There's Something Weird About Cars 3

Lightning McQueen is chasing his future in Cars 3. All Images: Disney

No matter how invested you are, or aren't, in Pixar's Cars films, the latest entry creates a weirdly interesting narrative around the franchise. Imagine if, after Blade Runner, Harrison Ford made a rom-com-dram sequel where Rick Deckard was suddenly running a hotel. And then he made Blade Runner 2049, where he was suddenly a Replicant Hunter again, and no one mentioned the hotel at all.

Basically, Cars just did this with its sequels.

Pixar released Cars 2 in 2011, five years after the 2006 original which was built around community and car racing. But in the sequel, Lightning McQueen and his pal Mater basically become spies to help solve an international scandal involving a world wide racing circuit. It was a sudden, major shift in genre for the franchise, as well as a life-changing moment for the Cars (assuming you think they're alive and not ghastly simulacrums of living beings).

But in Cars 3, it's like the first sequel never happened. Outside of the passage of time allowing Lightning McQueen to believably become a veteran race car, the events of the second film are completely ignored. Cars 3 is actually Cars 2, and Cars 2 feels like a strange "what if?" tale.

While this is weird, there is some sense to Pixar's decision to scrap it. Cars 2 is almost universally considered not just the worst Cars movie, but the worst Pixar movie, period. It's the only Pixar film to ever get a Rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes and, at the time, was the first film of the studio's to make less than $US200 ($262) million domestically in over a decade.

Cars 2 was a worldwide, action spy thriller. No one cared.

Part of that is Cars 2 is a radical departure from the tone of the first film, which was a mostly laid-back tale about friendship, family, and racing. Besides being a high-tech sentient car spy movie, the sequel also put Larry the Cable Guy's aw-shucks sidekick Mater into a leading role above Owen Wilson's Lightning McQueen. Mater is certainly a fan favourite among the film's target audience, but putting him at the forefront created a very different, Mr. Bean-ish quality to the film. Not to mention the emotional core and meaningful messages usually found in Pixar films are eschewed in favour of non-stop action.

Cars 3, on the other hand, has more emotions and messages than you can count. The story once again centres on Lightning and deals with the fact that he's now the old guy on the racing circuit. In the first film, he was the brash rookie, filled with unlimited confidence. Now the tables have turned, both because of his age and because of advances in technology. So Cars 3 explains how an over-the-hill athlete deals with his professional mortality, a disconnect from the new generation, and trying to find happiness in places that aren't the finish line. It's deep, especially for a kids movie, but it's also what Pixar usually excels at.

But while it works at times, the complex, emotional story still regularly loses its focus. After a strong start, the story shifts so quickly to Lightning's new trainer and friend Cruz Ramirez that not only is Lightning's dilemma lost, but many of the side characters that make Cars so memorable are virtually non-existent. However, the film finishes strong with a surprising, heartfelt finale.

Lightning and Cruz Ramirez are the stars of Cars 3.

Cars 3, much like the first film, works in spite of its flaws. Personally, I'd even argue that's the case for Cars 2. No, it doesn't have the heart of the other two movies but it also never pretends to; instead, Cars 2 feels like Pixar's attempt to make a fun, silly James Bond movie for kids. If any other studio besides Pixar had tried it, audiences may have had no problem with it. However, Pixar has set such an impossibly high bar for itself over the years that Cars 2 couldn't help but be a disappointment.

Which is why the fact Cars 3 distances itself from Cars 2 almost seems forgivable. Speaking to Screencrush, Cars 3 co-writer and long-time Pixar producer Bob Petersen explained the disconnect: "[Cars 2] was Mater's world. We're back to Radiator Springs and that team [in Cars 3] because this is McQueen's story."

Mater, the star of Cars 2, is given a much smaller role in Cars 3.

Which is true. There's no doubt McQueen and Mater share the spotlight much more in Cars 2 than the other movies. In fact, in Cars 3, Mater has a smaller role than he even did in the first film. When you take the critical reaction to Cars 2, its departure from the core of the franchise, the international setting, tying them together might have been too much. But no acknowledgement at all feels like a passive-aggressive apology to Pixar fans still disappointed with the sequel.

There's also another possible reason for the Cars 2 slight. The year after Cars 2 came out, Disney opened a Cars Land section in their California Adventure theme park. It's a full creation of Radiator Springs -- and coming right on the heels of a Cars movie that didn't feature that much Radiator Springs, you have to think someone pushed Disney synergy and asked for the third film to feature the town prominently. Since it does, it's going to give a whole new generation of kids more of a reason to visit the theme parks.

If you were hoping for more from John Turturro's Cars 2 character in Cars 3, sorry.

Cars 3 is a solid entry into Pixar's most lucrative franchise, which is nice. It's not among Pixar's best, but in terms of basic entertainment, it does the job. It's just not Cars 3 -- it's a brand new Cars 2.

The film hits Australian cinemas on 22 June.



    Imagine if, after Blade Runner, Harrison Ford made a rom-com-dram sequel where Rick Deckard was suddenly running a hotel. And then he made Blade Runner 2049, where he was suddenly a Replicant Hunter again, and no one mentioned the hotel at all.
    Or like, if Highlander's Connor MacLeod (from the clan MacLeod) went from running an antiques store in modern New York, to protecting a future-earth that's under an anti-ozone shield, only to then be back in the modern-New York antiques store for two more movies?

    Last edited 19/06/17 1:35 pm

      Or if the spirituality-derived Force was suddenly all about alien DNA for one movie.

    Cars1 was a huge hit
    Cars2 bombed (and rightly so, it's painful to watch)
    Cars3 is like Cars1, cool.

    as far as im concerned, Cars 2 doesnt exist.

      Agreed, I didn't see it when it came out. I watched it a few years later and had to check I didn't mistake it for some straight to DVD cars release or something. It is truly C grade and just flat out weird.

    I've been dragged into the world of Cars by my 2 year old son. His favourite is clearly Cars 1. Cars 2 was as stated, a bit of a departure and definitely far too busy and lacking the heart of Cars 1.

    We were lucky enough to go and see a pre-screening of Cars 3 on Sunday. His very first cinema going experience! Although I think they really got into complex emotions for the target audience, and they couldn't help but be very busy... (my son started lose focus about 3/4 the way through), the story was back in touch with the feels... and given I have a younger daughter too, I was over the moon to see a female support actually take the lead, if only it could have happened earlier in the story! Hopefully Cars 4 will have the female lead all the way through...

      how old were your kids out of interest?
      just asking because my 4.5 year old daughter LOVES cars 1, but she is a sensitive soul and gets a bit frightened easily. e.g. the first time she saw finding dory - the squid freaked her out which is understandable, but even Hank the septopus getting angry was a bit frightening for her.

        My son is 2 years 9 months... he doesn't get scared in cars at all... Daughter is 9 months... Too young for TV.

    Having been to see it at the weekend, I can't work out if Sally got ditched for Cruz or not.

      put in the spoliers bracket dude, geez....

    Rick Deckard IS NOT A REPLICANT.. just cause ridley says so, doesn't make it so !

    I liked Cars2, can barely watch the original Cars.

      you are banished. get out! and dont come back here to this thread again.

    I wanted to see Mcqueen cross the finish line and feel that familiar rush and excitement.

    The first Cars movie was ok but I didn't think it was that great compared to other movies made by Pixar. I never even bothered with Cars 2, the trailer looked terrible. I now feel somewhat vindicated from reading this article :)

    I find it interesting that it seems to be their most heavily merchandised IP though. My kids have even got cars merchandise and they've never seen any of the movies.

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