'Cars 3' movie review: Nice final lap for Pixar's weakest franchise
For a long time, the worst Pixar movies had either "Monsters" or "Cars" in the title. "Cars 3" (now playing in theaters everywhere) is at last an entry from the troubled franchise worthy of the Pixar pedigree - but one that still finishes in the middle of the pack.
In short: When racing veteran and legendary Piston Cup winner Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is surpassed by new rookie sensation Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), McQueen aims to prove to the racing world that he is still the best race car in the world.
The good news: "Cars 3" acts as if the dumpster fire that was "Cars 2" didn't happen. Adults would be wise to just show their eager kids the first "Cars" and jump immediately to "Cars 3," and act as if the second film didn't happen. Because that's what Pixar did. "Cars 3" is the sequel the first film - admittedly a fair/middling animated kids flick - deserved.
The previous "Cars" films suffer because Lightning McQueen is not much of a character. He is never truly challenged - but this film actually forces McQueen to look inward and truly ask himself who he is. McQueen faces a seemingly insurmountable feat: he is an aging car up against faster, newer models who effortlessly surpass the older class of cars. He's seen more as a legend than a contender - while McQueen sees himself as speed incarnate. It's nice to see the relative depth of an existential crisis featured in Pixar's weakest franchise.
If McQueen is the heart of "Cars 3," then the soul is old Doc Hudson - McQueen's old mentor beautifully played, via flashbacks and unused audio recordings, by the late Paul Newman. Doc's presence (or lack thereof) is felt throughout the film, with his few lines of dialogue resonating with surprising effect. "Cars 3" benefits from the emotional gravitas of Newman's bittersweet performance.
While the first and third acts are strong, the aimless and rudderless second act - which is most of the film - wanders here and there. There are some painfully drawn-out training scenes feature McQueen and his new young instructor Cruz, there's something about a demolition derby - but the second act generally leaves "Cars 3" stuck spinning its tires.
The problem is a clear lack of direction: the movie clearly establishes that McQueen must win the next race - but it also reveals how much faster Jackson Storm is compared to McQueen. It's obviously McQueen must become faster than Storm - but it's never clear how he'll accomplish this seemingly impossible feat. He has a plainly laid-out problem - but no plan on overcoming his problem. So the film is left to just follow McQueen, and company, around as they seemingly just try random plans out. It's the equivalent of telling a protagonist "Climb Mount Everest!" ... then watching said hero just walk around the base of the mountain for a while.
Final verdict: Almost no Mater and an actual character arc for Lightning McQueen make this the strongest "Cars" film in the series -- albeit one that meanders for the entire middle of the film.
"Cars 3" is now playing in theaters. The animated racing comedy is rated G and has a running time of 109 minutes.