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A retrospective on a pretty decent animated trilogy
**I first wrote this review on 11/15/17 but it never got published. If something seems off or outdated, this is the reason why.**
This film universe is a little weird. I mean really, it is. We all have questions that we never really get many answers to regarding how much we can personify these cars as humans. Apparently they do consume and excrete, they require fuel, and that there aren't humans (I guess they are the humans); I still don't understand the idea of adolescent cars, what their limits are for speed when they're racing (sometimes it seems like Lightning just 'wills' himself to a higher position), how they build stuff, where they come from, why they need seats/doors or if they're even aware of what they are, etc. Perhaps it's best to not overthink it, but this is the first franchise for Pixar where the seemingly off-putting set of protagonists (toys, bugs, monsters, rats, robots) do not really serve a larger purpose for their message, and instead are kind of just... there. You can argue the Route 66 elements are important as well, so I'll give them that as much as anybody else will.
Many audience members are somewhat turned off by the models though, as it's just too weird to think about. I'll say one thing: everybody and their mother suggested Pixar should have used the headlights as the eyes, and their response in Cars 2 was about as punctually adequate as can be. I didn't see a big visual leap in the models from Cars 1 - 3 after a decade of work, but there were some nice little touches that a Blu-ray can help pick up which I have enjoyed the progression in. I did expect a bit more of a graphical upgrade on that front, since the surrounding environments all looked so beautiful and that crash teaser trailer even looked fantastic. But I digress, these animated films are definitely about more than just their animation.
Although the majority do not speak very highly of the Cars franchise in comparison to Pixar's other stellar efforts, people still look back at the first film in higher regard given the simpler message of taking the road less traveled and appreciating the journey every bit as much as the destination, including the people you meet along the way. It was humble and innocent. Though I think people give Pixar too much credit for just that. Other films have done this exact same thing; in fact, there is a film I saw called Finding Normal which I likened to Cars by all of the character connections, though it was made after it so I guess I have to give Cars some credit here. Cars 2 messed this up tremendously for the majority of moviegoers, throwing a Mater spin-off in our faces as we had pretty much a spy flick, with new characters for Pixar to merchandise off-and they would probably admit as much as well. As unfortunate as this was, I was thoroughly entertained by Cars 2. It is not good, but it's also not unenjoyable either. Definitely not up to Pixar's standards, though it still had its own message: accept your friends for who they are and not what you want them to be (I think that's what it was?).
So now Cars 3 comes along, yet here we are still all clamoring for an Incredibles sequel, which thankfully is coming. However, I think John Lasseter wanted to right the ship a little bit. For one, he downright ignored Cars 2 completely. If you didn't see it, you didn't miss a thing. Not a single new character from that film appeared here, no references to what happened as they went world-traveling, nothing. Skipping out on it becomes no loss whatsoever. Secondly, he gave Mater and non-car operated machinery (boats, planes, cranes... you name it) their chance in the limelight in the second film, and stuck to cars only this time around, tossing Mater to the side thank goodness. Lastly, they focused again on Lightning McQueen and the evolution of his character through the time that has gone by, back to true-and-blue circuit racing roots. It was appreciable that they did this, and for the most part I will say it worked very well.
Cars 3 is a sign of the times, both old and new. With the way sports are changing today, this was the perfect time for it to release. The new kinds of technology put in place in this film-from the cars to the training regimens to the statistical analysis-were all thrown in showing what modernists can offer to the traditionalists, possibly even aging them out to retirement. However, for Cars 3 to instill its motto in having some heart to compete, its moral stances on racing didn't get too lost in the dust. It stuck to several roots that Cars established (training in dirt roads, drifting, being one with the road) and clearly paid homage to Rocky III and Rocky Balboa (comeback story of a washed-up veteran, racing on the beach, training montage, calling a car Cal Weathers... seriously?). Not to mention there were a lot of callbacks to how Doc Hudson mentored Lightning, which paid off by the time the credits rolled. I like how both sets of times clashed on this one (and not in a James Bond way like Cars 2), because I think that was the next step up for this franchise to evolve properly. In essence, this was a faithful sequel to the first film. You can argue all you want as to whether it should exist, but since it does I think most can admit they did it properly.
Literally speaking of which, at about the 75-minute mark of this film I literally said out loud, "This film is doing no wrong." I liked what I was watching. There were a couple of strong heartfelt moments, not as strong as Cars but not too bad either. There were some scenes that I could have done without, but at the same time if I ever do buy a 3D version of this they are also the scenes I would want to replay most in that setting. Then with maybe fifteen minutes left to go in the film, they take a left turn. I'll admit it was a bit of a surprise and even somewhat more of a letdown (let me just say that the sign of the times really showed here, and if you saw my little mini-rant in the Family Guy thread then you may be able to guess what I'm talking about) because Pixar just had to be different, or rather just had to be modern. I won't fault them for feeling they needed to do what they did, but let me just say that I have the easiest rewrite in the books that gets us to the exact same place when the credits roll without needing to detour a little bit. I have a slight feeling that if they didn't pull this stunt, the several folks (including critics visible on Rotten Tomatoes) who decided to undersell this film would have evened it out in the end. I don't hate what they did, but they honestly could have done without it. Nevertheless, I'll go with as I said in my previous paragraph: since they did it, I can go ahead and say they also executed it pretty well in the process, because they really could have butchered it.
Call me less a fan of the first Cars film than other people seem to somewhat appreciate it for, a completist for being mildly amused at the second film enough to own it on Blu-ray, and a happy-go-lucky fan of this third Cars film that capped off the trilogy in such a way that, although with a little bump at the very end, was indeed a redeeming chapter of this franchise for what it started with. Pixar easily could have allocated its resources in other films, and it looks like we're getting the payoff now with an Incredibles 2, a Toy Story 4, and four originals (including Coco, where if you blink you might miss the small Easter egg Cars 3 had for it). Sue them for wanting to eek out a little profit here and there, but in a world where the Cars films exist I think it's better off with 3 in the books than if the trilogy-closer did not come to light, even if it means we have to wait a little longer for Pixar to sprinkle out hopefully some more magic in the coming years.
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