The Cars franchise is like the “goofy uncle” that nobody chooses to talk about at family reunions. We acknowledge it at most because we have to and then move onto other chipper subjects. I didn’t think it could get worse for Pixar than Cars 2. Then I watched Cars 3.
Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is starting to lose his championship luster when a new rival, Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), speeds onto the circuit. Humbled and wondering whether his time is up, Lightning trains to be faster than ever and regain his title. He goes through a series of training struggles with Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a spunky racing coach. Lightning misses Doc Hudson (Paul Newman, posthumously reappearing) and seeks out Doc’s old trainer, Smokey (Chris Cooper). Together, they plan to win back Lightning’s title and prove he still has what it takes.
I was ready for this movie to be over after its first ten minutes, and that’s chiefly because it repeats just about all the paces of the original Cars. Once again Lightning McQueen is bested by a new rival and has to re-learn the basics of racing, center himself as much as a car can, and open himself up to the help of others. Except the villain isn’t really a villain, as Jackson Storm is just a newer model. He’s self-centered and cocky, sure, but so was Lightning McQueen. He barely registers as a character and more as a symbol of newer, faster, more contemporary racers. If there is an antagonist in the movie it might actually be aging, which raises more questions about this Cars universe that I’ll unpack later. The plot formula will remind you of another franchise’s third entry, Rocky III. The hero is bested by a newer champ, seeks out a new trainer because their old mentor died, and there’s even a beach training montage. Then the movie goes from Rocky III to Creed in its final act, and I’m thinking why not remake Rocky IV instead? There’s already a robot butler in that one (it practically writes itself). Suffice to say, the generic formula of going back to basics and believing in one’s self, this time with fewer side characters, is even less interesting 11 years after the first film revved its limited story engine.
I was flabbergasted at just how lazy the storytelling was (there aren’t even that many car puns). It feels too much like a rehash without any memorable set pieces. There’s a segment at a demolition derby that has potential but it never really hits its stride and just relies on the initial particulars. The relationship between Lightning and the other cars is also rather weak. His new mentor Smokey is simply a surrogate Doc. The bulk of the film after the first act is the relationship between Lightning and Cruz Ramirez. It would have been stronger if there were more to her fledgling character. She’s consumed by self-doubt and gave up on her dream of being a racer, which should tip off every audience member where her arc is destined. She’s assertive, optimistic, and highly energetic, but her defining character obstacle is her self-doubt, which limits her. All she needs to do is gain confidence, which is a pretty straightforward solution in a sports film replete with training montages. I don’t know if she was told she wasn’t good enough because she wasn’t “made” to be a racer, or if it’s because she’s a girl, so her perhaps her ascension can be seen as an improbably empowering moment for lady cars everywhere.
The most fascinating aspect of the Cars universe has never been the characters or the stories but the world itself. In a land of sentient motor vehicles, how are they born? We see them age but where do the little cars come from? How do they make anything considering they have tires instead of opposable thumbs? Why do the cars have teeth? What is the point of designating gender? Did any adult car tell Ramirez that she was a girl car and girl cars aren’t supposed to do boy car things like racing? How old is Doc’s mentor considering Doc died of old age? Where do the dead cars go? Is there a junkyard burial ground? Do they get recycled into new cars? Speaking of mortality, this entire world has to be some post-apocalyptic hellscape, right? There’s got to be like a Forbidden Zone, and just along the other side of a steep ridge is mountain after mountain of human skulls. The self-driving cars became sentient, following the SkyNet model, and rose up against mankind. In the ensuring thousands of years after, the sentient cars have adopted our ways even though they clearly don’t match up to their circumstances. They have forgotten the world of humans but are still trying to remake our world as theirs. Do these cars do anything other than watch races? Is this pastime the hierarchy’s form of bread and circuses? What kind of day-to-day existence do they have? Considering every living being is a motor vehicle that runs on fossil fuels, are the sentient cars aware of climate change and the greenhouse effect? Are they hastening the planet’s demise? What if inside every car were the mummified remains of a human inhabitant? What if during Lightning’s big accident a human skeleton pops out of the windshield? That might lead to an existential crisis in the Cars world that would make them rethink their place in history.
