There was a moment toward the end of Cars 3 where the audience around me erupted into gleeful applause. It wasn’t just one or two people, either. It was almost everyone in the theater. Except me. Not because I wasn’t digging the moment, I was, but I found myself a notch or two less excited, less positive towards the movie than everyone around me. A few years ago Matt Singer at ScreenCrush.com coined the term, “legacyquel,” as a film that brings back original franchise players for a film that will hand off the reigns to a new generation. These films operate ostensibly as a sequel to the originals, but function more as a launching point for a new series of films featuring different, younger characters. You can count Star Wars: The Force Awakens as one of these films. There have been MANY others. Go read that piece I linked to above by Matt, he does a great job of cataloging them. Cars 3 is, by my estimation, Pixar’s first legacyquel, and as a legacyquel it’s triumphant as evidenced by the huge swell of applause the audience I was with gave it. As a movie all by itself, it’s pretty ok.
I think my main problem with this film, and with the series overall (although, full disclosure, I haven’t seen the second one) is that it doesn’t work for me on a conceptual level. This universe is weird. Let me explain: The thing about a legacyquel is that you have to have older, familiar characters around. Well, in Cars 3 Lightning McQueen is old. Super old. Over the hill. Washed up. He’s slower than all these newfangled cars that are being released now and he just can’t seem to compete. After a serious setback involving a pretty brutal crash Lightning McQueen sets about training to become better, stronger, and faster. To help he’s got a new trainer named Cruz Ramirez who takes delight in reminding Lightning just how old and out of date he is. Because, as we are told over and over, he’s old. Problem is, the film doesn’t SHOW us how old Lightning is, probably because that would be a hard thing to do. How do you indicate age in an anthropomorphized car? Rust? Lightning is clearly slower than the “younger” cars and this is explained by a lot of technobabble about how the younger cars are made out of lighter material and have more advanced training. Fine. I get that. But when the cars are actually racing it sure seems like effort and mindset have more to do with Lightning’s problem than any lack of physical ability due to age.
A large chunk of this movie is a mashup of Rocky III and IV and also Creed. This movie is trying super hard to be a sports movie in this tradition. To wit:
There’s even a moment when one of Lightning McQueen’s role models retires because the new cars are too good—that car’s name? Cal Weathers.
The reason this doesn’t really work is that there’s no good way to visually represent that a car is getting stronger or more muscular. In a Rocky movie Stallone can work out a whole bunch and then reveal himself to be in much better shape than he was earlier in the film. That’s basically half of what those movies are about. But, again, how do you visually represent a car getting in better shape? You don’t. Instead the filmmaker’s go to great lengths to make this more about a mental block than anything else, which is fine, but then the film tries to have it both ways by having training montages. In a good training montage, which are some of my favorite parts of the Rocky movies (and Karate Kid, and a bunch of other sports movies) you can see the character progressing and getting better. These sequences have direction and momentum. The montages in Cars 3 feel aimless, because the battle isn’t really physical.
That was a long digression, but I think it’s central to why I felt a bit cooler toward the film than the audience I saw it with. Seriously, these folks were in love with the film, and I think a lot of people will be, particularly kids. The characters are well drawn, particularly Cruz Ramirez who is voiced by Cristela Alonzo. There are also good vocal performances by Armie Hammer, Chris Cooper, and, of course, Owen Wilson. The film also looks amazing. The big races are dynamic and exciting and there is a sequence that takes place as a bunch of cars are speeding through a dark forest that is quite thrilling.
Overall there is a lot to like in this film and as a set up for an eventual fourth installment that is more about Cruz Ramirez than it is about Lightning McQueen, I think this film does a good job getting us ready for that. This film is funny, and as I mentioned, it looks fantastic. I think kids will really dig it. Adults might as well. Cars 3 opens everywhere on June 16th.