|We get it. They're Cars.|
Whoever was in charge of the script for Cars 3 should be fired. Maybe just demoted. Is there such a thing as KP duty at Pixar? Whatever the storytelling equivalent (perhaps forced to publish as an indie/small press author?) he/she should have to suffer it.
My oldest son was begging me since Christmas last year to take him to see Cars 3. Last weekend, we got to do so. It took this long to sort my blown-out feelings about this particular film. Maybe I'm getting old too.
Pixar may have peaked, and Cars 3 may be the start of the downward slide. All the narrative elements are there, and more. It’s so clearly there. But at each emotional peak, it spins out, sputters, jackknifes and explodes.
But not a cool explosion like you’d walk away from in slo-mo. Just a slow sputter, nothing, a quick engine seize, and that's it.
The story is simple. It’s practically ripped straight from Rocky IV—the one where he faces Dolph Lundgren and takes on the USSR at the height of the Cold War. That's fine, because Cars was so obviously a well-done Doc Hollywood and Cars 2 was a mid-level The Man With One Red Shoe. This time, Lightning McQueen, at the top of his game (along with all his other racing competitors/friends) suddenly finds himself . . . well, old.
Old sucks. It just does. Pixar takes on this theme so often, it's almost an obsession.
That's great though, because audiences often walk away with the feeling that while getting old/older isn't fun, it's part of the process, and it's going to be OK.
For Cars 3 a new, younger generation of super-cool looking, non-personality racers are taking to the track, beginning with Jackson Storm. It probably should be Storm Jackson—a cooler name anyhow and one that will definitely find its way into a book—but that’s not the point. Jackson is supposed to be what Chick Hicks (now voiced by Bob Peterson) was in Cars—an arrogant jerk who isn’t racing for the love of the sport, but simply to win at any cost.
Except Storm, despite his Lightning-eclipsing name, never really gets there. He’s a better racer—faster, stronger, better engineered—and he’s rude to McQueen. But that’s it. He doesn’t run anyone off the track, or cause a bad accident. He’s just arrogant—backed up by win after win. The character that should be Ivan Drago just isn’t.
|Too bad they never acted again.|
More “new-fangled” racers replace the old ones, until the camaraderie that McQueen once enjoyed is lost. He never attempts to welcome the younger competitors, never tries to see if any of them have a personality. Nothing.
McQueen, embarrassed by being outclassed in the sport he’s dominated for years, end up in a bad crash that he himself causes. No one else is hurt except McQueen, who retreats into Doc Hudson’s old garage for . . . reasons.
This is where McQueen’s character should have taken a left turn. Seeing all the tech-advantages that the new racers are using to compete, McQueen initially goes to a newly opened racing center to train. Here he meets Sterling (Nathan Fillion at his most arrogant). This is another miss for the movie. Sterling should have a secret motivation for taking on the “elder statesman” McQueen. Except, he doesn’t. He’s bald-tired about trying to get McQueen back in shape. He brings in his best trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) who starts him on a regimen meant to bring the aged racer back up to his peak.
|Mud Run for the . . . win? Loss? Hard to tell.|
Here’s where the story takes another dead-end turn. McQueen is initially desperate to get on the high-tech “simulator”—against the advice of Cruz. She says he needs to work up to the big stuff, but McQueen ignores her and immediately crashes, taking the simulator with him—much like Apollo Creed is told by Rocky and Duke that he shouldn’t fight Drago, despite abs that could wash a U.S. Army unit’s entire laundry for a month.
Here’s where Cruz or Sterling or really anyone else in McQueen’s life should tell him that it’s not the tech that matters, it’s his heart as a racer—his eye of the tiger. He needs to get it back by getting in touch with his roots. Seeing where racing started, maybe visiting Doc’s old racing coach, Smokey.
Instead, it’s McQueen who makes this detour in poor imitation of Cars. But instead of Cruz entering him in po-dunk, backwater, mud-run races that seem to make no sense—McQueen does it to himself. He then blames Cruz for every little thing that goes wrong. Instead of Cruz trying, and failing, to show McQueen the path back to his “thrill of the fight,” we’re towed through minutes of the two yelling at each other about how they don’t know each other, their lives, or what motivates them.
And that’s the problem with Cars 3. There are so many characters playing out in so many roles that no one takes the lead, no one takes the antagonist, no one is the plucky side-kick/comedy relief. Everyone is everything and the plot misfires repeatedly.
There are some genuinely wonderful moments in Cars 3. All the narrative structure and elements to make a truly great movie, one that rises to Cars, or even surpasses it, are there. That’s what makes watching it so painful. A slight tune-up of the scrip—something Pixar used to excel at—and this movie would have been incredible. Maybe not The Incredibles but certainly a Find Dory level of greatness.
Instead, we’re left with a what-might-have-been effort that at times shines bright, but is mostly covered in mud. The conclusion is a bit on the obvious side, but just twisty enough that when it happens, some invisible, onion-cutting-ninjas may show up. You do have to suspend disbelief as they hand-wave away the obvious Mac-sized plot hole, but it's worthwhile. It's just a shame that the "getting there" part of the movie was hand-waved as well.