Combustible Celluloid
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With: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper, Nathan Fillion, Larry the Cable Guy, Armie Hammer, Ray Magliozzi, Tony Shalhoub, Bonnie Hunt, Lea DeLaria, Kerry Washington, Bob Costas, Margo Martindale, Darrell Waltrip, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Bob Peterson, John Ratzenberger (voices)
Written by: Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson, Mike Rich, based on a story by Brian Fee, Ben Queen, Eyal Podell, Jonathon E. Stewart
Directed by: Brian Fee
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 109
Date: 06/16/2017

Cars 3 (2017)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Hearts Are Racing

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Pixar's Cars series represents a problem. It's easily the studio's most ill-conceived outing, with its odd, anthropomorphic talking cars, questionable characters, nonsensical human-like world, and simplistic plots. Whenever critics or bloggers rank Pixar's output, the Cars films regularly rank at the very bottom, and Cars 2 is currently the only Pixar film to receive a "rotten" rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But, the truth is that the movies provide the biggest merchandise sales for the company, and they appeal to small town and heartland folks. So Pixar is obligated to keep going. Fortunately, the new effort, Cars 3, which has been entrusted to a first-time writer/director, Brian Fee, manages to stay on the road with a measure of charm and goodwill, as well as a nice touch of the bittersweet.

After the painful Cars 2, the focus returns here to Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), whose days as champion car are numbered, as newer, higher-tech vehicles take the track. Specifically, Jackson Storm (voiced by Armie Hammer) has begun to shatter records. Recovering from a crash, Lightning is offered a chance to train at a high-tech facility, run by Sterling (voiced by Nathan Fillion). His trainer is the go-getter Cruz Ramirez (voiced by Cristela Alonzo). But soon Lightning longs for the good old-fashioned type of training, racing on beaches and dirt tracks, to rebuild his mojo. Thanks to a suggestion from Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy), Lightning decides to track down his own dearly departed mentor's mentor: Smokey (voiced by Chris Cooper). But in all his training, Lightning realizes that Cruz actually wants to be a racer herself, and has the talent for it.

The relationship between Cruz and Lightning builds slowly, and comes out of left field; she's introduced in the midst of a bunch of other introductions, so she doesn't seem terribly important right away; it's perhaps a way to handle the movie's feminist element carefully, without alarming anyone. But they eventually click. Lightning has always been an extremely selfish character, and rarely connected with others unless they had some way of helping him achieve his goals. This is perhaps the first time he has begun to break out of that mold.

In the center of the film, there's a mind-numbing sequence, a kind of demolition derby that the characters are caught up in; the scene does have a point, but it also seems gratuitously aimed at Larry the Cable Guy fans. In this world of bitter divide, it's hard not to see Cars 3 as a kind of callous attempt to appeal to the pocketbooks of both sides of the fence. Yet, if red state viewers go see this movie, perhaps its message of tolerance -- girl cars and cars of color had to struggle to become racers, but they eventually made it -- can offset their favorite politician's driving message of intolerance.

I do like the sad finality of the movie as well; it has a humble touch that is missing from the previous to efforts. Technically, the movie continues Pixar's evolution in the visual department, with an amazing use of colors, speed, and rhythm, as well as great sound. Unlike Cars 2, this one has a few genuine laughs, and, overall it has a surprisingly disarming, pleasing effect, though it's far from great or profound. Call it Pixar's second or third-worst movie, which is still a compliment. As a bonus, it plays with a new short film entitled Lou -- a thesis on bullying -- that is very much worth seeing.

Disney and Pixar have released a spectacular Blu-ray edition with two Blu-ray discs full of extras, plus a DVD and a digital copy. As one would expect from Pixar, the digital transfer is flawless, with incredible colors and an explosive soundtrack (although the Atmos mix is only available on the 4K edition). A commentary track includes director Brian Fee, producers Kevin Reher and Andrea Warren, and creative director Jay Ward. The wonderful short Lou is here, as well as previews for the upcoming Coco and new Christmas-themed Frozen short. There are lots of other little featurettes, both animated and live-action, plus deleted scenes, trailers and promos, etc.

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