc Hudson, that Lightning is eager to do well in what may be his last race. But time is running out and he doesn’t seem to be getting any faster. It is Doc’s old teacher Smokey who points out that if you are not fast, you must be smart.
Where in ‘Cars’ old racers like The King and the embittered Doc Hudson were overtaken on all sides by youngsters like Lightning McQueen, the red racing monster gets a taste of its own dough in this third part. Much of the humor in ‘Cars 3’ is based on the fact that Lightning has now really passed its peak. Not all jokes turn out equally well, but there is a common thread (unlike the messy second part). For a great champion it is a bit of a shock to realize that he has to give up his place to the younger guard. Lightning doesn’t want to believe it. He fights and fights until he drops. In a hilarious scene, he and Cruz, in their search for a good training location, end up in a demolition derby, a race where racing cars and trucks take out each other until only one is running; then that’s the winner. Pretty standard is the relationship between Lightning and Cruz; of course they don’t really like each other at first, but you can sense from your water that they slowly grow closer and become friends. It turns out Cruz has a deep-seated wish, and Lightning may be able to help her fulfill it. However, he has to put his ego aside for that.
‘Cars 3’ is also an ode to Doc Hudson aka The Fabulous Hudson Hornet, Lightning McQueen’s teacher who is no longer there, and at the same time to the actor who provided his voice: the legendary Paul Newman. Lightning and Cruz’s journey to Hudson’s native Thomasville breathes pure nostalgia (the observant viewer will understand Smokey’s wink by always calling Doc ‘Hud’, after the 1963 western in which Newman starred in the lead role). The way director Brian Fee (this is the first ‘Cars’ film not directed by John Lasseter himself) and his team manage to infuse that melancholy into their film is reminiscent of the better Pixar work. For that reason alone, ‘Cars 3’ is significantly more appealing than part two – and perhaps even better than the original.