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Cars 3 gets back to what made the franchise adequate

Pixar’s latest is a weirdly structured tale of obsolescence and white male privilege starring talking cars.

Cars 3
Lightning McQueen (left) faces off against his new rival, Jackson Storm, in Cars 3.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

To call the Cars movies the black sheep of Pixar’s filmography does a disservice to black sheep. The first one (released in 2006) is considered the one major black mark in the animation studio’s killer run from 1995’s Toy Story to 2010’s Toy Story 3, and 2011’s Cars 2 is the only Pixar film with a “rotten” score on Rotten Tomatoes.

And, okay, I won’t speak up too heartily for Cars 2 — may it always be the worst Pixar movie — but the original Cars is a good-natured, even-keeled sort of film, one that celebrates taking it slow every once in a while. It’s no Incredibles or Wall-E, but few movies are. Its heart is in the right place.

Thus, it’s a relief that Cars 3 skews more toward the original flavor than the sequel (a spy movie–inflected mess that revealed a Pixar slightly out of its depth with something so action-heavy). It’s not to the level of that first film, but its amiable, ambling nature keeps it from becoming too boxed in by its needlessly contorted plot (which all but spoils its own ending very early on, then spends roughly an hour futilely avoiding said ending).

Like all Pixar movies, Cars 3 is gorgeous — the landscapes the characters race through are more photorealistic than ever, recalling The Good Dinosaur (another recent Pixar misfire that nonetheless looked great) — but like most of the studio’s 2010s output, its storytelling is perhaps too complicated to really register. The movie is constantly trying to outmaneuver itself, leading to a film that’s pleasant but not much more.

Still, that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of value. Here are six useful ways of thinking about Cars 3.

1) As a surprisingly downbeat look at aging

This is the angle Disney is pushing most in the trailers for the film. Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), the hotshot race car who learned to take it easy in Cars, has succumbed to the ravages of time, as we all must. Newer, sleeker race cars are outpacing him on the track, and he’s desperate to make a comeback.

But Cars 3 resists the most feel-good version of that story, to its credit. Lightning isn’t going to suddenly become faster in his middle age. If he wants to beat the young whippersnappers, he’ll have to either outsmart them or out-train them. But Lightning isn’t one for high-tech gadgets that might help him eke out a few more miles per hour from his chassis. Instead, he goes on a random tour of the American South, visiting hallowed racetracks.

It gives the movie a tried-and-true spine — old-fashioned knowhow versus new tech — but it also means that every time the story seems to be gaining momentum, it veers completely off course in a new direction. Pixar used this tendency to let its stories swerve all over the place to great effect in 2012’s Brave and 2013’s Monsters University, but Cars 3 has maybe a few too many head fakes. By the time Lightning tries to tap into his roots by visiting legendary racers in North Carolina, I felt slightly checked out.

2) As a child’s primer to how white men can both acknowledge their privilege and work to dismantle it

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Lightning and Cruz race down the Florida beach.

Seriously! This is a major part of Cars 3’s climax!

The movie argues that the best thing Lightning (who’s always been coded as a good ol’ Texas boy) can do to help preserve his legacy is try to find ways to hold open doors for cars that are not at all like himself. And the leader of the new class of racers, Jackson Storm, is voiced by Armie Hammer as a sleek, might-makes-right bully who never nods to the fact that he’s so much faster because he’s got access to a lot of great technology.

A major scene at the film’s midpoint involves Lightning learning that his trainer, Cruz Ramirez (voiced by the comedian Cristela Alonzo), always wanted to be a racer herself, but felt intimidated by how she wasn’t like the other race cars the one time she tried out.

How did Lightning build up the confidence to race? Cruz asks. Lightning shrugs. He doesn’t know. He’s just always had it.

Just the description of this scene — or the even earlier scene where Cruz dominates a simulated race — probably telegraphs where all of this is headed. But it’s still neat that Pixar used its most little-boy-friendly franchise to make an argument for level, more diverse playing fields. Except...

