On teaching an old car new tricks, automotive puns, and the franchise-happy present - and future - of Pixar
Cars 3 Walt Disney Studios
Director: Brian Fee
Screenplay: Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson and Mike Rich
Starring: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Nathan Fillion, Armie Hammer, Chris Cooper, Kerry Washington, Larry the Cable Guy and Bonnie Hunt
Rated PG / 1 hour, 42 minutes / 2.35:1
June 16, 2017
(out of four)
NOTE: Below is our official review of Cars 3. To the right is a much more important piece of commentary, as we brought in our most reliable wordplay scholar and pundit to discuss the Cars franchise's pervasive and terrifying history of puns. Please enjoy our guest column from Joseph Beatty.
On Cars and puns by Joe Beatty
Humor. Whether it's a chortle, a guffaw or just a gosh-darned case of the gigglies, we all love it because it's fun to laugh!
So when a funny bone fetishist like yours truly found out about a third Cars movie, you can bet your bottom dollar I made "vroom" for it in my schedule! (No pun intended.)
Cars, the flagship franchise from Disney's Pixcar (pun intended!), is a hilarious series of films that will win over even the biggest hotrod-hating race-ist. (No pun intended.) What's the funniest part of this series? You "gassed" it! (Pun intended!) Puns!!!
The genius of Cars, Cars 2 and Cars 3 is the process of crafting these gems has become so reliable it's basically auto-matic! (Pun intended!) The way it works is the writers create car-acters (no pun intended) with fun vehicle-oriented names, such as Jeff Gorvette or Jay Limo, and then go out and find famous celebrities with similar names to voice them, thus making a clever pun that will double - nay, triple - you over with laughter! You see, Jeff Gorvette is voiced by a NASCAR driver named Jeff Gordon. A perfect, brilliant choice to voice a character with such a similar ride-entity. (Pun intended!) The same can be said for the inspired move engine-eered (no pun intended) to pair Jay Limo with America's favorite comedian, Jay Leno. Jay Walking? Try Jay Driving!
I wish I could list the well-over 700 instances of these little bits of gregarious bliss, but I'm running out of "parking" space! (No pun intended.) You'll just have to go see (and hear) Bob Costas voicing Bob Cutlass and Darrell Waltrip lending his smooth baritone to Darrell Cartrip. And don't get me "startered" (pun intended!) on how much I wet my pants upon witnessing Brent Mustangburger getting the Brent Musburger treatment!
Hey pal, head to the theater and watch Cars 3. If you don't find yourself doubled - nay tripled - over with laughter, it's your own danged "ass-"fault! (Pun intended!)
For years we've been assured that this is not standard operating procedure for Pixar. That the increasing preponderance of sequels within the studio's canon was mere happenstance, and definitely not an indication of any kind of official creative direction. The Pixar braintrust has insisted that its focus is still on original stories. And yet here we are, in the aftermath of the third installment of a franchise no one seems to particularly care about.
And it's not an outlier, either. We are currently midway through a stretch in which four out of five Pixar movies are franchise-based. Last summer it was Finding Dory and now we have the utterly drab Cars 3. Next year will bring The Incredibles 2, and the year after that an inexplicable (and yet all too obvious) fourth Toy Story entry. November's Coco is the lone original story sandwiched between the others. The troubled, director-swapping productions and less-than-stellar results of original films Brave and The Good Dinosaur may make proven franchises seem like a safer bet, but then again both Cars sequels have been lousy - and seem to have been met with increasing disinterest. In any case, Pete Docter's Inside Out - another original - remains the studio's only unequivocal triumph since 2010's Toy Story 3. For what it's worth.
The biggest surprise about Cars 3 is how nondescript and ineffectual it is; even in Pixar's failures, the movies never feel like bland assembly-line products, so consider this a first. At least Cars 2, as bad as it was, was trying something new with its spy-movie aesthetics. The international-espionage angle may not have worked - and the film may have made the mistake of putting Larry the Cable Guy's insufferable garbage stereotype front and center - but it was at least sort of memorable in its failure, and had a breezy, freewheeling spirit we could glide along with in its best moments. Cars 3 is a sort-of attempt to go back to its "Lightning McQueen finding himself in the desert" roots, a partial reiteration of the original film and a deliberate companion piece to it. It's Cars, but older and wiser, with Lightning now the veteran instead of the hotshot rookie.
