Living now, and presumably for as long as my temporal lobe keeps in tact, beneath the Hummer-sized weight of my memories of Cars 3, I shoulder a lot of questions. I wonder about the proclivity of the Cars universe’s sentient automobiles to cough and sneeze as if they were made of organic matter; I lie awake thinking about their nebulous familiarity with the ostensibly defunct human world, whose imperial species seems to have been long outlived by contributions like the Sistine Chapel and the music of Bruce Springsteen; I’ve no doubt lost years of my life trying to understand why the only extant beings in this canon not confined to vehicular form are, evidently, flies and crabs. But dominating, and in fact encompassing, this endless list of quandaries is a simple but booming “Why?”
If you’re a certain kind of Pixar purist, you may have approached the notion of a third Cars movie with a similar syllable. Sure enough, there are some who may never wholly embrace a Cars movie, recalling the trilogy’s inceptive feature as the first splotch on Pixar’s then nearly spotless veneer, and its 2011 follow-up as the beginning of what most denote as the studio’s lesser streak.
Of course, this variant of the question can be answered somewhat concisely, not to mention cynically. No favorite of the critics, awards organizations, nor even the ticket buyers (don’t get me wrong—the Cars movies do fine, though not nearly as well as most Pixar pictures), the Cars franchise proves formidably valuable to Pixar and Disney foremost as means to peddle merchandise. But this doesn’t quite satisfy the “Why?” that’s revved within me since my recent viewing of Cars 3.
The question first struck me in the thick of an early scene, when I met with perhaps the most quietly vexing of Cars 3’s many bizarre choices. A curiosity set in as I watched Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson, playing a car), newly revamped following a harrowing accident, talk shop and trade pleasantries with his ostentatious new sponsor Mr. Sterling (Nathan Fillion, also playing a car). This bemusement slowly grew as the dry-as-rust conversation continued to evade anything, in my estimation, remotely resembling the interests of the film’s would-be target demographic of prospective toy buyers.
The sequence culminated in full-fledged stupefaction when Sterling, pulling out all the stops to indulge the future face of his company, introduced a trio of jars filled with dirt meant to represent the career of Lightning’s deceased friend and mentor, Doc Hudson (a car played in the first Cars movie by Paul Newman). At this more than any other point, as our hot rod hero beamed dreamily at this threesome of glass containers topped off with disparately colored soil, I found myself struggling to identify who exactly Cars 3 was supposed to be for.
That “Who?” blared louder still as we worked further into Lightning’s comeback story, which eschewed the standard back-in-the-saddle angle, a staple of sports flicks aimed at all ages, in favor of something decidedly more mature. Combating not only the setback of his recent accident but also the threat of a younger and sleeker new rival called Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer, as a car), Lightning is forced for the first time to contend with is amounting years, and even his own mortality. Oh, yeah, these cars can die.
Plotted along the course of Lightning’s story are occasional visually oriented set pieces, i.e. an ill-fated attempt at a confusing race simulator, and a no-holds-barred mêlée with a legion of backwoods brawlers. (Cars, though. These are cars I’m talking about.) But far outnumbering such endeavors are scenes devoted to slow, somber, and contemplative dialogue about Lightning’s fading youth and loosening grip on his own fate. Stunningly enough, the film gets damn near existential.
And while Pixar is hardly averse to treating its audience surrogates to the pangs of growing up— Inside Out faced Riley with the inscrutable treachery of adolescent emotionality, and Toy Story 3 sent Andy to college just as its series’ earliest audiences might have been experiencing the like—Lightning’s isn’t a reflection of the new worlds that young viewers might themselves be taking on. His is a story of a man who fears his life may well be behind him.
Puzzling though this route may be, it’s certainly not without intrigue. Lightning’s diatribes about oncoming oblivion are, at best, earnestly contemplative and emotionally dense, if at times a little dull. In fact, the film’s more intriguing (and bewildering) points occur when it shoos Lightning from the spotlight. Lightning trades in the company of his Radiator Springs family for that of Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo—another car), a devoted personal trainer with a set of dreams all her own.
Through Cruz, we learn about a less forgiving side of the cars world than we ever saw via Lightning. Her arc prompts tangents that divulge insight into the racing industry’s history of segregation, both sex- and race-based, though how either construct manifests in car society is murky at best; you could call this a comment on the arbitrariness of prejudice in the human world. You could call it whatever you want, really.
But even when the film shifts gears into Cruz’s lane, it’s really only doing so to gain another vantage point on Lightning’s story. While it certainly makes sense to keep the emotional focus on the trilogy’s standing hero, the bevvy of McQueen-centric plot turns and motivations only serves to undercut whatever message Cars 3 seems to be aiming to mine out of its B story about automotive bigotry and representation. And in the end, the very same choices serve to undercut whatever lesson Lightning himself has been gearing up toward as well. As such, yet another question: “What exactly is this movie trying to say?”
These “Who?”s, “What?”s, and all-encompassing “Whys?” may not scrap the movie of its more enjoyable features—its visuals are nothing to sneeze at, and its more active set pieces (like the aforementioned junkyard free-for-all and the third act race) carry energy—but they do linger throughout and beyond the runtime of Cars 3. I can’t quite put my finger on how the creative forces at play imagined their family feature’s midlife crisis-oriented story would speak to young audiences; I’m dying to know which factions of the Cars mythos were unraveled in detail and which simply chucked into the script haphazardly; I’ve got dozens more “When?”s, “Where?”s, “What?”s, “Who?”s, and “Why?”s idling now beneath my hood.
As you might expect, Cars 3 may not be willing or able to answer any of these questions. But getting me to ask them is far more than any Pixar purist would expect it to do.
Rating: 2.5 burritos
Michael Arbeiter, who does not know how to drive a car, is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist.com. Find Michael on Twitter @micarbeiter.