‘Cars 3’ review: The middle-aged pain, humiliation and branding of Lightning McQueen
“Cars 3,” a reasonably diverting account of middle-aged pity, humiliation and suffering as experienced by Rust-eze-sponsored race car Lightning McQueen, is not the weakest of the Disney/Pixar sequels (I’d vote “Cars 2” or “Monsters University,” those sour, desperate things). But it’s by far the most guilt-ridden. Every few minutes we get another reminder of the franchise’s success in the merchandising department — over $10 billion in “Cars”-related toys and towels and lunchboxes before the release of the third picture. Our household bought approximately half of it.
“You are about to become the biggest brand in racing!” Lightning’s told by the billionaire coupe (voiced by Nathan Fillion) in charge of the next phase of the aging champ’s flailing career. He notes the lucrative movie deals in his future. “I never thought of myself as a brand,” Lightning responds, half-sheepishly. All this comes with a hint of poor-me: In "Cars 3," you can hear the inner thoughts of the screenwriters, protesting a little too much about franchise expectations.
Owen Wilson lends a hint of pathos to such line readings throughout this movie, in which Lightning contends with an arrogant younger champion Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer, smugly unctuous at every turn); transforms his trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) from Type A annoyance to Class A racer herself; and reconnects with the old-school values recalled in flashbacks by Lightning’s now-departed trainer Doc Hudson, the Paul Newman character. Chris Cooper, a shrewd choice, provides avuncular nuggets of wisdom as Smokey, the one who mentored Doc and must do the same for Doc’s mojo-depleted protégé.
Lightning’s confronted with a technologically advanced world he does not understand. He has no use for racing simulators and statistical analysis. Give this pro an open stretch of beach, or a dilapidated dirt track, and he’ll find himself again. At one point in “Cars 3,” directed by first-time feature filmmaker Brian Fee, Lightning and Cruz mistakenly enter a rural demolition derby (Lea DeLaria voices a terrifying school bus) and while the set-up’s promising, the result goes for grungy thrills rather than comic slapstick. The movie relies on audience familiarity with firmly established supporting players ranging from Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) to Sally (Bonnie Hunt), even though they’re marginalized here.
In “Cars 2” John Lassiter and company threw Lightning and the gang into another sort of film genre entirely, a James Bond universe where cars got tortured and killed (yeah, terrific idea) and where international terrorism and insidious corporate malfeasance involved bomb threats in world capitals. “Cars 3” tries, and partly succeeds, in taking it back to basics. The script credited to Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson and Mike Rich keeps the stakes simple and the focus on getting Lightning back into the winner’s circle, on his own terms. With the addition of the female co-star, Cruz, one would assume the film’s a little less boy-centric than its predecessors. And it is, though it’s genuinely disheartening to realize that in 2017 the whole "What? We’re letting a GIRL race, too?" routine is even considered dramatically necessary.
The first “Cars,” such as it is, remains the most appealing in a relatively weak field. But if “Cars 3” pays for another “Ratatouille” or “Inside Out,” I say: slum away, slum away.
Michael Phillips is a Chicago Tribune critic.
"Cars 3" — 2 stars
MPAA rating: G
Running time: 1:49
Opens: Thursday evening
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