Cars 3 offers more heartfelt storytelling and rich animation than its predecessor, yet falls short of raising the bar for the Cars franchise.
Years after his breakout success as a rookie, the world-famous Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is still at the top of his racing game. Having evolved in a more mature, good-natured racer who now takes pleasure in the sheer joy of the sport and even befriends his fiercest rivals, Lightning suddenly finds himself being pushed out of the game he loves by one Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a hotshot member of the modern generation of technologically-advanced racing cars. In a desperate bid to defeat Jackson in the final race of the season, Lightning suffers a terrible crash and leaves the masses wondering: is this the end of McQueen's racing career?
Lightning, determined to only bow out of racing on his own terms, thus sets out to make a comeback, only to find that he has a harder time adjusting to the modern era of racing techniques than he expected. Facing pressure from his new sponsor Sterling (Nathan Fillion) to call it a day and cash-in on his legacy, Lightning strikes a bargain with his boss: if he wins the Florida 500 then he gets to keep racing, but if he loses then Lightning will retire to avoid further damaging his "brand". With help from his much-younger trainer and racing technician Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), Lightning prepares for his big showdown with Jackson... only to gradually realize that there may be a third option, when it comes to his future.
After Cars introduced the world to racing sensation Lightning McQueen in 2006, Disney/Pixar centered the 2011 sequel Cars 2 around the antics of Lightning's comical sidekick and buddy, the tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), earning the animation studio easily its worst critical reception to date in the process. The third installment in the series, Cars 3, arrives six years later and offers some course-correction for the franchise, shifting the spotlight back onto Lightning and returning the series to its sports/racing movie genre roots, after the spy caper escapades of the second Cars film installment. Cars 3 offers more heartfelt storytelling and rich animation than its predecessor, yet falls short of raising the bar for the Cars franchise.
In terms of craftsmanship, Cars 3 delivers the goods when it comes to the quality of animation expected from Pixar productions. The reflective surfaces and expressive mobility of the various vehicles themselves have never been more convincing or photorealistic in design, nor have the racing sequences in the previous Cars movies been more sharply-constructured visually than they are here. At the same time, Cars 1 & 2 lighting/digital camera overseer Jeremy Lasky and his co-cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel (X-Men: Apocalypse) still manage to smoothly integrate cartoonish faces and car movements into the more tangible environments featured throughout Cars 3. Although the movie isn't as sophisticated in terms of attention to detail and photography/editing as Pixar's best work from the past few years, it succeeds in keeping its head above the water in the current era of computer-animation.
The story for Cars 3 - which is credited to four different writers, including the film's director Brian Fee (a storyboard artist on the first two Cars movies) - is a variation on the mentor/mentee sports story featured in the first Cars film, with Lightning now in the position of being the more experienced and patient, but also disillusioned, racer that the late Paul Newman's Doc Hudson was in the original Cars. The way that Cars 3 pays its respects to the late Newman onscreen, exploring the lasting impact that Doc had on Lightning and how their experiences parallel one another's, makes for one of the more heartfelt elements of the movie. However, much like the existential crisis that Lightning must wrestle with in the film, the Doc Hudson story thread feels a bit out of place in the larger context of Cars 3. That's because the film itself is more of a passing the torch story about Lightning and Cruz Ramirez, rather than a proper capstone to Lightning's journey from arrogant rookie sensation (in the first Cars) to becoming a seasoned veteran in his own right.
Longtime Pixar writers Kiel Murray and Bob Peterson, working with screenwriter Mike Rich (The Rookie, Secretariat), likewise blend formulaic sports tropes with the kid-friendly humor of the previous Cars movies here, but are not able to achieve the all-ages appeal that Cars 3 is aiming for. As a film that is intended more for the juice box crowd, however, Cars 3 mostly succeeds and is able to establish Cruz Ramirez as a rambunctious go-getter who could plausibly carry the Cars franchise forward from here (if Disney/Pixar decides to go that route). Cruz and Lightning's emotional arcs are similarly compelling taken on their own, despite how Cars 3 struggles to service them both equally. Part of the reason for that can be chalked up to the movie's antagonist, Jackson Storm, not being developed beyond a two-dimensional talented jerk who serves as more of a glorified obstacle than a proper foil to Cruz and Lightning here.
As with the first two Cars movies, most of the supporting characters in Cars 3 - including now-familiar residents of Radiator Springs like Mater and Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt) - are stock archetypes that are playfully reimagined as vehicles. Reliable character actors such as Nathan Fillion (as Lightning's schmoozing new sponsor, Sterling) and Kerry Washington (as the racing statistical analyst, Natalie Certain) bring enough inflection to their performances to give their characters more personality, despite being limited in terms of onscreen development. The same goes for the actors lending their voices to Doc's old racemates here, including Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Margo Martindale (as River Scott and Louise "Barnstormer" Nash, respectively), as well as Chris Cooper as Doc's former mechanic, Smokey. That being said, there are no particular standouts in the Cars 3 ensemble and even a number of the familiar players have a limited impact on the main plot threads here (though, depending on how you feel about the Cars sidekicks, that might not be a problem).
All things considered, Cars 3 lies in the same boat as the original Cars, in the sense that it's a perfectly serviceable family-friendly movie that doesn't reach the standard for quality animated storytelling that Disney/Pixar has set for itself in the past. Those who were fans of the original Cars, but left disappointed by Cars 2, are the most likely to appreciate the mix of heart, humor and dazzling animation on display here and be more forgiving of the derivative plot elements in Cars 3. Between struggling to achieve the broad demographic appeal that Disney/Pixar movies are known for and how much it banks on the Lightning/Doc relationship from the first Cars for dramatic impact, however, Cars 3 doesn't have much to offer those who are not already invested in this franchise to some degree. Perhaps the potential Cruz Ramirez spinoff will manage to change their minds down the line.