Review: ‘Cars 3’ Is Best In Series, Miles Ahead Of First 2 Films – Forbes
Pixar went back to the drawing board with it’s least compelling franchise and came up with a new model that’s far more compelling, relevant, surprising, and visually stunning than either of its predessors. Cars 3 opens in theaters this weekend and should easily top the box office, while offering a story that will finally prove as engaging for parents as it is for their children. It also has a lot more to offer female viewers, particularly women of color and the Latinx community.
The previous two Cars pictures grossed a combined $1+ billion in worldwide box office, which is itself a superb enough figure, but it’s the merchandising where the real magic resides for the Cars franchise. DVD and Blu-rays sold a mind-boggling $475 million in the USA alone. Digital-HD sales push that figure toward $500 million, and then we can toss in the international sales for both titles and the rental figures worldwide, and we’re talking about probably something in the neighborhood of perhaps $1 billion in revenue. And that revenue is almost pure profit, since the costs are negligible.
Prior to the release of Cars 2, the first film’s total merchandising alone generate $10 billion in sales around the world. That’s in a five year period, mind you. A huge part of this phenomenon is of course the toys — oh, the toy! — which alone provide such a massive revenue stream that it would be worth releasing Cars sequels even if their box office performance were mediocre. Video games, toys, school supplies, clothing, and a plethora of other retail items besides the home entertainment releases are the true driving force behind the success of the Cars franchise.
And I assure you, Cars 3 is going to be another success for the studio, not only in terms of unstoppable merchandising potential and theme park visits (I stopped by Disneyland and checked out Cars Land, which was packed with families), but also box office ahead of the two previous films and critical reviews far more friendly than for the previous sequel.
Cars and Cars 2 opened to $60 and $66 million, respectively. It looks as if Cars 3 will perform in the same general vicinity, on course for about $60+/- million this weekend. Since it’s getting mostly positive reviews, and since I expect word of mouth to spread quickly about how this film far surpasses the first two films in quality of storytelling and depth of themes — including expanding its appeal far more toward young female audiences in particular — it should finish somewhere north of $450 million and could approach $500 million if it legs out enough.
The competition will quickly get fierce, which is why there’s such a wide range for its final possible performance. But regardless of that, Cars 3 will be another hit for Disney-Pixar, and that sweet sweet merchandise revenue will definitely keep on flowing.
Now, let’s get to what makes Cars 3 a very welcome, entertaining surprise. Fair warning, I usually don’t discuss much plot details in my reviews, but for this one I’m going to do so because it’s impossible to really get at what makes this film work without addressing some of the ideas and improvements over past entries in the series. So this is your spoiler warning, although I won’t give away any of the actual outcomes and major events of the film and the first paragraph below will offer some brief non-spoiler praise for you to read.
It’s worth seeing Cars 3 just for the visuals alone (although they’re not the only reason to see it), because it’s gorgeous and has more realistic background details than the CGI you see in most major live-action films. A beach scene will leave you wondering if they just added the car animation onto live footage (they didn’t), for example. The voice actors seem more engaged this time than in either of the previous films in the franchise, perhaps because they have more complicated emotions and themes to work with. And the story beats offer multiple surprise turns that most viewers won’t see coming, and which are delightful and — especially in the climax — could bring a joyful tear to your eye.
On the surface, the concept appears straightforward: Lightning McQueen’s days as the top racer come to an end when new model cars (led by the smug, cruel Jackson Storm, voiced by Armie Hammer) make Lightning (voiced by Owen Wilson) and his buddies obsolete. Unable to match their speed or maneuverability, Lightning is pressured to retire, especially after he fails at the same high-tech training methods used by the newer racers. So Lightning goes on the road to train in secret, hoping a return to basics will help him discover some new way to beat Storm and the other younger generation of racers. In a nutshell, it’s a standard Rocky III adaptation, complete with a beach race and a new coach using a totally different approach to training, plus recurring themes about self-doubt and defeating opponents who seem to have the advantage.
Except that’s all a facade, not just for the sake of misdirection but rather for serious introspection about narratives of this sort in the first place. Because the hero of this story isn’t really Lightning after all, and part of the journey is watching him slowly come to realize this fact.
