Cars 3 succeeds in crafting an inspirational story, but forgets to make the story and characters interesting.
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) continues to win races, when suddenly new cars start to enter the races. Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) and the other new cars start edging out the older cars who are no longer competitive. Lightning tries to hold his title, but is physically not able to catch up with Jackson. He goes to train at the new Rust-eze facility, now owned by Sterling (Nathan Fillion). Lightning is given a final chance to prove himself, relying on the instruction of his new trainer, who always dreamed of racing, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo).
It’s not that clear to which age Cars 3 is trying to appeal. The second half consists of just races and racing montages, which are fun and exciting, but lacking substance. The first half, meanwhile, does not seem geared toward children, but instead of actually being mature, is just boring. It is somewhat dark, trying to show the obsolescence of the older cars. To explain this, Cars 3 actually has a statistician car, Natalie Certain (Kerry Washington), who explains the science and math about the cars. It also highlights Lightning’s obsession with his age, forcing it even further through Cruz’s constant jokes about it.
Much of the movie feels like it is memorializing the late Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson. At over 10 years after Cars, Cars 3 does not feel like it is paying respect to the character, and by extent, the actor, but instead, is using this as a nostalgia ploy. It uses this as the entire emotional impact, instead of putting in the effort to create an original emotional core. Further, it is almost as if Cars 3 forces this in, even using clips from Cars, to beg the audience to forget Cars 2.
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There really is no story in Cars 3; there is just a string of races. The whole plot centers around the fact Lightning needs to train, so he and Cruz go to various locations to race. Even though the final race is fun to watch, the big twist is obvious about halfway into the movie.
While Cars was more about Lightning’s character arc, in Cars 3, Lightning is fairly static. Unfortunately, although the fun supporting characters in Cars appear occasionally throughout, their presence is unnecessary to the story, so they are underused. Cars 3 becomes more about the dynamic between Cruz and Lightning, but they do not even have compelling characters.
Cruz, who is clearly set up to lead the franchise for when Pixar will inevitably decide to make Cars 4 before Incredibles 2, also does not have a strong enough arc. The one moment of actual characterization comes through a painful monologue, in which she confesses to Lightning about her dream of being a racer. It feels incredibly contrived and awkward, and does not actually add depth to the character. All the monologue really does is unexpectedly call Lightning out on his male racecar privilege. Even weirder, this monologue largely exists to affect Lighting, not even to develop Cruz.
Cars 3 is somewhat redeemed through the final car race, which is exciting and distracting enough to make the movie somewhat worthwhile. However, to get to this scene, one must sit through the monotonous first half of the movie. Cars 3 majorly draws from the first movie, but leaves out what made Cars interesting.