If you’ve ever seen an inspirational sports drama, and I would wager that you have, then you should find the plot of Disney/Pixar’s Cars 3 very familiar. We find racing legend Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), once master of his domain, now faced with the reality that he isn’t top of the line anymore, that newer-model cars have improved engines, upgraded fuel systems, and more aerodynamic frames. One such car is Jackson Storm (voiced by Armie Hammer), who’s shiny, sleek, young, cocky, condescending, and faster than McQueen could ever be.
In trying to improve himself for a race that could make or break his comeback, McQueen fails to notice that he could be mentoring another younger car – a personal trainer and technician named Cruz Ramirez (voiced by Cristela Alonzo), who has dreamed of entering professional racing but hasn’t gotten any breaks.
This is not the most original of plots, nor the most compelling. But something about Cars 3 redeems it. Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s applied to a family film populated by anthropomorphized cars; when the real world doesn’t exist, even the most threadbare storylines can work. Perhaps it’s the animation, a technical masterstroke; you’re not always more likely to buy into an overused premise on the basis of convincing CGI, but hey, sometimes you are, even if you’re watching it in 3D. Whatever the reason, I was able to look past the film’s complete lack of originality and simply enjoy it for what it was. It certainly worked for me a lot better than its 2011 predecessor, a silly film that combined racing with a James Bond-esque spy thriller.
I was initially surprised by just how much Cars 3 focused on McQueen longing for the mentorship of the late Doc Hudson, voiced in the first film by the equally late Paul Newman. But the more it progressed, the clearer it became; sports dramas are very much known for depicting mentor/protegé relationships, just as they’re known for stories in which the protegé must continue without the mentor, so of course this film shouldn’t be an exception. The flashback scenes featuring Hudson, according to Indiewire’s Bill Desowitz, were made possible by digging through the recording archives of the original film and recycling unused takes of Newman’s voice. It would have been easy to recast the part, but director Brian Fee went the extra mile and kept Hudson’s voice authentic, which I believe helps the film to resonate.
All the characters we’ve come to know return, including McQueen’s towtruck best friend Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy), his girlfriend and lawyer Sal (voiced by Bonnie Hunt), and his Italian mechanics Luigi (voiced by Tony Shalhoub) and Guido (voiced by Guido Quaroni). New to this film, apart from the aforementioned Ramirez, are Sterling (voiced by Nathan Fillion), a rich agent who doesn’t want to sponsor McQueen so much as cash in on his likeness, and Smokey (voiced by Chris Cooper), Hudson’s old buddy and mechanic. Naturally, he will be instrumental in helping McQueen train for his upcoming race, and of course he will rely on instinct and backwoods trails as opposed to the high-tech machines in Sterling’s training facility.
Cars 3, unlike the previous film, isn’t overly reliant on comedic misadventures. In fact, it really only has one: A scene in which McQueen and Ramirez unintentionally take part in a demolition derby. Here is a scene that isn’t vulgar or offensive and yet doesn’t fall victim to the trappings of political correctness; it’s held in Florida, the audience is teeming with southern cars that loudly whoop and holler, and the reigning champion is a big bad bus that, were she human and in an R-rated film, would be at a bar every night swearing, making passes at the young men, and drinking competitive shots. Think of the scene as an extension of the Mater character, who’s just stereotypical enough to be lovable but not so stereotypical that he alienates entire audiences.
It should come as no surprise that the film’s climax involves a race. And while I obviously won’t reveal the results of the race, you should be able to figure it out, especially if you’re at all familiar with the conventions of the sports drama. It’s a good thing that the results of the race aren’t all that important; like any good inspirational sports film, Cars 3 is about really about how the characters handle themselves and what they’ve learned on their respective journeys. It’s not about winning or losing. It’s about integrity and being true to yourself. Yes, that sounds exactly like the platitudinal wisdom of greeting cards and fortune cookies, but sometimes the most hackneyed words are the most accurate.