Cruz Ramirez (voiced by Cristela Alonzo) is a young female trainer at the high-tech facility where Lightning goes after his initial losses to the new generation race cars. Cruz is enthusiastic, insightful, and loves racing. When Lightning decides to go on the road to train, Cruz goes with him and repeatedly demonstrates her own talents while also expressing her private fears and self-doubts. At some point during the film, it dawns on us that we aren’t watching Lightning’s journey back to lost glory — we are watching Cruz’s journey. When Lightning himself suddenly grasps that he’s in the middle of Cruz’s arc, not the other way around, it’s a far more emotionally compelling and surprising moment than I ever expected to find in a Cars movie.
Racing has typically been a very male-dominated sport, and to be frank the first two Cars movies operated squarely within those boundaries, focused on male characters and young male viewers. Cars 3 adds several female characters to the mix, and — while obviously there are no literal “ethnicities” of the cars per se — two of them are voiced by women of color, while a third is gay. These aren’t just interesting behind-the-camera facts, they matter within a story that explicitly addresses Cruz fear and doubt because she “doesn’t look like” the other race cars and is always treated as an outsider.
Seeing Cruz’s own arc play out catches the attention of Natalie Certain (voiced by Kerry Washington), whose character likewise has been limited in her sportscasting role and seems excited at the boundaries-pushing Cruz. Elsewhere, demolition derby cars — including the awesome Miss Fritter (voiced by Lea DeLaria) are stunned when they realize they’ve been racing against Lightning and Cruz, and at the race’s outcome.
And then there’s a scene with a group of older racers, and this is one of the signature moments in Cars 3 when we feel we’re watching something more than just another kid’s movie designed to sell toys. Lightning and Cruz spend time in a bar talking to a group of old-time racers from bygone eras, including Louise Nash (voiced by Margo Martindale) and River Scott (voiced by Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who explain racing was an even more closed and segregated sport before they managed to break barriers and force change. So much history and advancement and foundations of industries, movements, sports, and and professions depended on the achievements and barrier-breaking success of marginalized people, and it is remarkable to see a film like Cars slow down the story to make such points as part of the foundations for a larger expansion of perception and understanding about its world and its characters.
The way the story plays out is intended to catch you off guard, so that you share the disconnect along with the characters, that feeling that something is off but that the truth is lurking around the next corner. You’ll suspect it after the first major hint, and then later again you’ll wonder if Cars 3 is seriously going to be the movie that does what you think it might do, and when the first of several reveals and reversals take place the sense of “I knew it but it’s also still surprising” relief allows all of the other moments to fully resonate together and fall into place.
It’s easy for critics and audiences to feel jaded and cynical about franchises and sequels, especially when a series has a reputation for seeming primarily aimed at selling merchandise to kids. But it would be a big mistake to underestimate what’s really going on under the hood in Cars 3, or the important impact it could have on young viewers, not to mention how simply emotionally rewarding and entertaining the experience is even for adults.
I’ll confess I wasn’t personally a big fan of the first two films, other than admitting they looked fantastic. I don’t begrudge a movie for squarely targeting the children demographic, as I do think too many adult reviewers and cinephiles have a blind spot when it comes to remembering children are people too and deserve films and entertainment that speaks to them and even offers them some pure escapism from time to time. But that said, films that do pander more to children are inherently going to sometimes have less to offer an adult viewer who doesn’t have kids, and the first two Cars films felt rather simple and generally didn’t seem to offer much for the parents in the room. Since I’m not even a parent, I had even less interest in them as a result.
But Cars 3 is different. Yes, it’s still for kids, but the jokes resonate because they’re pretty funny, and the lessons that will seem new and revelatory to children will stir memories and deeper understanding in the adult viewers. Because this Cars movie seems to care about something more important and more real. It seems keenly conscious of its own franchise and of a larger context in which it exists, and it seems to decide to try to help make a difference.
It sends a message about accepting people who are different, about respecting those who fought for change and progress that makes our own lives better today, and about the need to make room for those who’ve been shut out or made to feel unwelcome in society. And in particular, there is a loud and clear message to young women of all shapes and sizes and colors and identities that they belong, that they are valuable, that they are winners. There is even a message to the boys in the audience that it is a great thing to recognize and honor the power and value of women.
Cars 3 is the best of the series, a sumptuous visual treat with great humor, a big heart, and surprisingly strong messages about inclusion and self-worth. It makes the whole Cars franchise worthwhile, just to get us to this point.