Thursday, June 15, 2017

Review: "Cars 3"


“Cars 3” is a movie of full circles coming round.

It’s amusing, glitzy entertainment for kids that also ponders what happens when we get old and start to worry about life passing us by. We’re going so fast, and suddenly you find yourself sitting in a pasture, unsure if you drove yourself in or were put out.

I can’t think of a film series that better incorporates the death of one of its stars into the core themes of the story. Paul Newman was the beating heart of the original “Cars” as the cantankerous Doc Hudson, who sets aside his ancient grievances against the sport of racing to coach a cocky young upstart, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson).

In a lot of ways, it was as much Doc’s story as McQueen’s.

Doc is very much on Lightning’s mind as the film opens, using his lessons and inspiration to become a living legend himself. He’s essentially traded places with Strip “The King” Weathers, the aging champion from the first movie, having to deal with an upstart rookie trying to take his crown. Except in this case, it’s not just one opponent but the entire field of competitors.

Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) is a “next gen” racer, and looks the part -- few curves, efficiently unpretty, a sleek personification of function over form. He drives like an automaton, straight down the groove, no risks and lots of speed. He also has little patience for old-timers like McQueen, brusquely shoving the old generation to the side.

Soon, all the older racers have been replaced by Storm clones, and Lightning suffers a major crash just like Doc did. Can he come back and race again, or has his time gone by?

Brian Fee, a Pixar animation veteran, ably takes the director’s chair for the first time, with a screenplay by Mike Rich, Pixar do-everything-guy Bob Peterson and Kiel Murray, one of the writers on the original “Cars.” Their entry into the franchise stands out from the other two movies by taking some left turns we don’t expect.

It doesn’t quite have the emotional horsepower of the first one or the dizzy Mater-centric antics of “Cars 2.” But I think most people, young and old, will find it a satisfying iteration – possibly conclusion? – of the saga.

It is a little disappointing to mostly leave the Radiator Springs crew behind this time, including Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), Sally (Bonnie Hunt), Luigi (Tony Shalhoub), Ramone (Cheech Marin) and the rest. But they make a few appearances, and there are new faces.

Most notable is Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a hyperactive young “race trainer” who wants to whip Lightning back into shape with computer simulations and kooky psychological motivations. She sees him as her “senior project,” and prescribes lots of naps and an oil drip pan as needed. Watching over is Sterling (Nathan Fillion), the seemingly benevolent new owner of the Rust-Eze race sponsors.

(The Magliozzi brothers of NPR “Car Talk” fame, who did the voices of their animated counterparts, get their own nice little sendoff.)

And there’s a sentimental journey to Doc’s old dirt-track stomping grounds, where Lighting encounters the mentor of his mentor, Smokey (a pitch-perfect Chris Cooper), and a few other old-school racers. Plus a madcap dash through a demolition derby where Miss Fritter (Lea DeLaria), a smashmouth school bus, always steals the show.

You can quibble with some of the particulars of the plot, including a rather… novel take on racing rules that I don’t think NASCAR is going to incorporate anytime soon. But its heart is never far from the right place.

I should mention that Newman’s character and voice appear in this movie, flashbacks from the original but also a few lines of dialogue that were recorded and never used. It’s great to hear that beautiful gravel baritone again, and we learn some things about Doc we didn’t know. It’s like hearing new stories about your departed father, told by people who adored him.

Happily, this means that “Cars 3” will stand as Newman’s final official film credit. A lifelong car nut, I don’t think he would mind.

The movie itself is a lot like classic cars. They don’t have the power they used to. But oh, to watch them go by…




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