“Cars 3” begins by doing what most right-thinking people do, which is pretending “Cars 2” simply doesn’t exist. It then moves on to hoping you don’t really remember “Cars” particularly well as it sets out to tell the same story once again, only this time it’s Lightning McQueen who’s the reigning champion raging at the dying of the light as young, technologically superior rookies leave him in the dust.
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), the seven times Piston Cup winning racing legend finds his latest season disrupted by the emergence of Jackson Storm, an arrogant rookie race car, part of a new generation of cutting edge technology. Threatened by this young upstart, Lightning pushes himself too hard and suffers a catastrophic crash. As he recuperates, he’s forced to contemplate the possible end of his racing career although hope rears its head as his sponsors sell out to a corporation with greater resources to help Lightning regain his crown.
Any interest in having the characters experience the first story but from the other side of the narrative is undermined by the fact it only serves to emphasise just how little Lightning McQueen has grown as a character. As he goes through more training montages and sequences than you can shake a stick at, he’s still the arrogant, selfish and stubborn racer he was in the first film. He refuses to listen to anyone, ditches his friends and ignores the sage wisdom of others despite having two films under his belt where he’s meant to have learned these lessons. There’s a posthumous appearance from Doc (Paul Newman) thanks to some unused recorded dialogue from the first film but his present day absence just raises more questions in the exhaustingly long list of questions about the films’ fictional world. How does mortality work in the “Cars” universe? What happened to Doc to make him die as opposed to just needing significant repairs. It’s made more obvious when we discover that Doc’s mentor and racing coach is still alive, as are the cars to whom Doc was the young upstart. Similarly, when McQueen starts to get outclassed, there’s no mention of upgrading or replacing his parts or improving/ replacing his engine and parts – is that a dreadful taboo in the “Cars” world?
Pretty much the rest of the cast, including Mater, are sidelined as McQueen goes off on his self-pitying quest accompanied by his new trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), whose youthful dreams of racing herself were thwarted. Had “Cars 3” had the courage to make Ramirez the focus of the movie, it may have offered something genuinely new and even a little bit different.
The poster suggests an intense rivalry between McQueen and Storm but they barely spend any screen time together and most
of the stoking of the feud comes from the bitter commentary swipes of one-time Piston Cup winner Chick Hicks (no longer voiced by Michael Keaton). Instead, it’s the same plot the first film wore down to the rims as Lightning seeks answers he’s already been given twice until, in the last fifteen minutes of the movie, there’s a horrendous crunching of narrative gears as it performs a clumsy switcheroo to deliver an unearned and forced happy ending which strains both the audience’s patience and credulity.
“Cars” continues to be the sugar in Pixar’s gas tank, forcing into cinemas movies of a quality which only merits direct-to-video ignominy but then “Cars” has never been about selling tickets, it’s been about merchandise.