'Cars 3' Wisely Pretends 'Cars 2' Never Existed
I love the original Cars movie. Not like. Love.
I know. I can’t believe it either. I’m not a gearhead. I don’t care about automobiles. Before I saw the movie, I thought the idea of talking cars was stupid.
But it isn’t. It’s awesome. The hero’s journey of principle character Lightning McQueen was thoughtful and important, and taught children outstanding messages:
You’re not as important as you think you are.
No one can do it all by themselves.
Keep your promises.
Character is everything.
Cars featured great music, fantastic writing, clever inside jokes and magical characters. I still get misty when Doc Hudson says to Lightning “You got a lot of stuff, kid.”
I’m an absolute SUCKER for the Campbellian Mentor/Guide archetype. Kills me every time. (I love you, Obi Wan!)
Cars 2, conversely, was an example of doing exactly the wrong thing with a beloved premise. In Cars 2 they went to Europe, they painted stereotypical characters, and they made the tow truck character of ‘Mater’ voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, (who added color to the original), a main character. Sort of the main character, really. The effect was basically having Gilbert Gottfried scream a thousand decimal spots of Pi in your ear.
While they went to great lengths to design a cool look, with what seemed like dozens of characters, the story had no heart and no one to root for. The plot itself was meant to be a timely commentary on renewable energy, but it was utterly incomprehensible. For that reason, the Cars franchise could have been, and should have been, finito.
Note: Pouring one out for my boy Finn McMissile, voiced by Michael Caine. You deserved a better movie.
But Cars 3 roars back with a vengeance. It ignores Cars 2 completely. There are no characters from Cars 2 in Cars 3. It’s a choice that borders on snub territory. But good. Cars 2 was horrible.
In Cars 3 we see the decline of Lightning McQueen as newer, faster, more technologically advanced next-gen cars push all of the “old timers” off the track. One by one, every car Lightning McQueen raced with is gone. They just can’t keep up.
Nor can Lightning himself. He just doesn’t have the juice. Much of the feature takes place after a horrific crash where he pushes his engine past its breaking point and loses control.
The story is one of facing the reality of your situation, of recognizing where you are in the game of life, and of handling yourself with dignity. It should basically be required watching for every professional athlete and every reflex-challenged dad still trying to compete on multiplayer platforms against the quick-twitchiness of nine-year-olds.
The emotional through-line of the story is an homage to the great Doc Hudson, voiced in the original by Paul Newman. It provides an avenue for Lightning to get his mojo back, in a world that has seemed to have passed him by.
And, along the way, we switch heroes, or at least we add another star to the Lightning McQueen spotlight. And with a car of color, no less. Wait that’s not right. A car with a Latinx name: Cruz Ramirez, voiced by Cristela Alonzo. She ends up playing a bigger role in the story than we originally expect.
What they specifically DON’T do in Cars 3 is give her an over-the-top accent or stoop to idiotic wordplay like Mexitransmission or things like that. She just is Cruz Ramirez. Bam. No qualification needed. She doesn’t run on taco juice. She’s a super high-end vehicle who busts her ass and relies on herself. That was refreshing after this shit:
It’s not as good as the original Cars, but light years ahead of Cars 2 (which can marry Babe 2: Pig in the City and both be shot into the sun with profound resentment). Fans of the first one will really appreciate the many callbacks. It’s also a pretty compelling commentary on how Gen-X is being pushed by Millennials. One of my favorite lines is when Lightning is whispering to one of his buddies about how all the new cars are pushing out the older ones, and the garage door opens and it’s not his friend. His friend has been replaced by a new model. And the new model is like, “The name isn’t Dusty. It’s Mike, bro.”
I get that. As the granddaddy writer on a website where phenomenally talented whippersnappers write circles around me every day, I get that.
The returning cast is great. Unfortunately no Michael Keaton as Chick Hicks, which blows, (they replaced him with another voice actor) and no Jeremy Piven as Lightning’s agent Harv, but now we also get Chris Cooper and Kerry Washington and Nathan Fillion, and Armie Hammer as the antagonist, Jackson Storm. Jackson Storm is everything Lightning wanted to be when he was the hot new rookie, except Storm is even smoother. Sickly polite. Focused. Powerful. Way cooler looking. He confidently states how Lightning is the elder statesman and the champ, and then blows his doors off without breaking a sweat. He’s almost difficult to dislike he’s such a warrior.
If I had to nitpick, I’d say I would have expected more meat on the bone for Bonnie Hunt’s Sally. But I guess my expectations for their carlationship were more progressive than the rules of the world would allow. He goes off to train and she’s like “okay love you!” I would have liked to see more of an equal partnership. I would have liked to see her pulling him to that final finish line.
As in the original, however, they save the best beauty shots for the outdoor drives. There are a few shots in Cars 3, one of a puddle and another of a fence, where you’re not sure if you’re watching animation or live action, the shot is so crisp. It’s a nice callback to that original waterfall drive with Sally, where Lightning’s grinch heart grows three sizes as Sally leads him down Route 66, the “Mother Road.” (By the way, here’s a cool site that explains many of the Route 66 choices in the original).
But any way you cut it, Cars 3 is a try-hard homage to the magic of the first one, and would have been a fitting sequel. If you loved the original, the third one might just charm you. If you’re on the fence, Cars 3 is still a well-told story of a person-car coming to terms with their own limitations and figuring out a path to re-invent themselves.
That’s a lesson all of us can learn from.
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