Somebody out there has to like these movies. I don’t know whom Cars 3 is intended for. It doesn’t present enough excitement or humor for children, and it doesn’t present enough substance and characterization for adults. It retreads familiar ground with lesser characters for lesser rewards. I knew every step of where this journey was headed, and without effective humor, characters, and surprises, I was tilting my head against my chair and just waiting for this mess to end. The reason there are three Cars movies is merely the profits Disney reaps from the toy sales and merchandizing (they estimate making a billion dollars in toy sales alone per Cars movie). There’s no other reason to supply the world three entries in the Cars universe before even getting a second Incredibles. The time with these anemic characters is not worth the 100 minutes on screen. I never thought I would reappraise Cars 2 but at least that movie had some exciting and colorful racing sequences and tried telling a different, albeit not successful story. Even a badly executed spy caper starring Larry the Cable Guy had something to it. In contrast, Cars 3 just goes in circles and expects you to be grateful for the same trip.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Victims of their own meteorically raised expectations, there’s still never been such a thing as a “bad Pixar” movie, and yet that doesn’t stop a growing lower tier from emerging, mostly the non-Toy Story sequels. I was wary about their latest, Finding Dory, mostly because I wasn’t completely enamored with its predecessor and also because it felt like writer/director Andrew Stanton was resorting to safe territory after helming the high profile flop, John Carter. It’s an amusing, cute, and effortlessly beautiful movie to watch but the threadbare plot reminds me of those direct-to-DVD sequels that were born from many a Disney animated classic from the 1990s. This is simply a story that didn’t need telling, much like Monster’s University, Cars 2, and The Good Dinosaur. This narratively fishy fish tale is firmly in that lesser league of Pixar cinematic adventures. I laughed here and there and there are some emotionally resonant moments as Dory looks for her missing parents, but so much of the plot feels transparently utilitarian, moving pieces around, and without the imagination and wonder the original provided. Hank the octopus feels less like a fully defined character and more a merchandizing opportunity. The majority of the plot takes place at a marine park, which limits the discoveries. Where are the narrative payoffs and economical storytelling of Stanton’s masterpiece, WALL-E? There’s an emotional lesson during the third act that would have hit harder had the filmmakers had the courage to see it through. I was picking up a heavy parallel with Dory and raising children with special needs. I would imagine much like the brilliant Inside Out that parents might get more out of the film’s emotional relationships than children. Finding Dory is fun and difficult to dislike, what with its loveably optimistic lead character; however, it does too little thematically to separate itself from a sea of imitators.
Nate’s Grade: B
It feels immeasurably satisfying to finally have the Pixar we all fell in love with back and running. There’s been a sharp decline in the company’s quality since 2010’s Toy Story 3. Did we really need a sequel to Cars and a prequel to Monster’s Inc.? It started to look like Pixar was steering away from the kind of bold and brilliant storytelling that had earned its audience trust. With Inside Out, Pixar tackles the intricacies not of the secret world of toys, bugs, monsters, or sea life, but of the human brain itself and our embattled emotions, finding new ways to wow us once again and remind us just how magical the right combination of story and storyteller can be. Inside Out is a luminescent piece of filmmaking, brimming with intelligence, imagination, and it is powerfully moving while also being deeply relatable and entertaining. In looking inward, Pixar has found the path out of their recent rut, and Inside Out is a shining example of their ingenuity.
Inside 11-year-old Riley is a complex world. Five primary emotions help oversee her day-to-day functions; they’re the caretakers of Riley. Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler) is the effervescent leader of the bunch, along with Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black). These five are entrusted with Riley’s well being and her memories. Riley’s core memories, the moments that make up who she is, help to form personality islands: honesty, hockey, goofball, and family. Riley and her family have recently moved from Minnesota to San Francisco, and Riley’s having a hard time adjusting. Her parents don’t know what’s happened to the daughter they knew. Sadness seems to be “tainting” Riley’s memories, and Joy tries her best to keep Riley happy at all times. Joy and Sadness get accidentally sucked away wrestling over Riley’s core memories. They’re sent to the outer reaches where the aisles of long-term memories are vast. The two emotions have to work together to get back to headquarters before the remaining emotions convince Riley to run away from home.
