I decide when I'm done.
It may be titled Cars 3, but it's really Cars 2. The actual Cars 2 was more like Mater's Tall Tales: The Movie, which contrary to the rest of the world, I thought was just fine. That sums up my opinion on the first film as well; a perfectly fine movie with stellar animation and sound, featuring a story and characters crafted with heart by John Lasseter. Cars isn't up to the usual Pixar standard, but it's a solid little film about the values of slowing down and the importance of making genuine connections with other (car) people. The world-building is shaky at best, and the humor is hit-or-miss, but having seen it again recently, I found it to be very charming. That certainly colors my opinion of Cars 3, which delves a bit further into racecar Lightning McQueen's life and career. He no longer has to deal with growing up, but the much more sobering issue of growing old.
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is at the top of his game, winning races left and right while indulging in some good-natured ribbing with his rivals on the track. One day, a rookie car shows up named Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who's been designed as a next-gen racer with incredible speed and precision. Storm wins the race, and soon after more next-gen racers who train on high-tech simulators and are overall better built (born? This is why good world-building is important). With all of his former rivals retired, McQueen still gives it his all, but winds up in a racing accident that nearly puts him out of commision. Now saddled with a new sponsor named Sterling (Nathan Fillion), McQueen has to learn to accept the fact that he's getting older and considering retiring and selling his face as a brand name. He makes a deal with Sterling to race one more time, and if he wins, he decides when he finishes. Unlike his late mentor Doc Hudson (voiced through recordings of Paul Newman), who was also in an accident that forced him to quit, McQueen isn't ready to give up his dream career. Helping him along the way is his trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who prefers to train with simulators rather than in the real world, and that idealism that clashes hard with McQueen's "get dirty" sensibilities.
You can't turn back the clock. But you can wind it up again.
The story seems predictable at first glance (a wash-up wants to make a comeback), but the script is surprisingly smart in this regard. It takes far more interesting turns when the focus shifts to McQueen's (unromantic) relationship with Cruz, unearthing a poignant theme about what it means to pass on a legacy. McQueen essentially has the opportunity to consider what his legacy will be, and if it can be objectified. Is what you leave behind physically as important as who you influence? Like any technology, who decides when we as people become obsolete? These are not questions I thought I'd be asking myself after seeing Cars freakin' 3, so needless to say, I'm quite impressed. The characters are very likable, there's some smart dialogue on display, and the story builds on the first film in a meaningful way, just like a sequel should.
The animation is ridiculously gorgeous at times, constantly trying to convince the eye that what you're seeing isn't cartoon cars rendered by a computer, but the real world with all its quirks. The way the camera shakes during close-up shots of the races is beyond impressive, the '50s footage effect over old film looks ridiculously real, the expressions that somehow trick us into thinking that a character that is nothing but a head and wheels could possibly live comfortably; it all adds up to a tremendously entertaining viewing experience. Randy Newman returns to score, and he infuses it with his unmistakable sound (even if it's more reminiscent of Toy Story than it has any right to be), and the songs are well-integrated (there's no Life is a Highway-esque standout, however). It's a well-paced film as well, making nearly two hours (when you include the adorable preceding short Lou) fly right by.
You seemed so fearless. I wish I knew what that was like...Cars 3 may not win over anyone who already dislikes the Cars franchise, but for myself, it was a lot of fun. The story takes detours into midwestern small towns just like the first film and inject them with this lived-in sense of hominess. It's not an especially funny film (Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) is relegated to being a background character for the better), but I did laugh quite a bit during the demolition derby scene, plus McQueen and Cruz have some charming banter. There's still some iffy world-building; racial and sexual discrimination is an issue that I was pleased to see brought up, but it only made me ask more questions. I did occasionally slink into what the hell am I watching? mode, as the world of Cars is a strange one to behold (the country-Western band made of cars in the bar scene threw me a bit), but when it sticks to the racing scenes, the characters, and the thought-provoking themes of inclusion and legacy, Cars 3 is surprisingly pretty great.