Over the years, the Cars franchise has been widely viewed as the flat tire of the Pixar world. Despite decent reviews, the first entry remains one of the lowest financial successes in their canon (not counting merchandise, of course). When the utterly unforgivable second film was released, the franchise found itself left in a twisted wreck along the side of the road, better forgotten than salvaged.
And yet, here comes Cars 3.
It’s not a secret that, despite their poor showings at the box office, the Cars films have been motivated largely by merchandising. (In fact, even though it was the lowest financial success in Pixar’s history at the time, the original Cars still brought in over a billion dollars in the toy store itself!) Still, after the release of Cars 2, the franchise has been left with egg on its bumper and a stench from its tailpipe.
In light of that, much of the early marketing for the third entry into the franchise seems to be attempting to get return to its racing roots. (In fact, even rumors of the return of Doc Hudson, long-deceased Paul Newman’s mentor to Lightning, suggests that Pixar is trying to reclaim the chemistry of the original film.
Still, with ‘race day’ upon us, I thought it might be wise to see what tinkering needs to happen in order for the world of Cars to cross the finish line at top speed. With that in mind, let’s take a look under the hood…
BODY REPAIRS: Remember Who You Are
One of the most glaring issues with Cars 2 was simply the fact that they changed their tone so dramatically. John Lasseter clearly cares about these characters but, in developing the sequel, abandoned them in favor of an action piece. Excited about making his James Bond movie, Lasseter completely dropped any of the charm and character development of the first one for a fast-paced comedy with globe-trotting set pieces. (Ironically, had they opted to create new characters, the film would likely have worked far better by freeing them up from the burden of characters and interactions they’d already established.) The result was jarring and reeked of marketing opportunities. To save the franchise, Cars 3 has to remember the characters that they began with and allow them to be themselves.
BRIGHTEN HEADLIGHTS: Focus your Story
It doesn’t take a road map to follow Lightning’s journey in the original Cars. Whether or not you were a fan of the film, you can’t deny that the film had a specific goal in mind. From the opening race, we had a clear understanding of what the film sought to do and where it wanted to go. Lightning’s emotional journey was clearly going to be the central narrative arc with racing providing the central background. By Cars 2 though, we were ‘treated’ to such misadventures as a race around the world, Mater’s mistaken identity, drummed up tension between Mater and Lightning, a bizarre plot about a villain who makes gas only to destroy it, AND a romantic subplot between Mater and Holly Shiftwell. In other words… what was that movie about? Even after watching it twice, I still have no idea. For Cars 3 to succeed, it needs to offer a more streamlined story with a deeper focus on its primary characters.
WHEEL ALIGNMENT: Build on Lightning
Look, I get it. Mater is highly marketable and, at times, steals the first movie from Lightning McQueen. The temptation to focus on his adventures in the second film was incredibly high but, unfortunately, some characters don’t do well in the spotlight. Like the Minions in the Despicable Me franchise, Mater’s role is best served in doses. In Cars, he provided humble grounding to Lightning’s arrogance. In Cars 2, that emotional grounding was all but stripped of him, emphasizing the fact that he simply didn’t belong in the larger world. With a stronger confidence and a more interesting character arc, Lightning McQueen needs to be the foundation that the franchise builds itself around. (Thankfully, based on all the early previews and trailers, it appears as though this mistake has been corrected through their emphasis on Lightning at every possible opportunity.)
ENGINE CHECK: Rediscover the Soul
One of the harshest criticisms leveled against the original Cars was the story’s emphasis on seemingly simplistic messages like ‘Slow down to enjoy life’ and ‘Friends first.’ To many, it was ‘hokey’. To me, though, it was holistic. In truth, the film’s messages are some of Pixar’s most counter-cultural in many ways. While many other Pixar entries focus on common 21st Century cultural ideas as ‘be true to yourself’ or ‘never give up’, Cars actually introduces the idea of living a life of wholeness, rest and the value of the other over our own. In a world that’s lost all sense of Sabbath repose, Cars is a reminder that there are greater things in life than what we’re being sold on a daily basis. In many ways, it is a sensibility that remains at the deepest core of our spiritual longings. However, in Cars 2, all of this is lost in favor of a poorly developed environmental theme. (Don’t get me wrong. I have no opposition at all to this line of thinking—in fact, it too is a deeply spiritual one—but the film offers no passion or heart behind it. It offers nothing new to the viewers emotionally or spiritually.)
Cars 3 opens in theatres Friday, June 16th, 2017