Time is the one thing no one can out race; not even Lightning McQueen. Time eventually catches up with us all; eventually we all age, we all past our prime, and we all have to deal with the fact that we’re not as young as we used to be. Now, if it seems like those are odd themes for a kid’s movie; you’d be right. If it seems those themes are even odder for a movie about talking cars; you’d be right again. However, this is Pixar we’re talking about, and if anyone can pull off odd concepts, it’s them (see Wall-E, Inside Out, Up, Ratatouille). Then again, Cars has always been one of Pixar’s lesser properties, and the fact that other than Toy Story it’s the only one to actually become a trilogy probably says less about story and character quality then it does about merchandising possibilities (or at least, that’s the cynical and pragmatic view). Yet, despite choosing a theme that’s likely to resonate more with adults than kids, or maybe because of that, Cars 3 manages to tell a story with a lot of heart while still maintaining much of the thrills and fun that makes it popular amongst the youngsters. Cars 3 may not be the best Pixar has to offer, but it’s still a lot better than what many animation studios have to offer these days.
The first teaser trailer for Cars 3 was surprisingly dark, with that dramatic crash of McQueen happening in slow motion, and it was also very effective; it caught my attention and got me curious about what direction this third installment was going to go in. The film isn’t as dark as the trailer made it seem, but it is a more somber, reflective, heartfelt and thoughtful film than the previous two; certainly more so than the last adventure. Truth be told, there aren’t a lot of laughs to be had in this movie. There are some good gags, and several really fun moments, but on the whole this a quieter and more thoughtful film. It’s more about the personal journey (if you can say that about a car) that McQueen takes this time out. McQueen’s journey through the realization that he’s not the racer he used to be, and therefore what will he be when he can no longer race, is an emotional but enjoyable one; it’s also quite different for a series that has always been more kids-focused than most of Pixar’s properties. The racing scenes are as thrilling as ever (I saw several kids sitting on the edge of their seats during the final big race), but while the maturity and depth of Cars 3 serves it well, it may also make it a challenge for the younger audience to sit through. Plus, there’s also a Cars version of a demolition derby, so, things never stay too serious for long.
In truth, Cars 3 isn’t just about how to handle growing old (despite the fact that McQueen looks exactly the same as he did in the first movie, but we’re told he’s getting old, so it must all be under the hood and he just ages gracefully). It’s more of a story about how instead of focusing on what we can’t, we should focus on what we can. If we play the comparison game, we’re always going to find things that we can’t because there will always be someone more talented, more skilled, faster, better, and yes, even younger. However, we shouldn’t let the can’ts be what defines us. It’s not who you aren’t that matters (you aren’t good enough, fast enough, young enough, etc.), it’s who you are that matters. However, that’s a surprisingly difficult thing to grab on to. Our culture wants to help us find who we are, but unfortunately, many of the things it tries to give are fleetingly, temporary, and unsatisfying; most of what it tells us about who we are is subject to trends, fads, styles and the danger of quickly fading away. However, the Bible offers something different; a way to become who we are not based on a temporary trend, but on everlasting truths. It tells us that through Jesus Christ we are the children of God (1 John 3:1), that we are more than conquerors (Romans 8:37), that we are a chosen generation and a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9); in short, we are so much more than we ever thought we could be, all because of Jesus. Purpose, meaning, satisfaction, certainty, belonging; it’s all found in Jesus Christ. That’s why it’s called good news.
The trailer for Cars 3 set an expectation for something different. The film itself delivers that to a degree, but at the same time it also recaptures much of the feeling of the first film (interestingly, while the first film often receives callbacks, there’s nary a mention of the international adventures of the second). So it’s new and yet still familiar. It’s also still an odd world where everyone now and then you can’t help but wonder, “In a world filled with nothing but talking vehicles, how exactly does that work?” I still find it curious that this series has reached film three while others, like The Incredibles, have yet to get to number two. Still, at least this is a much better film than the last, and at least it’s one with more heart and themes that resonate with a wider audience than just kids who think talking cars are fun. Nevertheless, much as Lightning McQueen must come to terms with the fact that he can’t keep racing forever, perhaps it’s time for Pixar and Disney to realize the same about this franchise and let it retire while going out on a high note.
Score: 5 of 7 – Cars 3 is a sweet, emotional, and fun film that’s easy for the whole family to enjoy. It probably deals with themes and ideas that may not appeal much to the younger ones, but the racing is still exiting and there’s probably enough silliness and thrills to hold their attention. Plus, the heartfelt reflections and somber themes will keep the parents engaged as well, which may well be a first for this series.