Sunday, June 18, 2017

Running on Empty: CARS 3

Pixar has been coasting downhill for the better part of a decade, only 2015’s double header of Inside Out and The Good Dinosaur stopping a slow but steady slide from the heights of Toy Story and WALL-E. Now they’ve reached a new low with Cars 3, their least interesting and least entertaining film yet. Although the animation remains top notch – gorgeous detail, convincing colorful design, and with tons of personality in its characters’ expressions – there’s so little going on as to be bewilderingly boring. I realize this is a movie for children, with easy lessons and simple characters, and on that level – pleasingly pleasant and essentially harmless – it’s still better than most of what passes for family entertainment from competitors like Illumination who show up with a third of the imagination and a fourth of the budget. But Pixar made a name off rich and involving films that were truly all-ages entertainment. They didn’t condescend to children in the audience or pander to the adults with them. In film after film they found ways to engage and entertain any demographic. Even Cars – an easy-going big city/small town parable – and Cars 2 – a zippy blast of an around-the-world spy story – had busy, buoyant, creative visuals and energetic voice work. Now, though, this third entry in a franchise about a parallel universe populated exclusively by anthropomorphized vehicles, just feels tired. 

There’s a sense of exhaustion as debut director Brian Fee and a collection of screenwriters tow out a thinner, smaller, slower, duller, less inspired version of what’s been done before. Once more, charming red racecar Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is faced with a challenge involving his racing career. This time it’s a problem of obsolescence. He’s getting older. Winning races against younger, faster, sleeker modern cars (like a black-and-purple one voiced by Armie Hammer) is increasingly difficult. Faced with the prospect of embarrassing himself through poor performance on his way to a retirement endorsing mud flaps for a smug rich patron (Nathan Fillion), he decides to train hard and make the next season his best. He wants to finish on his terms, and in the winner’s circle. This attempt to do for these characters what Toy Story 3 did for the aging toys backfires, mostly because these movies have never been about the emotional resonances of their automotive natures. They are cars with human problems, acting out sports’ movie tropes with their big windshield eyes and bumper mouths, driving through an imaginatively designed world that is just like ours, but cars. We aren’t meant to contemplate their life cycle or anything deeper about the world than its surface pleasures and narrative appeal or else the whole thing falls apart. Here, it drives dangerously close to that edge, sometimes teetering.

Sure, there’s a sweet live-your-dreams plotline, as Lightning gets help from a sporty yellow trainer (Cristela Alonzo) who has him on treadmills and doing tire exercises. He wants to be the racer he once was, and along the way learns she wants to be a racer, too. So they help each other, and it’s very nice and wholesome. But the thin comeback story leaves little room for interesting new sights. The first film introduced the world, which was fun, and the second continued exploring all manner of new eye-boggling car-Earth detail (the Italian bay full of blinking boats, the compact cars in tiny Japanese parking garage hotels, and so on). This one is content to serve up a demolition derby with muddy clunkers and otherwise just drive in circles in the places where we’ve been without the energy to concoct interesting new characters or continue to explore the old ones. Everyone but Wilson and Alonzo register as cameos, and the racing scenes, while intricately detailed with scrapes and sparks, flashes of shiny paint and rumbles of burning rubber, have only a token amount of suspense. The movie is stuck in low gear, content to be just good enough, familiar sights and direct lessons. It’s most disappointing coming from a company that used to be – and hopefully can again be – so much more.

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