Even just reading that again, it’s easy to see how complicated this movie can be with its world building and internal logic, and yet under the guidance of director Pete Doctor (Up) and his writers, the movie is at no point confusing. Pixar once again does an amazing job of guiding you through a new world and its various parts, all while expanding and complicating this environment while staying true to its internal logic and keeping an audience properly oriented. I can’t imagine many screenwriters would be able to tell this story while still being as clearly understood. The simplicity of the story, the ease to follow along, the natural development and connection of the storylines and characters coming together, is the greatest credit one can offer. It’s ostensibly a buddy adventure film like many Pixar tales, with the unlikely team of Joy and Sadness having to find their way back to headquarters and learning important life lessons along the way. It’s also a smart way to explore the various other elements at work in Riley’s brain. It’s not just an interesting descent but each new station further opens up Riley as a character. Her subconscious (and fear of clowns), her dream theater projections, her working abstract concepts, all tie back together in satisfying ways. Though the greatest side character is unquestionably Riley’s former imaginary friend, Bing Bong (voiced by Richard Kind). He’s wandering around her memories, and at first you have your suspicions, but then you realize, like the other characters, that he just wants what’s best for Riley. Coming to terms with the fact that Riley has moved on, and his time, while cherished, is now left behind, is a complete character arc, and that’s for a comic side character. Oh, and if you’re like me, Bing Bong’s conclusion just wrecked your tear ducts.
You know you’ve watched an impactful film when even thinking back on moments starts the process of tears welling in your eyes. It’s somewhat strange to think about characters as ephemeral as emotions and imaginary friends and the like, but they really work on two levels: the emotions themselves are exaggerated figures with distinct points of view but they also better inform the whole of Riley. There’s a depth there that gets even more impressive the more you analyze the creative process. What’s also impressive is the vital message of the movie, which is that growing up is hard and that being sad is okay. Seriously, the journey of Joy is to accept that being sad isn’t necessarily an emotion to minimize but a vital part of being human and an essential process. Much of the conflict that drives Riley is her avoidance of being sad, her postponement of accepting her real feelings and accepting that San Francisco is not going to be like her old home. It’s also a realization that to be a fully functioning person, you have to own the sadness in life. When Riley eventually unburdens herself of all her troubles and fears, and the tears flow, that’s when the healing can begin, and that’s when her parents swarm in for the group hug, and even now my eyes are starting to water. Damn you, Pixar.
Don’t be mistaken by my words thus far, Inside Out is also a wonderfully funny and inventive comedy. The sense of discovery with the movie is alive and well, and each new revelation of Riley’s inner mind adds to the fun. The jokes are consistently paced. The vocal cast is expertly chosen and each emotion gets some good jokes. There’s a terrific running gag about a catchy jingle that the memory workers just enjoy kicking back and forth for their own impish amusement. The film dives into other minds other than Riley’s, including both parents trying to communicate during a family dinner meant to soothe their daughter. It doesn’t lean too heavily on tired gender stereotypes when it comes to the differing thought processes of men and women, which is a relief. During the end credits, we zoom into the mind of a schoolteacher, a bus driver, and a dog and a cat, and it’s an enjoyable way to leave the theater and gather yourself emotionally. The greatest comic asset is Joy, particularly as voiced by Poehler. As fans of TV’s Parks and Recreation can attest, Poehler can make insufferable optimism endearing, tip toeing around what should be annoying and instead finding stronger comic rhythms. If you’re looking for the closest thing to an antagonist, it’s Joy who got the whole mess started and yet we don’t ever really side against her. Part of that is because she’s not doing what she does as some weird power play but because she wants what, she thinks, is best for Riley. The other part is because Poehler is such a skilled vocal performer.
If I had to find some point to quibble, the world isn’t as beautifully realized in a visual sense as other Pixar classics. I think this was a deliberate decision to ground what is such an unusual environment into something a little more familiar and less flashy. I also don’t think that Disgust seems as well articulated as a necessary emotion. She’s well played by Kaling but her application seems lacking in comparison to the other four main emotions.
