By Preston Wilder
Last week, for no obvious reason, the New York Times published a list of the 25 best films of the 21st century so far – and there, inevitably, was a slot for Pixar, the only question being which of the animation studio’s films would be deemed among the best of the newish millennium. (“How could we pick just one?” wailed the paper, finally going for Inside Out at No. 7.) Pixar is the leading light of US animation, it’s not even close – but Cars has always been an outlier, less grown-up than most of the company’s output and also less complex. One Cars would’ve been more than enough – but kids, with their lousy taste, made it a hit, so we’ve had a sequel and now, inevitably, a threequel: “The numbers don’t lie,” as the new corporate sponsor tells Lightning McQueen.
Cars seems to bring out the worst in the Disney-owned Pixar, exposing it as a corporate titan which, despite the defiantly uncommercial likes of WALL-E and Ratatouille, cares about ‘the numbers’ above all else. (It’s no accident that Pixar has become significantly less daring and creative in recent years.) The franchise, led by McQueen the big-dreaming race car, is unusual in other ways too. It’s about competition and being a winner, whereas many Pixars deal in pricklier concepts like loneliness and coming to terms with loss. It’s also folksy, set in the US heartland – Cars 2 gave a starring role to Mater, the laid-back tow truck with a suitably rural drawl – whereas the studio’s more usual backdrop is urban, and especially suburban. Finally, the fact that the characters are cars hinders precisely the subtle facial expressions that Pixar animators do so expertly, giving them only a pair of windshield eyes – and, to some extent, a grille-shaped mouth – to work with.
Given all those drawbacks, Cars 3 doesn’t do so badly; it’s certainly better than Cars 2, partly because the tiresome Mater has been scaled back to his proper role as supporting character – and of course kids will love it, as they’ve loved both previous instalments. Part of the reason for this love is that cars make excellent toys – and the film acknowledges this when McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is shown all the various tie-ins his corporate sponsor has in mind, from McClean cleaning fluid (“Leave dirt in the dust”) to an online racing school. Our hero just wants to race, however, which might also be the guiding philosophy behind this movie: it doesn’t deny that it’s a product – but it doesn’t care about that, all it wants is to show cars zooming along and have fun in general.
Cars 3 is good kiddie fun, in that breezy simplistic way: there’s a fair bit of racing action, also a demolition derby (a middle-American pastime where cars smash into each other) and high-speed training runs as McQueen gets back in the game. He’s become obsolete, superseded by new-generation, computerised cars – and this is where the film starts to get a bit more Pixar-ish, obsolescence and getting older being some of the studio’s pet themes (especially in the second and third Toy Storys, though also in Inside Out). Most of the talking points here – insofar as a kids’ film has talking points – come from the way it weighs up small-town ‘authenticity’ against a new high-tech world, and even sneaks a little feminism into a franchise supposedly aimed at boys. The girl in question is Cruz, who doesn’t quite take over the movie – but McQueen is definitely repositioned, from racing driver to a combination of mentor, gallant knight and ‘male ally’.
Our hero’s racing number is ‘95’, a significant number for Pixar: 1995 saw the release of Toy Story, the first feature-length computer-animated film and a modern classic that put Pixar on the map. Cars may lack emotional richness but it clearly means something to the folks at the studio (the first two were personally directed by head honcho John Lasseter), a kind of perverse nostalgia for the heartland values of old Disney movies: the high-tech cars that threaten to put McQueen out of business aren’t exactly villains (a company that built its name on computers can’t exactly be sniffy about new technology) but our hero goes to deepest Mississippi to find his mojo, a forgotten America of misty forests and people named ‘Smokey’. Then again, he’s still getting older, and likely to end up downgraded in the script for Cars 4 (if any). Kids won’t care about any of this, but reluctant chaperones may enjoy the film more by viewing it as a less triumphant, slightly more autumnal version of the first two – though it’s still pretty clear that the smash-hit Cars franchise is among the most disposable things Pixar ever did, and the least likely to feature on a best-of-the-21st-century list. Sometimes the numbers do lie.
DIRECTED BY Brian Fee
WITH THE VOICES OF Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Chris Cooper
US 2017 109 mins