Cars 3, much like the main character in it, did some soul-searching. The first Cars, while a fairly predictable film in its storytelling, worked due to its main character’s development, the large and varied cast, the re-imagining of an ordinarily human world as a cars-only world, and its worthwhile moral. The second film went in a direction that didn’t feel organic to the series: an action/spy movie with corporate conspiracies that shifted the focus from Lightning McQueen to the comic relief character Mater, who is clueless about his role for much of the film, akin to The Man Who Knew Too Little. While the action scenes were technically well-directed, it was hard to care about what was happening. That’s fatal considering the first movie was all about McQueen’s development.
This is why Cars 3 was so refreshing: it gets the series back to its roots, which is a hot-shot racer who has to figure out where he fits in the constantly-changing world of auto racing. In this film’s case, the change comes from a modern, sleek, ultra fast car named Jackson Storm. He represents the latest breed in cars, trained on a state-of-the-art simulation machine and with a statistics expert “proving” it’s scientifically impossible for Storm not to win, and McQueen just can’t keep pace. As someone whose whole existence is about racing and the camaraderie with his opponents, Lightning refuses to just give up and let the newcomer steal the spotlight, but pushing himself to the limit only results in a brutal crash.
After months in hiding, Sally, McQueen’s love interest from the first film, encourages him to give it one last try. So he heads to the massive, cutting edge Rust-Eze Racing Center, where he’s trained by Cruz Ramirez, whose excited and spunky exterior masks a deep hurt underneath. It turns out training novice and aging cars wasn’t her true calling; she wanted to be a racecar. Unless you’re one of the lucky ones to have landed your dream job (and kept it), I think a lot of us can relate to being stuck in an occupation that may not have been your first choice, but pays the bills. Through the course of Cruz training McQueen, the tables subtly turn as he begins to teach her some racing moves. The satisfaction he gets from this is basically the main point of the movie: even if you’re retired, it doesn’t mean your life is over, but you’re just transitioning to something that can be equally meaningful.
I think what makes this film so meaningful is that the real life parallels between this film and Pixar itself are unmistakable, so the subtext offers a richer experience. Pixar once had the CG animated film category all to itself, but in the last two decades we’ve seen genuine competition from DreamWorks, Blue Sky, Illumination, Sony Pictures Animation, Warner Bros., and more. Pixar has to work harder to stay on top just like McQueen did. Apart from that rather obvious point, Pixar is a studio well-known and loved for cultivating talent. Someone who’s low on the company totem pole today may be a high-profile director or screenwriter down the road. In fact, this is the case for Cars 3, since its director Brian Fee worked on the first Cars over ten years ago as a storyboard artist. Rather than studio veteran John Lasseter directing a third time, he graciously stepped aside and let an up-and-coming talent try their hand at the characters, possibly realizing he can’t do it forever. It’s hard not to notice the in-universe parallel in Cars 3: McQueen realizes that Cruz, who he’s fallen into mentoring, is the next generation and gives her support and pointers.
The notion of McQueen becoming Cruz’s mentor is also handled well because it’s a mirror the relationship between McQueen and Doc Hudson from the first movie. Doc was an amazing racer himself until a crash put him out of commission. History repeats, except with McQueen now in Doc’s place. Not only is this good storytelling, but it gets the older members of the audience to think about their own lives. You won’t always be young, and your relationships with others change throughout your life. Speaking of Doc, I love how they executed his character here. His voice actor, Paul Newman, died almost a decade ago. Rather than re-cast him for the flashback scenes, the Pixar whizzes took archival, unused recordings of Newman from the sound booth and (with permission from Newman’s family) used them to keep that authentic feel. This sits a little better with me than Rogue One’s slightly creepy usage of deceased Carrie Fisher’s face texture-mapped onto a living actress, but I digress.
Director Howard Hawks once described a good movie as “Three great scenes, no bad ones.” I can easily name Cars 3’s trio: The aforementioned crash sequence (whose inclusion in a teaser trailer apparently traumatized little kids); a raucous and chaotic (but amusing) sequence where McQueen and Cruz participate in a muddy demolition derby featuring a fearsome, pierced school bus named Miss Fritter; and a quieter scene involving McQueen getting to meet the legends of racing in a rural bar. I’m hard-pressed to remember much of Cars 2 after seeing it in theaters, but I recalled many scenes from Cars 3 afterwards, and enjoyed seeing them again, so it clearly did something right.
The first Blu-ray disc offers a smattering of extras. The main attraction is an audio commentary from the crew which, as per typical for Pixar, is informative and has few silence gaps. Also included: “Lou” (6:44), the short that played before the movie in theaters about a lost and found box’s effect on a bully, which I didn’t like nearly as much as their last short “Piper;” “Miss Fritter’s Racing Skoool” (2:47), a commercial for an institution of higher learning and car crashes; “Cruz Ramirez: The Yellow Car That Could” (7:46), a featurette focused on writing the female protagonist in a unique way (and I think they succeeded); and “Ready for the Race” (5:41), which has Disney Channel Bizaardvark star Olivia Rodrigo interviewing driver William Byron and then getting behind the wheel of a racing simulator.
The second Blu-ray disc is where the bulk of the extras appear. In the “Behind the Scenes” tab are five featurettes. My favorite was “Generations: The Story of Cars 3” (11:20), as it reiterated why the film works so well, discussing its themes and metaphors; “Let’s Get Crazy” (7:41), about the making of the derby scene, particularly the new technology used to create all that mud; “Cast to Die (Cast) For” (5:21), a glorified commercial for the absolutely massive model toy line; “Legendary” (11:22), which is only tangentially related to Cars 3 but offers an interesting history lesson about two pioneers in auto racing, a woman and a black man in what was (and, to a very large extent, still is) a whites-only sport; and “World’s Fastest Billboard” (5:30), which showcases the countless background gags and signs that require freeze frame to catch all of.
The “Flythroughs” tab houses three videos of the movie world’s camera hovering around three locations in the film: Thomasville (1:10), Florida International Speedway (0:37), and Rust-Eze Racing Center (0:56). Another trio of videos appear in the next tab, “My First Car”: “A Green Car on the Red Carpet with Kerry Washington” (1:53); “Old Blue” (1:21); and “Still in the Family” (2:16). All are about actors and staff members who tell about their first car, with illustrations and simple animations to visualize them. They’re fun little anecdotes. Five deleted scenes (26:17 total) showcase alternate ways the movie could’ve gone, and while they’re fascinating to see, I’m glad they chose to re-write to make the narrative more focused. Finally, there are five trailers and two promos: Cars d’Oeuvres (4:27), similar to the promotional material seen on other Pixar DVDs where the characters engage in really short, visually-oriented skits; and three car reveals.
Cars 3 defies the conventional wisdom that the third film in a series is the worst, being a big improvement over the second film and arguably even better than the first. The reason it succeeds is it remembers what made the first film work and builds on it with a situation that anyone can relate to, whether you’re a racing legend of not. And with a Blu-ray set full of extras, this release comes easily recommended.