It’s remarkable that the summer is still young and already we have two instant classics in theaters; first Mad Max: Fury Road and now Pixar’s Inside Out. I’m still riding high from my screening, but I’d feel safe to call this a top-three Pixar film. I wouldn’t even begrudge those who cite it as their best. Far more than a big screen version of the 90s comedy Herman’s Head (anybody remember this one?), this is an exceptional animated film that will appeal to all ages but, I suspect, hit adults even harder than their little ones. It’s a wonderfully poignant film about the struggles of growing up, of holding onto your past definitions of yourself, of accepting the full barrage of emotions, including the necessity of sadness. It’s relatable in many aspects and this further compounds its power. It’s dazzling with its creativity, it left me cackling with laughter (a superb Chinatown reference almost had me fall out of my chair), and it left me weeping at various points. Inside Out is a return to form. This is the Pixar we remember.
Nate’s Grade: A
Perhaps after a series of ambitious, mature, celebrated animated works, we just hold Pixar to unrealistic expectations. Their latest film Brave isn’t bad by any means, but it’s certainly second-tier Pixar among their cherished catalog of hits (somewhere along with Monsters Inc. and A Bug’s Life, I’d say). The movie is an eye-popping beauty to watch; the Scottish highlands look gorgeous and teaming with life, and our heroine, Princess Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), has a signature mess of red tresses that look incredibly real. The hair practically blazes onscreen. Even though the independent-minded young heroine has been a staple of stories, and particularly animation, since the 1990s, Merida is still a feisty, engaging, and relatable lead. Her friction with her mother (Emma Thompson), who wants Merida to accept royal responsibilities and marry a suitor, creates some nice sparks, and the mother-daughter dynamic is an exciting new avenue for Pixar to explore. Without spoiling too much, Merida, in a moment of anger, has a spell cast with disastrous results. It’s here, at about the 30-40 minute mark, where the movie goes in a completely different, and unwelcome, direction. The rest of the film becomes a series of chases and comical close calls and lots and lots of slapstick humor. The timeframe of the movie, about 36 hours as near as I can tell, is too short for substantial character growth. And so, by the film’s end, the character development feels facile and forced and just unbelievable. Rather than keep its focus on Merida making her own way against a patriarchy, the film devolves into a supernatural buddy comedy and then concludes in a clumsy, dues ex machina fashion. The tone is uneven, and some points are a bit scary for young children, and I kept thinking that this was more a Dreamworks release. I may sound overly critical but that’s because we’ve come to expect the best from Pixar. Brave is an entertaining, funny, and often visually astounding movie, and while it’s second-tier Pixar, that’s certainly better than most.
Nate’s Grade: B
Universally regarded as the least involving and nuanced film in Pixar’s illustrious catalog, Cars was the last film I thought would get the sequel treatment. Was it a creative tale that yearned to be told on the big screen, or is this just a business decision motivated by the sound of merchandizing coffers? Those talking cars seemed pretty content by the end of the 2006 original film. It doesn’t take long to realize that Cars 2 was done strictly for the cash. A sequel to the least involving Pixar film, with an even less involving storyline and elevating the most annoying character (Mater the tow truck) to lead status provides little in the realm of adult entertainment. The storyline, a mistaken identity spy thriller, seems like a rejected plot for a lesser direct-to-DVD sequel. While the visuals are still outstanding, the humor is stuck in neutral, overloaded with motor vehicle puns and groan-worthy visual gags. The message about accepting your uncouth friends no matter what their bad behavior might be seems rather misguided. That’s the message? Congrats Pixar, for providing cover for irresponsibility and incivility. The environmental message and its connection to a Big Oil conspiracy feels tacked on as an afterthought to try and crowbar in something more meaningful than a mediocre spy farce. I think cars are rather limited in their anthropomorphic expressions. There’s only so much they can do. And a world populated completely by living, breathing, gas-guzzling (can they get drunk on ethanol?) vehicles begs for an examination on how this world operates without any opposable thumbs. After a magical slate of films that dealt with serious mature themes and danced with storytelling finesse, it’s a shame that daring run comes to an end with such a rudimentary roadblock. Little kids will be entertained by all the bright colors and simplistic storytelling, but I cannot foresee too many fans of Cars even justifying the sequel’s existence. It’s not out rightly bad it’s just so pitifully pedestrian. Cars 2 has so little going on under its hood, you’ll swear it came from a different maker.
Nate’s Grade: C+