Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Enjoying the world of CARS depends on first buying into the initial premise. Some people can and some just can’t, perpetually getting hung up on the logistics and the post-apocalyptic jokes [Side note: Everyone is sick of those. It’s tired material now, people. Please move on]. The second speed bump to get over is story resonance. While there’s a cavernous disparity in that department between the CARS and CARS 2, director Brian Fee’s CARS 3 wears its heart on its bumper, as a sticker that reads “I brake for character development.” It’s a sparkling scenic ride with its gorgeous animation, and possibly the best of the series (yes, it’s a low bar), but the story falls short of true glory.
Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) continues to pour his heart and soul into the love of his life: racing. But there’s a growing shift with younger, sportier models on the rise – specifically arrogant antagonist Jackson Storm (voiced by Armie Hammer). He’s got the tech-enhanced edge over McQueen’s practical know-how. As his colleagues find themselves obsolete, McQueen clings on, hoping to burn rubber a few more times before hanging up his tires. However, a devastating crash causes a ding to his spirit and leaves him worse for wear. He’s reticent to retire, so his new Rust-eze boss Sterling (voiced by Nathan Fillion) assigns him a peppy, talented trainer – Cruz Ramirez (voiced by Cristela Alonzo) – to help get his motor humming again. As Lightning sees the passion for the sport give Cruz a fuel-injected boost to her self-confidence, he in turn discovers a new engine.
This third chapter in #95’s saga, written by Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson and Mike Rich, who work from a story by Fee, Ben Queen, Eyal Podell and Jonathon E. Stewart, deals with bigger concepts surrounding potent emotional issues we face in life – some more universal in resonance than others. When’s the right time to retire when someone is jockeying for your pole position? What’s the next career phase? Is there a way to utilize career passions in order to inspire someone who needs it? That said, a lot of this film’s problems arise out of these concepts. Plus, the fact that it’s very light on humor (I laughed once during Lightning’s botched simulation), on profundity in its emotional drive, and energetic spirit doesn’t help either.
A large majority of the story deals with the male mid-life crisis – something kids aren’t exactly clamoring to see (the kids in my screening fidgeted and chatted during much of the film). It’s a sentimental topic (one in line with the first CARS movie), but the way it’s handled isn’t so much sweet as it is clumsy. He gets a young woman to make him feel better about himself! He gets a flashy new look! Of course, he’s already a fast car.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s absolutely wonderful that they wanted to be gender-inclusive, and should be commended for the diversity of the voice cast, but there are aspects they don’t totally nail. Analytics specialist Natalie Certain (voiced by Kerry Washington) has to deal with sexism at her job for no reason. She’s introduced as a trope (“corporate ice queen”), and has to stomp that down from a dismissive co-worker. Sally’s (voiced by Bonnie Hunt) there exclusively to give Lightning pep talks. The material doesn’t allow much time to celebrate Cruz’s triumphs like her win at the demolition derby (possibly one of the best scenes in this film) and her latent bad-ass skills. It pushes the focus almost entirely on Lightning’s arc – to feel terrible when he experiences setbacks. However, it’s done at the cost of Cruz’s wins and self-confidence. The third act is particularly problematic, as it doesn’t fully commit to the bold choice of female empowerment it clearly sets out to embody. It feels like a cop out, done to appease a broader base rather than genuinely surprise audiences. Despite understanding that story decision from an audience/ fan perspective, as a female, I’m very disappointed it fumbles – as the message it sends is that we can’t have it all. We’ve got to share our seat at the table.
That said, when the narrative falters, the absolute brilliance of the animators shines. It’s fully expected that the bigger action set-pieces pop; however, the smaller, more insular ones do so in equal measure: The sand and waves in Lightning and Cruz’s training on the beach sequence (an homage to ROCKY III, a film this one pulls from in several ways) feel tactile. Their drive through the moonlit forest glows radiantly, departing a care-free feeling. And Mack’s (voiced by John Ratzenberger) trek across the States to reach the climactic race in Florida is like looking at postcards. The animators achieve a much more fluid blend than THE GOOD DINOSAUR, mixing the world’s cartoonish characters with the photo-real backdrops.
CARS 3 opens on June 16.