“Whoosh!” That’s not the sound of Lightning McQueen speeding across the finish line. Instead, it’s the sound of a major part of the plot of “Cars 3” going right over the heads of part of the film’s target audience.
When Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) first roared onto the track for Disney/ Pixar’s 2006 “Cars,” audiences met a talented but egotistical young race car. As fans of that first film know, McQueen made an unexpected pit stop in the town of Radiator Springs where residents demonstrated the value of friendship and humility.
Speed forward to 2017 (avoiding 2011’s not-so-satisfying “Cars 2”) and McQueen is back, where he should be, as the central figure in “Cars 3.” McQueen is enjoying victories on the racing circuit until he’s unexpectedly beaten by Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), the leader of “next-gen” race cars. Built and trained for wins using the latest technology, Storm’s victories take most of McQueen’s contemporaries out of competition.
When McQueen’s sponsor, Rust-eze, is purchased by a new owner, McQueen is assigned a trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). With help from new and old friends, McQueen will have to discover whether he fits in the techno-centric racing world.
The plot of “Cars 3” excels in its depiction of auto racing and in character relationships. The audience will enjoy seeing Radiator Springs and all of its familiar residents plus meeting new characters such as Cruz and Doc Hudson’s mentor, Smokey (Chris Cooper).
However, kids will probably become distracted during the examination of McQueen’s mid-career crisis. McQueen’s desire to be in control of his destiny in a sport that emphasizes youth will definitely resonate with adults. But, screenwriters Kiel Murray, Bob Peterson, and Mike Rich didn’t quite ramp up the rivalry between McQueen and Storm enough to get kids to see Storm as a villain. So, the subsequent verbal focus on McQueen’s mid-life issues may leave children confused or bored. Fortunately, the final act of the script regains the momentum needed to get everyone in the audience pulling for their hero.
The inclusion of four of Doc Hudson’s friends- Smokey, Louise “Barnstomer” Nash (Margo Martindale), River Scott (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), and Junior “Midnight” Moon (Junior Johnson)- adds a nice touch of senior power to the plot. And it allows for reference to challenges faced by women and minorities in the auto racing industry. All four characters are based on actual NASCAR legends- Louise is inspired by Louise Smith, River is based on Wendell Scott, Junior by Junior Johnson, and Smokey by Henry “Smokey” Yunick.
In “Cars 3,” director Brian Fee has creatively included voice work by two talents from the original film who have passed away in the interim. Doc Hudson is still voiced by the late Paul Newman. The recordings of the actor/ race car driver came partly from his work in “Cars” and partly from conversations between Newman and director John Lasseter. Brothers Tom and Ray Magliozzi, hosts of NPR’s “Car Talk,” voice Rust-eze’s Rusty and Dusty. Tom passed away unexpectedly in 2014 but his vocals as Rusty will bring back memories for fans of the siblings’ radio show.
As they did in “The Good Dinosaur,” the animators at Pixar have created beautiful, almost photo-quality, scenery. As McQueen and company take a road trip across America, viewers are reminded of the natural value and inspiring vistas of our nation’s deserts, mountains, and beaches. Complementing the visuals is the film’s soundtrack, which includes Andra Day’s cover of Springsteen’s “Glory Days,” ZZ Ward’s “Ride,” and James Bay’s take on Tom Petty’s “King’s Highway.”
“Cars 3” is preceded by the animated short “LOU.” Directed and written by Dave Mullins, the piece contains no dialogue yet clearly tells of a playground bully’s encounter with the mysterious “LOU.” With the short, Pixar demonstrates words aren’t necessary to communicate humor, tension, and pathos. In “LOU,” the animators let their art do the talking for them.