Pixar Shows They Have Some gas Left in This Franchise’s Tank…


Cars 3 director Brian Fee is entering this race as a first time director, but also as someone who has been serving the Cars series as a storyboard artist on the previous two entries.

Being so close to the franchise, I’m sure that Fee was very aware that the Cars brand has suffered much criticism as being the least artistic of Pixar’s film canon.  They also seem to exist, especially with Disney’s involvement, as a film series with a main purpose to push merchandise, and provide a fun experience in Disney’s theme parks.

While the original film was universally loved, the second installment, Cars 2, personally, left me numb to the franchise’s potential future. It had immediately lost its way as it became a globe-trotting spy film that was so far removed from the heart-filled story of Lightning McQueen and his growth as a cocky rookie driver whom learns how to be a complete “Person”.  McQueen then returns to the track to be a champion that isn’t just in it for himself, but for the integrity of the sport, and those who came before him.

The fact that Larry the Cable Guy’s hillbilly tow truck, Mater, was more the star of the second film instead of Lightning McQueen still bothers me as I think about it.  Much like Minions, having a side character move into the lead role doesn’t give people more of what they like….it costs the original film its heart and soul.

So, the third film has a lot to overcome, and Brian Fee, I’m sure, having been a part of the storyboarding of the first two installments, had to know that Cars 3 had to find its way back to what made the original work if it was going to redeem this franchise from the heights from which it had fallen with 2. If anything, 3 needs to remind audiences that Pixar is still a studio focused on the art of storytelling first and foremost, and a product machine, a distant second or third.  If it failed to live up to that task, then it would cement the Cars franchise as being the worst franchise in Pixar’s history.

By the end of Cars 3, it is obvious that Pixar is deeply invested in redeeming this franchise from being just a merchandise machine, anchoring it back to the heart of what has made Pixar so great: the story and the characters.

Fortunately, in most ways, Fee has delivered a film that comes roaring back to what made Cars work in 2006.  Rather than a young driver learning how to get over himself, we now have an aging Lightning McQueen, again voiced by Owen Wilson, who is finding that he is no longer winning.  Instead, he is being replaced by the new rookies who are much like he once was, so many years ago.  Only now, they have access to the latest technology and training methods, whereas Lightning is still training the way he learned under the late Fabulous Hudson Hornet (Paul Newman-whose voice makes a welcome return despite his passing many years ago).

After a devastating injury, McQueen must find the heart to come back, compete, and win.  To help him along, his sponsor Rust-eze is bought by a wealthy businessman named Sterling (Nathan Fillion) who has set up his own state-of-the-art training facility to help bring #95 back to prominence in the sport.  He has all kind of product ideas to build McQueen’s “Brand” so that he will still be valuable to the company after his racing days are done.  Sterling has enlisted Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a top-notch trainer, to assist Lightning McQueen in his quest to gain the skills to beat the newcomer who took the crown away from him, Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer).

While watching this film, I felt moments of Rocky 3, especially as McQueen decides to train driving (running?) down the beach, and taking a more old school approach while learning new methods, much like Rocky did as he trains with Apollo Creed.   And speaking of Rocky, there’s a narrative where Frank Stallone might be tempted to pull out the old fire barrel and sing “Take me Back” as McQueen searches for a mentor with a connection to the Hudson Hornet to get him back on top.

Surprisingly, the film takes a turn from where one might think it is going to go.  By the end of Cars 3, it is obvious that Pixar is deeply invested in redeeming this franchise from being just a merchandise machine, anchoring it back to the heart of what has made Pixar so great: the story and the characters.  And for that reason alone, we can say that Cars 3 might have enough gas to carry it across the finish line, where Cars 2 had me thinking the yellow flag was waving for this franchise.

This is not to say that it is a perfect film.  There is much lacking in terms of pacing, with many slow spots.  Fortunately, Cars 3, knows how to rev the engines back into high gear to keep things moving.  While there are several new characters, you will enjoy seeing all of the old ones as well.  If this is the final installment in the Cars series, then it may be the best photo finish Pixar could have hoped for, especially given how far behind Cars 2 had taken this series out of the lead.

Finally, if you are reading this wondering, “but how will kids react to this film?”, then let me use portions of the reviews my 8-year old son and 10-year old daughter have given it:

My daughter says:

I really enjoyed the movie. I liked Cars 3! It is way better than the first and second one. It had more actions than the others. I think Disney did a great job. It is a family movie to see. It is worth seeing, and if you go see it all I have to say is…ENJOY THE MOVIE!!!

As for my son:

I watched Cars 3.  The race cars come out from their trucks, they get new tires and gas.  They were called to the starting line…(the rest is filled with spoilers)….I hope you enjoy the movie!

So there you have it, from the mouth of babes.  If other kids agree with my children, then Disney Pixar has a hit on its hands.  It may just be the comeback story of the year, for the Cars franchise and the struggling box office.