The result is a thoroughly boring and conventional sports movie. Imagine an animated Talladega Nights, but without the betrayal or the comedy, and you'll have a pretty good idea. Lightning (Owen Wilson, the comedic stylings of his voice completely wasted and ignored once again) is the veteran superstar of the Piston Cup circuit. His rivalries with other cars are always on friendly terms. He is famous, successful, and content. But all of a sudden, a whole new generation of cars arrives on the scene, and before he knows it, winning races doesn't come quite so easy anymore. The new cars are younger and far more technologically advanced, and in no time it becomes clear that they're not just the future of the sport but the present. The veterans simply can't keep up. The primary embodiment of the next gen is Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), whose passive-aggressive public tributes to Lightning's legacy are laced with contempt and youthful swagger. (Hammer has often been miscast since his The Social Network breakout, and it seems that trend continues even in animated work. He sounds every bit the square-jawed confident alpha the film is going for, but doesn't have that extra vocal ingredient to make him a truly noxious villain. He's just a generic star athlete, both character and performance instantly forgettable.)
After the mournful ode to a departed Americana that was the heart of the original Cars, this third entry finds the franchise fully - well, almost fully - embracing the modern world. Which in this case means a generation of race cars built on advanced metrics, hidden variables, new-age nutrition and training regimens, technological enhancements and basically an entire new philosophy for how to build and train cars to win cups. It is the animated stock-car equivalent of Moneyball, only Cars 3 still has one wheel stuck in a more idealized past; it acknowledges the advantages of the Moneyball-like advanced methods, while still trying to cling to the insipid, romanticized Trouble with the Curve-like magical thinking that exalts mythical human intangibles over all else. I suppose this is what happens when we give faces and personalities to pieces of machinery. Now they think they're just like us. (Then again ... they actually might be?) In any case, it's nice to see the Cars universe is, by and large, embracing its inherent technological essence.
Lightning half-heartedly tries to keep up with the times. He claims he'll do anything to get back on top again - anything to beat Jackson Storm, anything to prove he's not done yet. But part of that competitive spirit means he has a certain stubborn attachment to the way he's always done things, despite his claims to the contrary. His sponsorship rights have been sold to a new team owner better equipped for modern racing - Sterling (Nathan Fillion), who sets Lightning up at his state-of-the-art training center with his best trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), with promises of getting him up to speed (I'm sorry) and back in the championship chase. Sterling also has a backup plan - to usher Lightning into the next stage of his career as a corporate mascot and international brand. From racing star to mudflap salesman.
It's probably an honest assumption, on the writers' part, to have Lightning be too stuck in his ways to genuinely accept the methods he's being pushed to adopt. He does want to get his wheels on the cutting-edge race simulator that is the centerpiece of Sterling's training center, but he doesn't want to do all the legwork and preparation to get ready for it. He doesn't take the breathing exercises and the training seriously - he's pretty sure he can do without. It's probably typical of successful athletes to be too set in their ways to radically shift gears (I'm sorry) so late in their careers. But in this case his refusal to do so short-circuits large chunks of the film's narrative, winding it back around to territory that feels all too redundant. He insists on his old-fashioned training on the beach, and on old dirt tracks, and he even tracks down his mentor's mentor, the reclusive Smokey (Chris Cooper), who regales Lightning with tales of Doc Hudson's life and career, and his pride in Lightning's accomplishments.
The most important thread that emerges involves Cruz, who has secretly always dreamed of being a racer - not a trainer. Sterling doesn't take these ambitions seriously, of course - and initially, neither does Lightning, who's too caught up in his own quest for redemption to much notice anyone else. But this subplot is so transparently obvious, and its endgame so predictable, that it makes one wonder why Cruz wasn't the main character all along, with Lightning as the subplot. Her arc would work much better if she were actually given time to develop, rather than being his pesky unwanted sidekick who telegraphs her own destiny with one big inspirational speech halfway through the movie. In fairness, the film is largely about adjusting to the realities of getting older, and coming to terms with your limitations, and passing the torch. The interweaving of these two characters' stories makes perfect sense, and to an extent even works. But it's so weighted toward the stubborn character who refuses to change - at the expense of the fresh face with a more interesting angle - that the whole film comes across as redundant and dramatically inert.
I will say one thing for Cars 3 - it smartly sidelines the Mater character, which is unequivocally addition by subtraction. But it doesn't add enough in his place to make any of this worthwhile. This is not just a misfire for Pixar but a downright warning sign. In terms of its franchising, it ultimately doesn't matter if the quality (which held up across two Toy Story sequels) remains consistent. But perhaps a movie like this is evidence enough that wells can easily run dry, and a reminder that so much of Pixar's success and appeal was once based on its freshness and its surprises and its new, even strange ideas. But judging by its recent track record, I expect to see an official announcement for Cars 4 any day now.