Review of “Cars 3”

Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is having a great year on the Piston Cup circuit until the arrival of younger and more high-tech race cars led by Jackson Storm (voiced by Armie Hammer). Storm and other next gen race cars begin dominating all the races forcing several veteran cars to retire. At the last race of the season McQueen pushes himself too hard and has a bad crash. Going to Radiator Springs to recuperate surrounded by his friends Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) and girlfriend Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt). With their encouragement and fond memories of his mentor Doc Hudson (voiced by Paul Newman), McQueen decides to keep racing. To help get him in a position to challenge Storm, new Rust-eze owner Sterling (voiced by Nathan Fillion) has built a state-of-the-art training and research facility. There McQueen is introduced to his trainer Cruz Ramirez (voiced by Cristela Alonzo) who believes in a multi-tiered approach including visualization, meditation, stretching and time in a race simulator. McQueen bristles at the new approach and wants to get out on the sand and dirt tracks of his mentor Doc. After a disastrous visit to a dirt track that was running a demolition derby, McQueen heads for the Doc’s old stomping grounds and finds his former pit chief Smokey (voiced by Chris Cooper). Smokey and some of Doc’s old friends from the racing circuit help teach McQueen the lessons he may have forgotten over his years as a winning race car. Lessons that may help him defeat Storm and learn something about himself.

“Cars 3” is the best of the series. While I’ve liked the two previous films there’s something about this one that made me pay a bit more attention. I’m sure the thing that made this a better film for me probably went well over the heads of the film’s very young target audience; but the messages of learning from your mistakes, growing to appreciate your past and understanding your weaknesses are ones that children need to learn as early as possible and exposing them to these lessons early can’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt that the messages are delivered in a bright and colorful package with amazing animation and some terrific voice acting from a massive and talented cast including veteran actors and some NASCAR drivers and retired veterans to add a bit of authenticity to the racing chatter.

The “Cars” franchise may be considered the lower tier of the Pixar movies but you can see the effort by the studio to turn out a film that looks amazing and has a solid story base. It may not have quite the heart of the “Toy Story” movies or the humor of “Monsters, Inc.” but the series does have a strong appeal to very small children which gives Pixar and Disney an opportunity to develop a base of new fans every few years. Simpler stories told well with bright colors and sweet characters with big eyes could be considered a kind of gateway into the more complex and grownup films the company also releases. It’s a brilliant technique to constantly be bringing in new audiences and give them more mature fare as they age.

“Cars 3” boasts a massive voice cast and several of them do standout work. Owen Wilson is great as Lightning McQueen. Wilson has the perfect kind of drawl to make the character relatable to younger viewers. He can complain and whine without sounding too childish and can sell his understanding and acceptance of realizations that he’s wrong or when he learns something. It’s a homespun performance that doesn’t make fun of the quality.

Cristela Alonzo is a perfect choice for Cruz Ramirez. She can be an annoying cheerleader and quickly turn her character into a righteous and powerful advocate for herself. It is a somewhat secondary storyline how her character, and another female character, have faced discrimination due to their gender. It becomes a more prominent feature late in the film. Alonzo plays the scene like I’m afraid many women do in the real world: They surrender. While I would have preferred if her character had been written to be more of a self-advocate, it actually makes the resolution all the more thrilling.

Praise must also go to Armie Hammer as Jackson Storm. The character actually has very little screen time but Hammer’s performance makes the most of it. Storm is a bully with a very high opinion of himself and Hammer is able to make him utterly despicable, handing out false compliments and insincere praise always dripping with contempt. As Pixar villains go, Storm is right up there with Randall from “Monsters, Inc.” as the best of the worst.

There are lots of brief character bits that add to the enjoyment of “Cars 3” but it would be a mistake to not mention the late Paul Newman’s work as Doc Hudson. The lines heard in the movie were bits of dialog not used in the original “Cars.” The gravitas and history heard in Newman’s voice can’t be ignored. Weaving this old dialog into the story and making it all work within the narrative of a film written a decade after the first and several years after Newman died shows a level of commitment to storytelling and to an actor that apparently made a strong impression on the Pixar creative team. They probably could have found an actor with a gravelly voice to take over the role; but including Newman in this film honors his memory and shows just what a class act the leadership of Pixar is.

As you would expect, “Cars 3” looks amazing. The animation of the characters and the backgrounds is stunning. I found myself especially impressed with the look of one very unimpressive shot. The camera focus on a wall of an old race track shifts from the closer sections of the wall being in focus to the further away sections. It’s the kind of thing that is small and you see in live action movies all the time but using it here makes the realism of an otherwise unreal story about living cars amplified. The visual style of the film is impressive and gorgeous to look at even if you don’t find the story all that interesting.

“Cars 3” is rated G. Naturally there are no language issues but younger viewers might find the crash scene early in the film, as well as a flashback about a wreck Doc Hudson had, a little disturbing.

It may not be at the top of any “best of” lists at years end but “Cars 3” is certainly the best of the series. It looks at hard questions and, in its aimed-at-young-children way, comes up with answers that work within its world. The film also gives Disney/Pixar a chance to add to its already impressive over $10-billion worldwide merchandising haul. Race cars with eyes really rake in the dough! This film will probably do pretty good as well.

“Cars 3” gets five revved up stars out of five.

This week there’s only one new movie in theatres: Transformers: The Last Knight. I wonder if this one makes any more sense than any of the others in the series.

See my review for “Rough Night” at http://www.wimz.com/blogs/stan-movie-man. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.

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