Review by Alex Saveliev
Pixar has always dared to anthropomorphize the unlikeliest of heroes: an ant in “A Bug’s Life,” a rat in “Ratatouille,” a cockroach and a robot in “Wall-E,” human emotions in “Inside Out”… Not only did those animated features make us feel for something with which we wouldn’t normally identify, they made us believe, within the context of those worlds, that a sentient rat could, indeed, become a chef, or that a robot could love.
“Cars,” and its consequent two sequels, fails on both accounts. Its mechanical protagonists are rarely endearing, due to their soulless nature (we don’t imbue a vehicle with the same affection as we do a living thing, even if it’s a cockroach), nor does it make us believe in its universe.
Where does it take place, exactly? Is it on Earth? Must be, right – there’s the Roman Colosseum, and Florida’s Florida… Then where are all the humans? Is it set in the future, post-apocalypse, after the machines took over, Skynet-style? Wouldn’t everything in a world inhabited solely by cars be intuitive for a car to, you know, utilize? After all, it would be impossible – not to mention impractical – for cars to build cathedrals and shopping malls, film theaters, and hotels, not to mention the uselessness of having doors or windows… Are the rearview mirrors ears? What function do they serve, since they cars’ windshields are essentially their eyes?
The questions don’t end there. In Brian Fee’s “Cars 3,” there’s a training sequence involving an actual animal (though we never see it): Cruz Ramirez (voiced by Cristela Alonzo) doesn’t want to run over a crab. However, in a different sequence, cows in the film are represented by herd-like tractors. So what’s the deal here? Was that a mechanical crab? Was the crab even there? Where are all the humans and animals? Upon further research, I stumbled on this website, which has a deeply disturbing “Cars” theory of its own.
Putting aside the film’s creepy world and creepier protagonists, as difficult as it may be, the story itself if as rusty as Mater’s (Larry the Cable Guy) exterior. At least the original “Cars” had the saving grace of Paul Newman’s wise ol’ voice as Doc Hudson bringing gravitas to the proceedings. I must’ve seen the sequel twice and still have no idea what it was about. The plot of the third one is starting to evaporate as I write this, so I better get to it quick.
Lightning McQueen’s (a bland Owen Wilson) streak of success comes to an abrupt end with the emergence of next-gen, aerodynamic, computer-modulated race cars, led by the Bugatti-looking, snarky Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). After an accident and consequent rehabilitation, Lightning gets back on the proverbial track, with the help of a bureaucratic sponsor, Sterling (Nathan Fillion) and his main trainer, Cristela. It all comes down to a crucial race in Florida, with perfunctory adventures on the way.
So perfunctory were the adventures, even the calmest of kids grew restless at the press screening I attended. Enraptured intermittently by the gorgeous visuals, their attention drifted during the long, painful sequences of characters “flash-backing,” moralizing and baring their souls. The film’s almost two hours, for NASCAR’s sake! For a film about racing, it sure trots a lot.
We’ve seen it all before: themes of new generations learning from the old, while the old generations come to terms embracing the new (“It’s futile to resist change, man,” a character proclaims at one point); stale, pseudo-inspirational speeches (“Don’t fear failure – be afraid of not having the chance”; “It’s my last chance to give you your first chance”), the new characters fail to bring anything new to the table, while the old ones are cardboard, Mater’s hillbilly shtick wearing particularly thin. Pixar even relies on pratfalls and lazy stereotypes – this marks the first time I haven’t had a single genuine laugh throughout a Pixar film since the infinitely better “Brave.”
My theory is that John Lasseter, who directed the original “Cars,” wanted to expand upon the “Toy Story” concept, delve deeper into that world only children inhabit… The difference is, “Toy Story” had humans. The toys had eyes where they belonged. Their universe made sense. “Cars 3” amounts to a colossal miscalculation on Pixar’s part, a world devoid of animals, a world of sentient gears that just expects us to accept it. And perhaps you do. But I defy you to accept its lack of depth, insights, heart and propulsive stories, so prevalent in the best of the company’s oeuvre. Instead of going to Disney’s Vault, this franchise needs to be left rusting in Pixar’s junkyard.