Midway through Cars 3, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) gets literally stuck in the mud. Unable to drive, he sits there immobile, spinning his wheels. As visual metaphors go, it’s a strikingly apt symbol for a series that’s both Pixar’s least-loved (by the critics anyway) and its most commercially, er, driven. You could even apply it to Pixar itself, which is in something of a creative slough only two years on from the highpoint that was Inside Out.
The stats speak for themselves – five prequel/sequels in eight years, with two more (The Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4) on the way before the end of the decade. That would be fine if the non-franchise stand-alones were all up to Inside Out’s standards. Brave and The Good Dinosaur, alas, were anything but, putting pressure on the upcoming Coco to claw back some cred.
Cars 3, for what it’s worth, is a lot better than 2011’s Cars 2, which put aggravating tow truck Mater front and centre of a Bondian spy spoof that made next to no sense, even within the context of the property’s logic-skewing alt-verse. For one thing, Cars 3 puts the spotlight back on race car Lightning, the race circuit itself and the gentle Americana of the 2006 original.
It also improves upon its immediate predecessor by having a subtext; McQueen’s painful realisation that his powers are dwindling enables director Brian Fee to offer a thoughtful contemplation on what champions do when they’re past their prime.
One can possibly read from this that Pixar chief John Lasseter has read the runes himself and is anticipating the day when he will pass the reins to younger talents. (He’s started by letting Fee – a storyboard artist on the first two Cars films – fill his director’s chair.)
If that’s Cars 3’s agenda, however, it’s one that comes with a heavy-handed sermon on the value of mentors, represented not only by flashbacks to Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson but also by grizzled old-timer Smokey (Chris Cooper).
The film rates higher by giving Lightning a sleek rival in hi-tech speedster Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), having a decent female lead in the form of peppy trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) and incorporating some self-knowing nods to its ranking in the studio’s pecking order. (Lightning’s new sponsor, voiced by Nathan Fillion, wants him to give up racing and focus his energies on flogging branded merchandise.)
But even at its best, Cars 3 is only a shadow of Cars – a film that, lest we forget, was hardly one of Pixar’s finest in the first place.