Thursday, 10 August 2017

Cars 3 (2017) - Movie Review

For as illustrious and ground-breaking as Pixar’s legacy has been, the Cars franchise will likely always serve as the black sheep of the company paddock. Brought into existence by Pixar head honcho John Lasseter, Cars operates far more as a toy-centric marketing vehicle (heh) than as strict narrative. The first film is just okay; plenty annoying and rather plainly written compared to its contemporaries, but it’s at least serviceable for kids.
The sequel, however, is a bit more complicated. I say that because it is both leagues better and leagues worse than the original. Better, in that its Michael Caine-starring spy plot is visually inventive and quite engaging; worse, because it took the most annoying supporting character from the original (Tow “I will never forgive these people for this shit” Mater) and made him the lead, boosting the Southern hick annoyance levels tremendously in the process. Still, for as inconsistent as it is, I still like it just a little bit more overall.
So, a little over a decade since the original careened into cinemas, we have a threequel to deal with. Normally, I’d be rather worried about where this is going but, as I’ll get into, this film is in pretty safe hands.

The plot: In the wake of a new generation of race cars, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) finds himself falling behind and questioning whether he still has what it takes to race after all this time. With the help of trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) and his old crew from Radiator Springs, Lightning sets out to show hotshot racer Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), and the racing world at large, that old #95 still has a few tricks up his sleeve.

Wilson’s memetic delivery is back in full force, and while it still generates a few unintentional giggles, he wears it well as this more wizened version of Lightning McQueen. Larry The Cable Guy as the bane of my goddamn existence, Tow “The Truck Who Knew Too Little” Mater, is thankfully in a reduced role this time around and doesn’t make the audience want to chug moonshine just to deal with him. Nathan Fillion as Lightning’s manager works out alright, Hammer as the new rival Jackson Storm exudes cockiness without being all that abrasive (if anything, he’s a little too safe), Chris Cooper makes for a solid appearance as veteran racer Smokey, and Lea DeLaria is at once aggressive and weirdly endearing as a derby-racing school bus.
However, the big draw in all of this has to be Cristela Alonzo as Cruz. While starting out a bit irritating in how peppy she is, as her arc fills in, she turns into probably the best character this entire franchise has spawned so far. I should feel embarrassed that I felt inspiration after watching a talking metal box on wheels, but that’s just how good both the characterisation and Cristela’s acting is with this one.

After the action-spy antics of the last film, we seem to be back to basics with a more traditional sports story. Now, the original also did this but it seemed way too unfocused on what point it was trying to allude to (if there even was a point to be alluded to in the first place) to have the racing scenes stick like they should have. Well, in a step I legitimately didn’t expect to see taken, this film basically went back to the drawing board and tapped into what makes sports movies (the good ones, at least) so engaging: The characters. Before this, both with Cars and the eternally woeful spin-off Planes films, the characters were largely just cultural stereotypes spewing endless vehicle-related puns; hardly the stuff of great narrative.
Here, while the returning characters do still fit those moulds, the leads here actually have arcs to progress through. Through the budding friendship between Lightning and Cruz (and you have no idea how happy I am that they didn’t just default and make her the new love interest), we see easily the most well-defined characterization these films have yet seen. Lightning’s worries about his age and competing with the new rookies, Cruz’s own dreams of being a racer and even further on when they get to Lightning’s connection with his mentor Doc Hudson, we have a sports story featuring people that the audience might actually care about. I know this sounds rather obvious, but after the horror show this franchise descended into after the original Cars, this is a major breakthrough.

What bolsters this is that it seems freshly-minted director Brian Fee and his crew took a step back and ended up addressing one of the bigger problems the Cars films have. Not the biggest, as we still don’t get much idea on how a society of people with wheels for hands could build even half of their own world, but an issue that should be corrected nevertheless. Car racing, especially in countries outside of the U.S., has always been associated with redneck culture. The Cars films usually put that connection front and center, mainly using Tow “Nope, still not over this fucking name” Mater as shorthand to say that race car fans are mainly illiterate hillbillies. I know these films are aimed for kids but, for a company with as wide an appeal as Pixar, it’s lame.
Well, outside of Mater’s brief appearances, the rest of the film ends up returning a lot of dignity to southern Americana. As Lightning tries to re-train himself by going back to the dusty roads that he and Hudson built their careers from, he winds up in Hudson’s hometown and meeting the very colourful and comforting voices of the locals. Rather than slyly trying to mock this demographic, this film instead just shows them as Regular-ass Joes with a love for burning rubber. It’s the kind of situation where ‘Southern hospitality’ is more than fitting, given how inviting both the retired racers and the destruction derby set piece turn out. Again, Cooper and DeLaria add a lot to these scenes, but they are definitely given a solid foundation to work from.

But even that isn’t what makes this film as surprisingly good as it is; instead, it’s down to what is quickly becoming the new status quo for Pixar: Examining its own legacy. From the harrowing feels of Toy Story 3 to the nimble re-examinations of Finding Dory, Pixar seems to be plenty aware of how long it’s been an industry titan and, when it comes to making follow-ups to its more successful works, it keeps that experience in mind and injects it into the narrative itself. Here, it manifests as Lightning questioning whether he should even be racing anymore, given his age and just how advanced the new racers are.
While that is pretty standard fare for a sports story, the film only goes further from there. Reincorporating Doc Hudson’s character into the story, who himself is a tribute to cinematic legend Paul Newman who voiced him in the first film, we are given a story about the idea of personal legacy, continuing said legacy and even questions about whether it should be continued in the first place. This even turns into slight meta-commentary with a look at Lightning’s possibility as a marketing icon, no doubt a reference to Cars’ own merchandise-filled history. From this bedrock, Lightning and Cruz’s respective arcs get put into a greater context, resulting in something that honestly reminded me of Toy Story 3 in terms of unexpected poignancy. I’d hesitate to say it’s as good as that masterpiece, but considering where this whole series started, it shows an observant and intuitive attitude that leads the film proper into being not just the most consistent in the series but also the most consistently good.
All of this preamble is one thing, but the fact that this film sticks with it and never ends up distracting itself by any means (not even by Tow “Okay, this is the last time” Mater) is what scores this production some serious points. This is basically Pixar as a whole admitting its own age, proclaiming that these old dogs still have some new tricks and, both textually and subtextually, proving it in quite spectacular fashion.

All in all, Pixar has managed to give Cars the tune-up that it has desperately needed, creating a solid fallen star sports film that benefits from Pixar’s understanding of personal history and legacy. The acting is solid, the animation holds up to the company’s pedigree, the writing forgoes simple jokes and tired storytelling to deliver something more emotional, and the uncharacteristic laser focus of said writing means that it gets good and stays good throughout; probably helped by the reduced running time compared to 1 and 2. After the mishaps of those two films, and the utter soul-crushing as a result of the Planes films, I never thought I would end up writing this but, yes, go see this new Cars movie; it’s actually pretty damn good.

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