Thursday, June 15, 2017

'Cars 3' Grows Up With Its Audience

This review originally appeared on

I have a theory that I've, admittedly, not really done much to prove aside from talking to friends with kids: Pixar's Cars movies are the ones parents like the least, while their (often male) kids love them the most.

I know plenty of adults who can burst into tears just talking about Toy Story 3 or Inside Out, but none who speak about Cars or Cars 2 with any genuine sense of fondness. And I tend to agree. I enjoyed the first Cars well enough, mainly because of its mid-century aesthetic, Route 66 setting, and its "stop and smell the roses" message. But Cars 2 was an exhausting assault of color and noise that made the fatal mistake of giving the sidekick the starring role. Neither film made me laugh that much, and they definitely didn't make me cry, which combined are the two things the best Pixar movies always manage to make me do.

Happily, Cars 3 feels like a course correction, with Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) once again relegated to the role of comic relief and Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) back in the lead. As the film opens, Lightning is racing again, although he's quickly coming to realize his glory days may be behind him, as more and more "next-gen" race cars join the competition. Those new-school competitors are headed by the unctuous Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a sleek black and blue model that can reach speeds over 200 mph thanks to modern tech and some advanced training methods.

An accident (that, be warned, might scare the younger kids) forces Lightning to return to Radiator Springs to recuperate, which mainly consists of his hiding out in his garage with the shades drawn and wearing primer grey paint, the car equivalent of "why even bother" sweats.

After a pep-talk from his girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt) and some flashbacks featuring his beloved mentor Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, in a performance consisting of actual vocal outtakes from Newman as well as some impersonation), Lightning is convinced to suck it up and get back on the track (cue the Rocky III music).

Lightning's road to a comeback is also rocky, as Sterling (Nathan Fillion, with a voice that just oozes untrustworthiness), the new owner of Rust-eze, sees Lightning as more of a corporate mascot than an actual champion, placating him with a shiny training facility and a perky trainer named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo, an inspired casting choice) who sees Lightning as an ancient relic.

Like the aforementioned Rocky movies, along with plenty of other "comeback" stories, what follows includes training montages, the aging champ clashing with his younger coach, throwing in the towel, and picking it up again.

But then Cars 3 does something unexpected, by propelling a female character into the center of the story. Putting aside the obvious fact that there are girls who like to play with cars, and boys who are happy playing with dolls, Cars, more than any of the other Pixar films, has always felt like a movie for boys, especially when its success has been centered around its car-centric merchandising.

Wonder Woman, which has managed to hold the top box office spot in its second week of release, has proven to be an emotional viewing experience for a lot of women, with reports of some bursting into tears seeing Diana take to the battlefield as Wonder Woman for the first time. I'll admit, I had to fight tears myself. And I had a similar reaction watching Cars 3.

Obsolescence and the fear of forced retirement might seem like odd choices for a children's film, but they're really not that odd in the Pixar universe. Their movies have often grown up alongside their audience; Toy Story 3 was similarly about adulthood, and passing things on to the next generation; Cars 3 follows suit. And in both, the future is female.

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