Cars 3 Film Review: High Octane Speed, Gorgeous Visuals & a Surprising Heartfelt Ending

Cars 3 is a tried-and-true sports movie with a big payoff for adults, children and everyone in between – read our full review.
Cars 3 Review

Let me make a confession right up front — I love the Cars franchise. While watching Cars 3, I found myself silently saying, “come on…come on” as I urged Lightning along in his races. I was even bouncing my leg during the racing scenes with low camera angles and quick-cutting edits saying, “this is freaking awesome.” That’s a quick way of saying that if you loved the first or second Cars films, I believe this will be right up your alley. Of course, you don’t have to have seen either of the prior films to understand or enjoy this film, but being invested in the character’s backgrounds certainly, enhances the film. (Note – spoilers.)

Cars 3 Mater McQueen Hat

Speed, I am Speed — Cars 3 opens in a similar fashion to the first film and immediately sets the tone that Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is still on top of the racing world. He’s winning races with his fellow friends (Bobby Swift and Cal Weathers) and having a great time doing it. (Side note — the gags the trio pull on each other are hilarious and mirror the real-life sports world.)

As a viewer, you settle in quickly and revel in the joy McQueen is experiencing — but in only a few short minutes, that joy turns to confusion and despair as you can tell that everything is about to change. Randy Newman’s wonderful score likewise takes a drastic shift as the hot-shot rookie, Jackson Storm (voiced by Armie Hammer) appears out of nowhere turning the racing world (and McQueen’s world) upside down.

Cars 3 Screencap

As McQueen and his counterparts start (and continue) to lose, you feel the weight of the losses compiling. Soon, McQueen is isolated on the track as his friends have either retired or were replaced unwillingly. This story element is another reason I really enjoyed the film.

We’ve all heard of similar stories in baseball (as an example) where a hotshot rookie comes in throwing 100-plus mile-per-hour fastballs. As the new, faster-throwing pitchers make a splash, more and more teams want someone to make waves on their franchise too — so owners and general managers make room on the team by replacing veterans. Sports are a business, and winning is how teams maximize profits. The racing world in Cars 3 is no different — “faster” wins more races, and McQueen isn’t cutting it any longer — ouch.

After McQueen has a potentially career-ending crash (as seen in trailers), Lightning needs to change his thinking. This is where Sterling Dunn comes in. Sterling is a McQueen fan (and new owner of Rust-Eze) who sees a business opportunity to help McQueen maximize his profits by capitalizing on his name and history of winning. Against the urgings of Sterling to retire and protect his “brand image,” McQueen begins a new training regimen alongside the best trainer at the world-renowned Rust-Eze Racing Center, Cruz Ramirez (voiced by Cristela Alonzo).

Cruz Ramirez Character Art

Cruz lights up the screen with her wonderful, vibrant character animation and is sure to be a fan favorite. When I first saw her in my 45-minute preview of the film at Pixar in April, I was confused by her harsh attitude and was concerned about how the public would perceive her. Since I didn’t see the whole film at that time, I was unaware of the impact she would have on the film and now fully understand the wonderful character she is.

She’s the ultimate motivator and can find the exact key to inspire greatness (whether through positive reinforcement or some pretty pointed comments). At first, I thought Cruz was too hard on McQueen, and I couldn’t believe that she’d push one of her idols that far — but as the film progresses you learn that this character trait is actually a flaw that gets exposed in order to help her ultimately grow.

Miss Fritter character art

Through a sequence of botched training sessions, McQueen’s frustration towards Cruz builds until they have a falling out. Among those sessions, the duo accidentally stumbles into a demolition derby at the Thunder Hollow race track.

As we wrote and discussed in a recent post (and podcast), this is the most action-packed Cars sequence I’ve seen to date. The fast-paced scene featuring Miss Fritter (the crazed school bus voiced by Lea Delaria), and music provided by Brad Paisley’s fast-paced guitar licks push this scene to a whole new level of awesomeness (yes, that is the word that best describes the feel of this scene).

Cars 3 Smokey

Before the training sessions are over, McQueen and Ramirez meet many of the legends of racing, including Smokey — Doc Hudson’s old crew chief (voiced by Chris Cooper). Smokey is a brilliant character and provides a major turning point in Lightning’s thinking about racing. Could being a mentor be as rewarding as being a racer…or even more rewarding?

This is also the scene where we really dive into the history of Doc Hudson (voiced posthumously by Paul Newman) and get to explore more of the past of the character. The movie tackles Doc’s passing very tastefully and being able to hear some of Newman’s unused recordings from the first Cars film (slotted seamlessly into this film) admittedly got me a little misty-eyed. Doc and Lightning’s relationship was already strong, but it was touching to see Lightning realize that there was a whole additional level to their relationship that he wasn’t even aware of.

Cars 3 Cotter Pin bar

I don’t want to reveal too much about the ending, but let’s just say that the action, the humor, and the culmination of the film all come to a head in the final 20 minutes of the film and it pays off in a very surprising way. I would have never suspected that I’d feel so good about what happens. The writing team did a brilliant job tying this scene back to prior story elements to close the loop and end the story with a satisfying, uplifting feel. It’s a tried-and-true sports movie with a big payoff for adults, children, and everyone in between.

RADIATOR SPRINGS CHARACTER AND VISUALS

Radiator Springs fans shouldn’t fret either — Luigi, Guido, Ramone, and the whole gang are back with varying levels of involvement. We were pleasantly surprised by Sally’s use of her “lawyering powers” in bringing McQueen’s mind back to the racing world, and we had just enough Mater to get his signature jokes in.

Oh, and Chick Hicks fans don’t have to worry — although he is now voiced by Pixarian Bob Peterson (previously voiced by Michael Keaton), he is just as delusional as ever, and his jokes and subtleties are quite hilarious. Bob does a great job bringing Chick to life, and I don’t believe the average fan would notice a difference (hardcore fans will pick up on it, but I’d doubt if fans weren’t pleasantly surprised).

Natalie Certain and Chick Hicks

The visuals are gorgeous, and the characters look so real, it’s uncanny. You really feel like you could reach out and touch them as if they were really alive — especially in the 3D version of the film (we’ve screened digital 2D and 3D versions). I was pleasantly surprised that even during the Thunder Hollow demolition derby scene (where they could have easily done some over-the-top effects) that the 3D stayed tame (as I’ve come to expect with Pixar films).

Of course, we always talk about the lighting in Pixar films as well, and Cars 3 is gorgeously lit. The evening race scenes are amazing, and even the daytime Florida 500 race had over 30,000 lights installed by the team to use in that scene. Additionally, scenes like the Cotter Pin bar (as seen in the screenshot above with Lightning and Cruz in a dimly lit room) are so beautiful I think my mouth actually was actually agape when they entered. The layers and mixes of light sources in this scene really make it stand out.

OVERALL

Overall, the film is a lot of fun, and if you enjoyed the other Cars films, we strongly believe you’ll love it. If you’re a casual fan of the franchise or Pixar in general, there’s still enough action and heart (especially at the end with McQueen’s valiant move). The boy sitting behind me in the theater audibly said, “woooooowwww” during the final race scene which perfectly summarizes what I was thinking as well. Congratulations to the entire Cars 3 crew for their hard work on the film — I give Cars 3 an 85% rating for its fast-paced action, heart, and breathtaking visuals.

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