Taking the Franchise Along a Decidedly Weird Detour
The trouble with being Pixar is that your biggest competition is often your own fabled past. This is a company that has done so much right for so long that viewers have justifiably high expectations for every film they release. What would be a masterpiece production for most any other studio is often a mediocre title amidst the Pixar catalog of excellence. Thus is the case with Cars 3. The piece does a lot of things right except for one minor detail – it follows the films of the franchise that precede it. While it is arguably more grounded and meshes better with the rhythm of the first film than it does the genre mismatched Cars 2, that isn’t to say it’s a triumph either. In fact, a strong argument could be made that it loses the most ground to its own themes and agendas. But we’ll get to that.
Built upon a budget of $175-million, Cars 3 comes in at a run time of 102 minutes. It grossed roughly $383m at the worldwide box office.
Cars, from a critical standpoint anyway, has always been a bit of a dark cloud for Pixar. In a time when Pixar was still the literal golden child of the media, Cars was met with lackluster reviews. By the time Cars 2 came along, Pixar was no longer the media darling it once was, marred, as it were, by a few missteps with film along the way. And that film was met with even worse reviews. Here’s the rub though – both movies made a fortune anyway! Kids, with their Lightning McQueen backpacks and Mater lunchboxes could hardly care less about the fact that the whole universe of Cars really makes very little sense. Sure, they tried to go for the Toy Story anthropomorphic inanimate object angle but you had humans in Toy Story. Theirs was a tale of what may be happening when no one is looking and that’s what made it brilliant.
Cars, on the other hand, foregoes the human element entirely, instead giving us an entire world made of sentient automobiles, tractors, forklifts and so on. For some reason this world mimics our own on down to things like door handles and steering wheels. If there aren’t any humans to ever operate these machines then why do they… Eh it doesn’t really matter. The kids who adored these movies didn’t care and clearly Pixar doesn’t either. They want the viewer to get swept up into the story arc of these beloved characters and accept it all at face value. And that worked in the first one. It sorta works in the second but here in the third, even if your main focus is the characters and their arcs, things get a little ugly.
The story this time tells us pretty early on that Lightning McQueen’s days as a front runner are dwindling to an end. That, in the world of competitive sports, all rookies eventually become veterans and those veterans are replaced by a new field of rookies. By itself this is a wonderful theme for the Cars central arc. It’s a sad reality of the cycle of life. But what we get as a replacement is where the Disney agendas start to rear their subliminal but undeniable ugly little head.
We’re introduced to a new female car by the name of Cruz Ramirez this time around for the obvious purpose of McQueen’s passing the torch/ going from racer to mentor much in the way Doc Hudson did for him initially. And while I personally have no issue with their collective decision to attempt to swap genders on the franchise’s lead character, it’s when you step out of the colorful world of Cars and look at parent-company Disney’s recent meddling with brands like Star Wars in our world to realize the rapid transition to female leads isn’t simply a case of organic story telling as it is a very deliberate shake up of the status quo.
The whole element would be a lot more forgivable here were it not so unabashedly forced down the viewer’s proverbial throat. Cruz is repeatedly dismissed throughout the film with gender being a catalyst. In the end I suppose we’re supposed to cheer for the fact that she can, in fact, become a racer like the boys but if you think about it- the fact that there is sexism in the first place in the world of anthropomorphic cars is more disturbing then any happy ending can validate.
If you can get past the subtle themes and not-so-clever political correctness Disney has been trying to slide into all of its productions of late, there is still some entertainment to be had in the franchise’s staple elements: Beautiful textures and environments, clever scripting and some intense racing sequences.
In a lot of ways Cars 3 is a metaphor for Pixar itself. They themselves went from promising rookies to veterans and have internally passed the proverbial torch to the younger generations who will inevitably take over before they themselves are replaced by the one beyond that. One hopes that as these transitions conspire, the future producers of the Cars franchise will remember that it wasn’t politics that got them to where they are; that it was good story telling with characters we could get behind organically that did the job. Which is why this film’s near omission of Mater is all the more unacceptable.