Pixar may see “Cars” as its most sentimental franchise, one cooked up by founder John Lasseter as a way of getting computer-animated images of roadside America, memories of road trips and auto racing onto the screen.
I see it as Pixar’s most cynical, great-and-getting-greater animation in the service of selling movie tie-in toys. Three films into the series, and the filmmakers have finally perfected the look, and the format.
With “Cars 3,” at long last, Pixar makes a movie without a single laugh in it — not one. Its only utility to its audience — children — is giving them a taste of NASCAR history, or its cartoon equivalent — and mortality.
Because from Paul Newman to the big laugher of the” Car Talk” brothers, George Carlin (recast, vocally) to the film’s very themes, this movie summoning back the dead plays like a grim funeral — no jokes that work, little heart, nothing for it but to endure it.
“Ah’m about to commit a MOVIN’ violation!”
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) has plateaued in the Piston Cup. Next Gen cars, represented by the fast clean lines of Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), have seen to it that he’s chortled his last catch-phrase “Ka-CHOW” in the winner’s circle.
Everybody’s telling him that he’s through, racing commentators to his new team owner, Sterling (Nathan Fillion),
All the high tech stuff, big bucks and “brand” protecting PR aren’t doing it for Lightning. “Don’t fear failure” isn’t motivating him.
So there’s nothing for it but to hit the highway, “get my tires dirty” on dirt tracks and seek out the guy who taught his mentor, Doc (Newman).
That would be Smokey (Oscar winner Chris Cooper), a tow truck/mechanic/guru lost in the weeds of one of the traditional, historic tracks the Piston Cup has abandoned as it became a big business. “Knocksville,” “Thomasville” and the like are the North Wilkesboro, Ontario and Rockingham of cartoon car racing.
To get to Smokey, Lightning and his “trainer” (an Aston Martin voiced by Cristela Alonzo) have to do a little “Crazy 8” demolition derby racing (Lea DeLauria is the demented school bus local favorite) and endure the taunts of the Big Timers they left behind.
None of which offers much of anything of entertainment value. No funny voices, no funny lines that play as funny, nothing but digitally-animated races and lamenting the world that’s passed the old cars and the small towns by.
There might have been a backhanded “Make NASCAR Great Again” subtext, but co-writer/director Brian Fee doesn’t make it work.
NASCAR faithful may get something out of this nostalgia for the small town tracks that made NASCAR, which Big Business Racing has tossed aside (I drive by a few of these sad circuits visiting relatives in Virginia and the Carolinas.).
Kids? They may appreciate just how shiny, metallic and real the cars and landscapes look. And they might want the toy cars.
But they, like me, are going to be bored to tears by the story and the limp, half-hearted way it’s told. “Cars 3” surpasses “Monster University” as the dullest, dimmest Pixar movie ever.
MPAA Rating: G
Cast: The voices of Owen Wilson, Chris Cooper, Cristela Alonzo, Nathan Fillion, Lea DeLauria, Armie Hammer, Kerry Washington, Larry the Cable Guy
Credits: Directed by Brian Fee script by Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson and Mike Rich, based on a story by Fee. A Disney/Pixar release.
Running time: 1:49