Cars 3: Is Pixar Running Out of Gas?

Another disappointing sequel suggests the studio's consistent excellence is now a thing of the past.

Disney / Pixar

“I decide when I’m done.”

This is Lightning McQueen’s rebuttal after he suffers a horrific crash that has many in the racing world speculating that he should retire. But it also sounds a bit like a declaration of intent from Cars 3, a thoroughly unnecessary installment in a Pixar franchise that has been running on fumes ever since its debut.

The first Cars, released in 2006, may not have represented peak Pixar, but it was a better movie than it’s often given credit for being. In my admittedly small-sample-sized experience, it was a favorite with young ’uns (including my own two kids). And contrary to widespread opinion, it had a significant grownup element too: Beneath its uppity-race-car-learns-humility storyline was a thoughtful moral architecture regarding the tensions between commerce and community.

Cars 2 was a different story—literally. Abandoning the themes and humble locale of the first movie for an utterly disconnected globe-trotting spy spoof, it remains a strong candidate for Pixar’s worst movie to date.

So why a Cars 3? Well, ever since Disney acquired Pixar for $7.4 billion in 2006, the studio has shown vastly more interest in making sequels, an easier task than creating and marketing original stories. It doesn’t hurt that the merchandise for the Cars franchise is more profitable even than that of Toy Story (another three-movie series now scheduled for a fourth) among Pixar properties, with sales in excess of $10 billion. And Cars Land is an anchor attraction at Disney California Adventure Park. Corporate synergy, as they say, is a cruel mistress. (For any interested, I have a longer essay on Pixar’s decline post-Disney here.)

The good news is that Cars 3 is better than Cars 2. The bad news is that by Pixar standards it’s still not good, a lightweight and exceptionally familiar story about a written-off old guy making his Big Sports Comeback.

When the movie opens, McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is once again on top of the stock-car racing world, trading victories with contemporaries such as Cal Weathers and Bobby Swift. But then a next-generation vehicle, Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), shows up on the scene and leaves the older racers in his dust. He’s followed by more futuristic, “data-driven” cars, and before you know it McQueen’s contemporaries have all retired and he, in a vain effort to keep pace, has crashed himself almost beyond repair.

So McQueen goes back to Radiator Springs, licks his wounds, and recommits to the sport with the help of a new sponsor (a sorely underutilized Nathan Fillion) and a young trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), prone to platitudes such as “it’s all about motivation,” and “ready to meet it, greet it, and defeat it.” Taking a page from Rocky IV, McQueen declines the latest high-tech training in order to get his wheels dirty at Fireball Beach, Thunder Hollow (a backwoods track that is not quite what it appears), and finally the Thomasville Speedway, where McQueen’s late mentor, Doc Hudson (the late Paul Newman), had been champion many years before. There, he meets a new mentor, Smokey, who is voiced by Chris Cooper doing his very best crankily avuncular imitation of Newman. All this leads up to the Big Race at which—well, it’d hardly be fair of me to say. Suffice it to say that the plot is almost dogmatically unsurprising, from start to finish.

Cars 3 is more connected to the original Cars in spirit than the second installment was, though the old Radiator Springs crowd—even Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater—is once again pushed to the margins by newcomers. The visuals are superb, and the homilies on offer unobjectionable: on the importance of perseverance, the value of mentorship, and so on. But make no mistake. This is essentially a solid kids’ movie, lacking the emotional resonance and narrative sophistication that once characterized almost every new Pixar release.

This appears to be Pixar’s new business model and contract with the viewing public: a few second-tier sequels for every groundbreaking new film. A Cars 2 and Monster’s University followed by Inside Out. A Finding Dory and Cars 3 followed by a buzz-heavy Coco (out this November). An Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4 followed by … well, we’ll see.

For another studio, this would be a perfectly solid output. But this is Pixar, the studio that revolutionized animated storytelling and has long boasted of its ethos of excellence or bust. For now, the studio is clearly lowering its sights. To paraphrase its Cars protagonist, Pixar will decide when it’s done.