Friday, June 16, 2017

A Reel Review: CARS 3

Since day one, the films of Pixar Animation Studios have had that hard-to-sustain balance of adult-themes wrapped up in kid-friendly storytelling. With CARS 3, the second sequel to their 2006 world of talking vehicles, the adult themes have never been meatier, or more relevant. This is a film about growing old, about leaving something behind for the next generation, and remembering our roots. It’s heavy stuff, but how would that travel with those who travel with pedals?

Famous race-car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is nearing the end of his prime. In an attempt to compete with high-tech rookie sensation Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), McQueen wrecks and is facing an unwelcome retirement. Determined to give it one last shot, McQueen picks up a new sponsor, led by Sterling (Nathon Fillion) who assigns him a new trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). When the new, high-tech training methods don’t work for McQueen, he sets out to find Smokey (Chris Cooper); the old crew chief of his first mentor.

Films set in a sports or competition world often have that rise, fall, rise again method of storytelling, but so few want to deal with a competitor who is aging out of their profession. It’s understandable why no one wants to often tell that story, because it is, and should be hard to watch. In CARS 3, director Brian Fee and the Pixar team bravely drive down that road, as this is one brutally honest animated film. It’s never easy watching our heroes grow old, fall, and struggle to adapt to a new changing world, and that’s exactly the story Lighting McQueen is going through here. His old friends and sponsors are retiring and leaving him, and the sport that he had excelled at seems to be passing him by.

The bulk of CARS 3 is spent with McQueen trying to stay in the fast lane, mostly with his new trainer, Cruz. Cruz has her own story to tell; a female car with racing dreams who was once told that girls can’t race…and through each other McQueen and Cruz find a way. The film really takes off when it shifts into a road-trip (of course) to find the mentor of McQueen’s teacher Doc Hudson (magically reprised by the late great Paul Newman), and CARS 3 finds a brilliant story to tell by embracing past, present, and future.

This is still a G-rated animated film, and for kids the issues may be too weighty to lift. But the story is done in enough broad-strokes for them to latch onto. They would certainly be able to tell that their hero McQueen is struggling (his big wreck is horrific to see), and most of the humor is done via physical comedy. However, for adults the lack of witty one-liners in the script is noticeable, although there are some very good knee-slappers here and there. The action scenes, especially the racing and a second-act trip to a backwoods demolition derby are spectacular and will keep the attention of the old and the new easily. The Pixar animation is at its best, and certain scenes, such as a beach training scene, the demo-derby, and old film reels have a photo-realism that is breathtaking; it nearly looks like Pixar filmed Hot Wheels toys on a playground. The pop-music cues are perfect and add to the fun, and Randy Newman’s score is quite wonderful.

Owen Wilson is still perfect as McQueen, and his chemistry with Cristela Alonzo really helps drive the film. McQueen’s old friends from Radiator Springs are back (wonderfully reprised by Bonnie Hunt, Tony Shalhoub, Cheech Marin, and yes…Larry the Cable Guy), but are reduced to extended cameos, although the little screentime they have is put to very good use. The late great Paul Newman returns through some clever, and tasteful use of unused audio from the first film. Chris Cooper and Kerry Washington make welcome additions. The only real gripe with the cast is that Michael Keaton isn’t back to reprise his character, and the recast new guy (Bob Peterson) sounds nothing like Keaton.

By the time the checkered flag drops on this lap, a few tears are sure to be rolled as CARS 3 wraps with a satisfying punch; reminding us the importance of accepting age, passing on what we’ve learned, and the true meaning of the word “legacy”. And despite the talking cars and trucks with cartoon eyes, this is a very human story. But the true brilliance of CARS 3 is that it feels like Pixar is reminding us of the state of things; after all, the famed animation house is now well over 20 years old, with its original founders and filmmakers reaching their own twilights, and fans from day-one reaching the point of passing down their own torches. Pixar understands us, just as they always have, and films like CARS 3 will make them the best driver to take us down the road.


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