I lost something watching Cars 3. Maybe it was the youthful sense of play that buoyed me through mediocre film experiences like The Core (2003) or Paycheck (2003). Maybe it was the inability of mine to accept reality, which had been shielding me for the years that Pixar had become no longer this magical movie machine, churning out annual transcendence reliably. Maybe it was the security of my taste, as each passing second of the third talking cars movie interrogated whether Pixar films were really that good to begin with, and I was inundated with flashes of Inside Out (2015) and Wall-E (2008) and Ratatouille (2007) and The Incredibles (2004), these animated feature films made truly for everyone, gorgeous cinematic masterpieces that punched your heart and made you laugh from the gut. I’d hopped off the Pixar train for the last couple years, and it was a shock to jump back in and see the bare mediocrity of the thing, to see how far this company had fallen.
That’s not to say Cars 3, an oddly nostalgic and wandering tale about Lightning McQueen’s (Owen Wilson) journey to overcome age amid a new technological era alongside Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), Sterling (Nathan Fillion), and Smokey (Chris Cooper) is a bad film. It’s not. It’s just mediocre, bland, and full of arbitrary spectacle. While in moments it reaches for the emotion of a classical Pixar picture, it lacks the properly developed characters necessary to back it up, making these moments feel forced and unearned.
Thematically the film is confused. Whereas Inside Out keeps to its central metaphor of personified human emotions, exploring it to its fullest and arriving at a thesis on the human condition, Cars 3 brushes against notions of aging, a transforming economy, grief for the dead, the inhumanity of capitalism, and the power of individual spirit over collective rationality, without ever digging in and exploring one thing fully. The result is a bland narrative with vague characters and a couple chuckles.
I’m not equipped to answer whether this film would be affective for children. I mention this because Cars 3 doesn’t want to be anything but a kid’s film. It’s (for the most part) visually appealing and simple, but not overly invested in the interiority of its characters. While in incongruous bursts it lets emotion take hold of its narrative, the “pull” of the film is simply the sight of familiar characters going on another adventure, and I do not know if that’s what kids want. In this sense Cars 3 condescends to children, feeding them spectacle and simple humor when films like Where the Wild Things Are (2009) treat youthful psychology with the seriousness and respect it deserves.
Cars 3 will not change you, because it does not want to change you. It is what it is, an animated film about talking cars who compete in races. And while I can’t fault it for not being more than the sum of its parts, I can grieve the lost opportunity of transcendence, an expectation set by Pixar in a previous life, an expectation likely now old fashioned.