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I rarely expect to hate a movie. Cars 3 was one of those dreaded theater-going experiences for me. Cars and Cars 2 are widely considered to be some of Pixar’s most disappointing efforts. While some might defend the first romp through Radiator Springs as a harmless, enjoyable ride, its ill-formed sequel is inarguably a failure. The character development and emotional depth that drives most of the animated studio giant’s films to greatness is almost entirely missing in this blatant cash-grab, marketing ploy dressed up as a franchise. However, with Cars 3, audiences are given something different. This is every bit the deep story that should have been released from the very beginning and is easily one of Pixar’s best non-Toy Story sequels.

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The plot of Cars 3 follows a fairly familiar pattern. Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is old and being left behind by a new kind of race car propelled into the lead by new designs and technology. Facing the inevitable, looming figure of retirement, Lightning decides to do whatever it takes to beat the new greatest racer in the world, Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). Under the training of Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), and with the sponsorship of the slick billionaire Sterling (Nathan Fillion), McQueen embarks on a journey to reclaim his former greatness.

On a basic technical level, this sequel is a total success for Pixar Animation Studios. The universe of Cars 3 looks amazing. The original Cars focused very strongly on the small-scale atmosphere of Radiator Springs. Cars 2 abandoned that confined, comfortable feel for an international escapade that seemed bloated and far too over-the-top. This newest entry in the racing franchise brings the potential of both movies to life. On one hand, panoramic shots of diverse locations are peppered into the scene changes and transitions of this story. Different racetracks and training courses really feel unique, and the world feels infused with life to a degree that we have not yet seen onscreen. At the same time, things never feel too busy or too extreme as the emotional, family-centered heart of Cars is maintained through the craze.

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The old cast of Cars is back and they are serviceable. Larry the Cable Guy’s scenes as Mater are limited even beyond his first outing as the rusty tow truck, demonstrating the caricaturish punchline’s surprising strength when used as a confined supporting character. McQueen’s automotive family barely make an appearance here. Even Sally, the blue Porsche voiced by Bonnie Hunt that gave Cars a large part of its emotional success, is almost never around as the  focus rests completely on new members of the lineup. This is a positive choice since Owen Wilson, in the movie’s most unforgivable mistake, phones in his performance to a frustrating degree. Wilson is not known for being overly versatile or passionate, but here he demonstrates how truly lifeless he can be as the flashy red McQueen. In this story of fighting irrelevance, Owen Wilson does more to drive home the points of Lightning’s critics than anyone else.

That being said, the new blood (or perhaps, more accurately, oil) in Cars 3 is phenomenal. Nathan Fillion, as anyone would expect, is outstanding as the smooth-talking Sterling. Armie Hammer sells his entertaining, intimidating antagonist with ease. Cristela Alonzo is the standout performer, however, turning Cruz Ramirez into the most interesting, compelling character within the entire Cars franchise. The dialogue given to her character is not always the best, but Alonzo pushes past that and shows off her yellow car’s true heart in such an effective way that the movie’s overall impact is elevated significantly. As a character study centered largely on Cruz and her journey as McQueen’s trainer, Cars 3 wildly succeeds.

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Where it does not succeed is as a basic narrative with interesting inciting incidents and well-connected scenes. The Internet was abuzz prior to Cars 3’s release with discussion of the new “dark tone” that would be coming to the bright, vibrant world of Radiator Springs. The first teaser, which showed the crumpled, burning body of Lightning flipping and crashing as a heartbeat pounded out a foreboding cadence, portrayed this new sequel as containing Pixar’s darkest moment since the trash incinerator scene in Toy Story 3. That individual scene in particular leads to one of the most botched emotional payoffs in cinema this year. Emotional beat after emotional beat is wasted in this film. Tonal inconsistencies run rampant throughout the runtime of this adventure, most notably in an action scene halfway through the film that feels like a set piece in a much less-intelligent movie. Due to the quick cuts and strange emotional jumps for characters (especially in the many barely-explained transformations of Lightning McQueen’s attitude), part of me wonders if Pixar decided too late to change their vision to be more optimistic and child-friendly. Regardless of why it drops the dramatic ball so often, Cars 3 does not flow naturally and feels rushed in many distracting ways.

Despite the writing issues of Cars 3 and some weak elements carried over from the movies preceding it, it is definitely enjoyable. Paul Newman, who plays a much larger role than expected as Doc Hudson, reminds us all quickly why he is such a missed force in the world of acting. Jokes land successfully and do not often feel forced. Although it lacks the “Pixar Magic” that has defined an era of animation, it deserves its spot in the pantheon, improving significantly over the innumerable problems of Cars 2 and the mediocrity of Cars. There may not be any future plans for the character of Cruz Ramirez but, despite my distaste for sequel overload (especially from a visionary studio like Pixar), I want to see more from her, potentially in future short films. Cars 3 will not be remembered alongside the Pixar greats. However, it is more than worth your time this weekend.

Jonathan's Score: 7/10

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