The first teaser for Cars 3, released back in November, was so bleak and foreboding that it sparked a worldwide debate over whether kids would be able to handle such gravity in a G-rated film about talking cars.
While the scene featured in the teaser remains in the final cut, it doesn't set the tone for the whole film. But the franchise's third entry is still a drastic shift from 2011's Cars 2, which tossed the titular characters from their humble Route 66 town into the world of glitzy European racing and a bizarre Bond-esque subplot.
Cars 3 is an improvement on its overly ambitious predecessor; with its crew back in the States, the film has regained some of the down-home charm of the original. But its gorgeous scenery, occasional wit and "Midnight Cowboy" reference can't save this flick from the fact that it is, above all, unnecessary.
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is still racing, but he and his peers are thrown for a loop when the racing circuit is inundated with faster, more technologically-advanced newbies. Determined to remain on top, Lightning tries to beat out particularly arrogant Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) in a race and fails miserably.
Lightning spends four months wallowing, but after a pep talk from his Porsche girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt), he’s back on the road to train for the next racing season. A smug silver Cadillac (Nathan Fillion) has bought out his former hippie sponsors and insists that he train with Cruz (Cristela Alonzo), a lifelong fan.
But the face of Rust-eze struggles to keep up with his new ageist joke-cracking competitors, and embarks on a mission with Cruz to ensure that his fate isn't sealed with a bad race, as it was for his former mentor Doc.
One of this franchise's biggest issues, and perhaps one of the reasons it's not as widely beloved as Pixar's other mainstays like Toy Story and Monsters Inc, is its lack of self-awareness. This is highlighted, particularly, in an exchange between Lightning and his new sponsor.
"I never really thought of myself as a brand," Lightning says in response to the sponsor's urging him to sell out. "The racing is about the reward, not the stuff."
Oh, the irony.
Cars itself grossed around $460 million worldwide and its sequel around $560 million. But those aren't even close to the $10 billion-plus that Cars-related merchandise has generated to date. That could finance 80-plus more Cars films, which, judging by the way Disney and Pixar are currently cranking out sequels, may not be an impossibility.
While these films are not entirely without imagination and heart, they still often feel like two-hour advertisements for the toy cars and DVDs their audiences have devoured. Cars 3 is no exception, and being the third installment (fifth if you count the two Planes spinoffs spawned by the franchise) probably qualifies it as the most commercial of them all.
So, too, does its plot. It's entirely predictable, and relies too heavily on cheap laughs and homages to the first film (flashbacks included). Plus, if you were hoping to see a lot of the Radiator Springs residents, you're out of luck.
Lightning's mentoring relationship with Cruz is sweet, providing some much-needed heart to this otherwise tired sequel, and its background animation on Lightning's middle-to-Southern America quest is startlingly realistic (hats off to Pixar). But this doesn't compensate for the fact that the novelty of the 2006 original has worn off, and the animation powerhouse's efforts are better exerted elsewhere.
While director Brian Fee told CinemaBlend last month that “anything’s possible” regarding a fourth film, I think it’s time to put Cars in park for good.