Cars 3 (G) ★★★

Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) faces new challenges in Cars 3
Image credit: Disney•Pixar

The Cars franchise is back on track. KA-CHOW! 

I know exactly when I achieved the pinnacle of parenting. Yes, my son was only three at the time, but I’m confident that I will never top what I did for him that day: I took him to meet Lightning McQueen.

The proof is in this picture taken at Cars Land in Disney’s California Adventure in 2015—if you zoom in, you will see the definition of pure joy on my son’s face. Lightning is REAL!

Image credit: Erika Olson

I had seen Cars before I had kids and loved it, so it wasn’t solely my son’s obsession with the film that endeared me to the inhabitants of Radiator Springs. But now that I have watched the movie countless times and can recite every word by heart, it has earned a truly special place in my heart. It’s yet another Pixar creation that holds up well over multiple viewings and the passage of time.

But we shall not speak of Cars 2 . . . no, we shall not. Except to say that whoever thought it was appropriate to have these beloved characters shooting at each other and talking about killing each other (on top of Mater’s disastrous cultural insensitivity) should never work on a children’s animated film again.

Needless to say I was nervous about Cars 3. Thankfully there was no reason to be. This installment strongly harkens back to the original, even going so far as having the climactic finale revolve around an important lesson Lightning (Owen Wilson) learned from his mentor Doc Hudson (the late Paul Newman) about helping others. (Doc has a fairly significant presence in the film thanks to unused dialogue and outtakes from the original.)

The set-up this time is that Lightning McQueen finds himself blindsided by a rookie racecar—Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer)—and other high-tech “next generation” cars like him. These sleek racing machines train in state-of-the-art facilities and reach speeds over 200 mph, and Lightning just can’t compete.

Cheered on by the entire gang from the original—including goofy Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and serious Sally (Bonnie Hunt)—Lightning decides that he’s not going to let others decides whether or not he retires.

He ends up with a slick benefactor named Sterling (Nathan Fillion, great choice) and a feisty trainer named Cruz (Cristela Alonzo, whose energy you can feel through the screen) and sets out to begin a new chapter that will determine the fate of his racing career.

I feel like with any franchise, it’s hard to top “origin stories,” because when writers are first setting up the worlds their characters live in, everything is new to the audience. I still chuckle at details like the teeny VW Beetles flying around (bugs—get it?) and tire marks instead of jet trails in the sky that exist in the Cars universe. And the “tractor-tipping” scene in the original film, with skittish tractors standing in for cows? Pure brilliance.

Those same tractors are back in Cars 3, and there’s still plenty of racing action and fun to be had by our characters and the audience, but none of it quite captures the original’s “surprise” factor. While I was relieved there was no purposeful violence and thrilled at the moral of this third installment’s story, much of it had a little too familiar vibe that kept me from feeling the same sense of excitement and wonder I had with the first film.

What did come as a surprise—and a pleasant one at that—was how great Alonzo’s character is. I am happy that Disney took what I’m sure was deemed in boardrooms as “a risk” by giving Lightning a female racing trainer… who eventually becomes his protégé. I applaud Cars 3’s director, Brian Fee (who was a storyboard artist on the second film), and writers (Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson and Mike Rich) on returning this franchise to its roots. The only choice of theirs I was not a fan of came at the very end, and it’s something Lightning chooses to do to commemorate a new role he’s taken on. (I waited to post this review until I saw the movie again with my son, and he had the same complaint without me prompting him—but loved the movie otherwise.) But it’s a minor point in an otherwise fun film that has an important message: sometimes the right thing to do is give others a chance to shine.

Image credit: Erika Olson

The Bottom-Line? Fans of the franchise will be relieved that Cars 3 is truly family-friendly and teaches kids a great lesson to boot.


Cast: Owen Wilson (Lightning McQueen), Cristela Alonzo (Cruz Ramirez), Armie Hammer (Jackson Storm), Nathan Fillion (Sterling), Larry the Cable Guy (Mater), Smokey (Chris Cooper), Kerry Washington (Natalie Certain), Bonnie Hunt (Sally Carrera),

Credits: Directed by Brian Fee. Written by Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson and Mike Rich

Studio: Walt Disney Pictures

Run Time: 1 hour 49 minutes

Erika Olson © June 16, 2017