The Cars series has suffered from uneven story telling over the years. The first film was an unbelievable hit with children on its release in 2006. It featured a straightforward story of a cocky young athlete learning humility and how to appreciate others. Cars 2 on the other hand, was not met with as much fanfare, or box office receipts, as the original. With a poorly conceived spy story and Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) taking a backseat to his tow truck sidekick Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), neither the acting, nor the conceit of a world populated only with cars, could hold up under the pressure of a maintaining a coherent narrative. Thankfully, Cars 3 returns to the safer world of racing and completely forgets that Cars 2 even exists.
Lightning McQueen returns to center stage, with most of the other Cars characters seen only in bit roles, mainly for comedic effect. Back in the racing circuit and halfway through the season Lightning is faced with some competition from an upstart rookie, Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who begins to push him out of the top spot. As he watches his friends retire and is faced with the same choice, he refuses to believe his career is over. Willing to try anything, he takes an opportunity to use the latest in training technology and meets a plucky young coach, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who knows her way around a car gym and is determined to help him hit a new peak whether he wants her to or not.
A series of disasters at the gym results in Lightning having to make a deal for one last shot at a career: he either wins the next race or retires to a life of shilling mudflaps. He takes to the road to try to find his speed while accompanied, to his chagrin, by Cruz and her limited knowledge of training in the outside world. Lightning finds himself showing her the ropes more often than not, and while adventures are had and the two develop a close friendship, nothing seems to help him improve until he stumbles across the hometown of his old mentor, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman). There, he finds what he needs to make it to the race and beyond.
Visually, Cars 3 is stunning. The landscapes and outdoor scenes were lovingly rendered with every color and detail focused on creating an authentic world. There are several scenes that look incredibly realistic, including one of Lightning crashing that was teased in the first trailer for the movie. Even when the story and dialogue flagged, I always enjoyed the beauty of what was on-screen.
Owen Wilson and welcome newcomer to the series Cristela Alonzo had chemistry, playing off each other to good comedic effect. Alonzo’s Cruz is a first for the Cars world, a female identified car that is involved in the racing world outside of the commentators, but it seemed Pixar didn’t quite know what role she was supposed to play. We are introduced to her as a capable and experienced coach, but when brought outside the high-tech world of the car gym she seems at a loss, not knowing the simplest of techniques to driving off road or racing. Her personality fluctuates as the plot demands and, while it makes for easier storytelling, it comes at the cost of a consistent or satisfying character arc.
Once you realize where the story is headed, the wait to get there is interminable. While I couldn’t point to any one scene that deserved the axe, I was anticipating an ending about twenty minutes before it happened. As a return to form the film succeeds admirably; it’s just that the original form was too shallow to support further installments. Cars 3 outstripped its predecessor by many laps, but it was hampered by a slow story with a predictable end that you can see coming a mile away.