3) As a way to sell even more toys

The Cars movies have always moved merchandise, and even if all involved parties insist they continue to make Cars movies for reasons other than “because they sell toys” — c’mon. The fact that the movie’s major new character is an explicitly female car, who gets a variety of new paint jobs throughout the film, no less, feels like somebody in a boardroom somewhere said, “Yes, but what if we had a way to make the toys from these movies appeal to little girls as well?”

(And that’s to say nothing of the numerous other new characters introduced throughout the film, all of whom your children will simply have to own the action figures for. My favorite was a school bus named Miss Fritter who dominates demolition derbies.)

So it goes with Disney, one of the best companies out there when it comes to diversifying the points of view that are represented in its films — but always, as the cynics among us are prone to assume, because it sees those points of view as a way to sell you more stuff.

4) As an epic subtweet of Nate Silver and other election prognosticators

Kerry Washington plays a new character named Natalie Certain, a journalist who pops up every so often to point out how her data can’t lie and how Jackson Storm has a 96 percent probability of winning the film’s climactic race. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from there.

5) As an awkward attempt to return to the tone of the first movie

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Lightning meets the school bus Miss Fritter on his travels.

When Pixar made Cars 2, it faced a major challenge. The first film, dealing with Lightning’s slow embrace of small-town life, didn’t leave much room for another story, and its second-most-important character, Doc Hudson, was voiced by Paul Newman, who died between the two films.

So Cars 2 made a hard pivot into spy movie action, ramped up the role of kiddie favorite Tow Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy), and largely lost the soul of the first film.

Cars 3 is most successful when it finds ways to reintegrate Lightning into the tone and world of the first film, as he tries to grapple with his legacy and realizes Doc (who appears in flashbacks that seem as if they might have been cobbled together from outtakes and deleted scenes Newman recorded for the first film) might offer him wisdom even from beyond the grave. (Since cars can’t really die, Doc is just not around anymore. But, again, c’mon.)

However, because Lightning already learned his lesson about appreciating life and taking it easy, there’s just not a lot to mine here. Cars 3 makes some awkward attempts to suggest technology is no replacement for really experiencing life, and Lightning visits other famous race cars, even detouring to hang out in a bar with famous, groundbreaking cars voiced by Margo Martindale and Isiah Whitlock Jr.

But the movie struggles to figure out how to make all of this mesh, right up until the very end, when it finally nods toward keeping one eye on the past but always letting the future take precedent.

6) As a rumination on the coming horrors of a world ruled by artificial intelligence

Many thinkers who consider the question of what happens when human beings finally create an artificial intelligence that is on the same level as the human brain have concluded that it will not take very long for such a being to evolve into a superintelligence — which is any artificial intelligence that’s just a smidgen smarter than the smartest human. And from there, they will continue to improve, and we will be left in the dust, ruled, effectively, by our robot successors.

Anyway, the Cars movies don’t take place in an explicitly post-human future, but this is the biggest “c’mon” of them all. At some point, self-driving cars rose up, they killed us all, and now they long for the good old days, not realizing those days are impossible to return to.

Thus, the rise of Jackson and his pals allows the film to broach the subject of those early days of artificial superintelligence, with Lightning in the role of humanity. What will happen when we try to keep up with beings that are simply made better than us? Will we accept our obsolescence with grace? Or will we push back with all we have? Cars 3 suggests no easy answers.

Bonus thoughts on Lou, the short film preceding Cars 3: It is terrifying

Please go away now.

Lou is better than, say, Lava (the odious singing volcano short attached to Inside Out). With that said, it is also about how all of the toys in a lost-and-found box become a sort of “toy golem” that wanders a playground, returning toys to children and making sure bullies pay for their misdeeds.

The audience I saw Lou with ate it up, but reader, I found it terrifying. If Toy Story posited a world where toys wake up when you’re not around, Lou posits a world where toys have no knowledge of what it means to be human but are cursed to make an attempt all the same: strange, shambling beasts from outside of time, wandering our playgrounds.

Make it stop. Kill it with fire.

Cars 3 opens in theaters Friday, June 16, with early screenings on the evening of Thursday, June 15.

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