At one point in CARS 3, Lightning McQueen stands in front of a wall of merchandise, protesting he has “never thought of myself as a brand.” Yet the Disney•Pixar franchise has consistently been the studio’s biggest money spinner. The films have made over $1 billion (and counting) at the box office, and the merchandising sales have exceeded $10 billion. Which is probably why this film, the first series entry not directed by studio founder John Lassester, plays it safe by driving on a familiar track.
In the latest season of the Piston Cup, Lightning McQueen (voiced once again by Owen Wilson) finds that he is outclassed by Jackson Storm, a new breed of car. Following a violent crash, he cloisters himself in Radiator Springs. Unable to work with new trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), Lightning strikes a deal with sponsor Rust-Eze’s new owner, Sterling (Nathan Fillion). If he can win on his own terms in Florida, following the spirit of ‘Doc’ Hudson, he will decide when he is done with racing.
If the narrative seems familiar, it’s certainly not too far away from the original Cars from way back in 2006. This is a mixed blessing, especially for those that felt the spy capering of Cars 2 drifted away from the wistful nostalgia of the first entry. Which is kind of where CARS 3 gets a bit stuck, in trying to make a simple morality tale for all audiences, but caught between a world of Old Blues Bar and Grills and shiny racing statistics to distract the younger audiences.
Which makes us wonder who the audience for this film actually is. Indeed, an entire world of anthropomorphic cars has always given us more questions than answers. (Cattle tractors, for instance: are they there for milking? Or do the other cars eat them?) This is no mere metaphysical pondering, as the Cars series begins to show the strain of a ill-defined concept stretched out over too much canvas. At 109 minutes, the younger audience members were certainly past the point of restless.
The animation is technically first rate, especially when they explore the hyper-realistic exteriors and landscape shots, but the story issues hold it back from cutting loose. The cars themselves have always been a limited design choice. When the film is not following their rigid frames driving around in fast circles, it’s an almost static series of images of cars in front of computer displays. Indeed, the in-film training simulator seems to be nothing more than an advertisement for a video game spin-off.
Pixar could learn a lot from their own narrative in CARS 3. As new and innovative animation houses come along, Pixar can no longer be content to rely on franchise formula and familiar tropes to win the race. In fact, that’s almost exactly what happened to Disney in the 1980s. While the next film in the stable is the original Coco, the sequel trend continues with follow-ups to The Incredibles and Toy Story slated for the next two years. So even though it’s a fun film in places, like Lightning McQueen, it’s time to hand over the steering wheel to new voices.