Raleigh, N.C. — Cars has a reputation for being Pixar’s least creative, least inspired franchise. That is debatable. What isn’t debatable, though, is that it is Pixar’s most profitable franchise. Sure, the films may not be as popular as those in the Toy Story or Nemo series, but Cars toys fly off the shelves. It’s the reason that Disneyland didn’t devote just a ride, but an entire section of its California Adventure theme park, to the franchise.
Cars 3 is in theaters this week, and it is fair to say I walked in with very low expectations. Cars is okay, but largely forgettable unless you were an elementary school aged boy when it was released. Cars 2 is a bag of dog farts. Just an all around bad movie.
So understand that the bar is pretty low. Still, though, I think it is worth noting that Cars 3 is the best of the franchise. How many threequels can say that? Especially the threequels released more than a decade after the original movie?
You can’t review a Pixar film without also reviewing the short that comes before it.
Lou is the name of the short film in front of Cars 3. Lou can best be described as “What if that scene in Toy Story where the toys scare Sid was set to whimsical music?” Someday I am going to do a full power ranking of all the Pixar shorts, and Lou will be in the bottom quarter.
For now, though, here is a quick top 5.
Boundin’ (in front of The Incredibles)
For the Birds (in front of Monsters Inc)
Lava (in front of Inside Out)
Partly Cloudy (in front of Up)
Piper (in front of Finding Dory)
Okay, so Cars 3. Lightening McQueen (Owen Wilson) is back to winning a lot of races, but there are new cars joining whatever it is we’re calling this racing circuit, so we don’t have to pay any usage fees to NASCAR. They are all more aerodynamic, lighter and just generally faster than McQueen and the older cars.
The best racer amongst the new models is Jackson Storm (The Lone Ranger’s Armie Hammer). Storm is cocky, but, like Bryce Harper or Steph Curry, the cockiness is well-earned, so you can’t really fault him. After a devastating crash, Lightening takes time in his beloved Radiator Springs to reassess what he wants out of life. He decides to give it one more go.
His sponsor, Rust-eze, is now owned by a young billionaire that has created a racing center to train the next generation of would-be superstars.
It’s there that we meet Cruz Ramirez (stand up comedian Cristella Alonzo), the Dory of this movie. She’s Lightning’s new trainer. The two butt heads, because what kind of Pixar movie would this be if our two leads didn’t start out hating each other?
Eventually Cruz sees value in Lightning’s old school ways of training, and Lightning comes to respect Cruz’s drive and passion for racing.
Alright, no more recap. What makes Cars 3 a better movie? It’s simple: way less Mater (stand-up-comedian-turned-antacid-pitch-man Larry the Cable Guy). Mater is a perfectly charming and silly character, but Cars 2’s biggest mistake was building a whole movie around him. Mater is like Larry himself -- in small doses he’ll make you smile. He may even genuinely make you laugh once or twice. But more than ten minutes of him and you start to resent your whoever put you in a place that you can’t escape from his relentless barrage of catchphrases.
As with any Pixar movie, there are some nice Easter eggs hidden in Cars 3.
Be on the lookout for a taxi in the demolition derby scene that looks suspiciously like Benny the Cab from Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
I walked away most impressed with the visuals of Cars 3. When Toy Story came out in 1995, it was amazing to think that we were at a point where an entire animated movie could be made on computers. Toy Story looks like the garbage my daughter insists I put on our refrigerator compared to Cars 3. During close-up racing sequences, I found myself having to remind myself that this was animated and not video.
It doesn’t take much to realize this movie only exists to move product. Disney wants to keep selling all the Lightening McQueen stuff that our five and under sons ask for every birthday, and now they’ve introduced an interesting female character to sell crap to girls that same age.
The most important thing about Cars 3 is that it’s not Cars 2, which you will recall is a bag of dog farts. It’s also not Planes (a bag of cat farts) or Planes: Fire & Rescue (a bag of…I don’t know, bird farts, I guess). Cars 3 is fine. It isn’t great, but it follows the familiar Pixar formula in a satisfying enough way.
Demetri Ravanos is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has reviewed movies for Raleigh and Company, Military1.com and The Alan Kabel Radio Network.