June 2017 marks the release of two similar-seeming franchise entries. Both are computer-animated, both have inspired spin-off films, both have an unavoidable presence in major theme parks worldwide, and both have created huge merchandising opportunities. Cars 3 opened on June 16, and this weekend marks the release of Despicable Me 3. Whatever else is true of these films, they’re impossible to get away from at your local toy store, theme parks like Disneyland and Universal Studios, and even the grocery store as characters like Lightning McQueen and the Minions are slapped on the front of snacks, frozen dinners, and paper towels.
The Cars films have long been the rare stumble for Pixar when it comes to critics. Outside of The Good Dinosaur, only the Cars trilogy has been seen as a step in the wrong direction for a studio that otherwise makes films beloved by audiences and critics alike. Even Cars 3, which was better reviewed than Cars 2, isn’t treated at the same level as the Toy Story films, or recent winners like Inside Out. The Despicable Me movies haven’t been universally praised, but unlike Pixar, Illumination Entertainment has made a name for itself less because of critical hosannas, and more because of consistently big box-office returns.
Though Cars 3 isn’t one of Pixar’s better films (and it is arguably the second-best film in the Cars franchise), it does manage to feel more introspective than its predecessors do. Lightning McQueen, as much as an anthropomorphized car can, grapples with his own mortality as the film begins; he’s no longer the fastest car on the race track, and the further he pushes himself, the more he injures himself to the point of nearly being forced to drive away from the sport he loves so much. Through forging a relationship with his new trainer, Cruz Ramirez, Lightning realizes that the best way to maintain his legacy is to hand off his car number and expertise to younger racers, such as the aspiring Cruz herself. Though Lightning’s journey isn’t as rewarding as his epiphany, Cars 3 gets credit for trying to be more than just a movie about talking cars.
Despicable Me 3, on the other hand, feels very much like more of the same. This time around, Steve Carell’s character Gru confronts the surprising fact that he has a twin brother, Dru, who’s desperate to learn the craft of supervillainy. Whatever emotion is meant to be wrung from Gru’s situation — he’s fired in the first act from the Anti-Villain League for failing to capture an 80s-themed bad guy voiced by South Park’s Trey Parker — is surface-level. As has been the case since the first film, Illumination’s filmmakers are more interested in outrageous gags than they are in true poignancy. If, as happens a few times in Despicable Me 3, people can be driven to say “Awwww” like a studio audience witnessing a sitcom’s maudlin moment of emotion, that’s enough.
Both of these films are marginal improvements on what came before, it should be noted. Cars 2 is widely (and correctly) thought of as the weakest film not just in the franchise, but as Pixar’s weakest film overall; while the 60s-era throwback to spy movies is a fun idea, placing the big-hearted, goofy, but obnoxious sidekick Mater as the lead was a mistake. (Cars 3, to its credit, ignores the events of Cars 2, and Mater has a much smaller role than in either of the other films.) Despicable Me 2 was as much, if not more so, about Gru’s chattery yellow Minions as it was about Gru entering a tentative romance with a fellow Anti-Villain League agent. In between that film and Despicable Me 3, the Minions got their own, very popular, and very bad spin-off. So while the Minions do get a subplot in DM3, in which they leave Gru for not returning to his originally villainous ways and wind up in prison, the story does feel like it’s about the true main character of the series.
What makes Cars 3 work better (even if it’s not a generally good film) is that the characters feel a bit more lived-in than Gru, his wife Lucy, his adopted daughters, and Parker’s Balthazar Bratt, the latter of whom exists primarily so Despicable Me 3 can make a ton of references to the 1980s and throw in a dance fight or two. (Guardians of the Galaxy, of all things, utilizes the dance-fighting gag to much better effect in its climax.) Despicable Me 3, with its catchphrases, go-to one-liners, overabundance of pop-culture jokes, and predictable subplots, feels less like a feature film and more like an extended episode of a worn sitcom. Cars 3, for its faults (which do include catchphrases and a few pop-culture gags of its own), feels like a journey of the soul for its main character, even if that character isn’t the most interesting the film has to offer. At the box office, it’s safe to say that Illumination’s Despicable Me 3 is going to be the big victor. But qualitatively, even if neither film’s a winner, Pixar’s Cars 3 is a step above.