Cars 3 Review

Pixar’s resume has built such a prestige over the years, that the release of a new film from the studio is often cause for celebration. Though it was a little harder to get too excited for Cars 3. While 2006’s Cars was a good enough movie, it was far from Pixar’s best. Its 2011 sequel, Cars 2, broke Pixar’s then-undefeated streak of quality films, and was the first flat-out bad Pixar movie. But the Cars franchise remains Pixar’s biggest merchandise seller, so here we are with a third entry in the series.

I tend to favor the Andy Warhol outlook in believing that, just because something is made with commercial intentions, it doesn’t automatically disqualify it as art. And Cars 3 ended up being a good example of just that. While it certainly won’t be in discussions of Pixar’s finest achievements, Cars 3 manages to avoid the pitfalls of its immediate predecessor and delivers a heartfelt (if familiar) tale that justifies the series’ continuation.

First thing’s first, Cars 3, in many ways, seems like an apology to audiences for Cars 2. None of the original characters from the second film return (which is a little bit of a shame, as I actually enjoyed Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer’s characters, despite the film they were stuck in). Perhaps even more notably, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), the comic foil of the first film who was the miscast star of the second, has a completely minimized role; only appearing in a small number of scenes and with few spoken lines of dialogue. The role of comic relief is mostly passed on to series mainstays Luigi (Tony Shalhoub) and Guido (Guido Quaroni), as well as newcomer Cruz Remirez (Cristela Alonzo), who serves as Lightning McQueen’s new trainer.

Speaking of Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), the red race car is back to where he belongs as the central character in the film. Taking place a good deal of time after the events of the second film, Lightning McQueen is now a veteran racer, and he’s beginning to be upstaged by younger, newer racers who are changing the game to such an extent that many of Lightning’s old friends and rivals on the racetrack are heading for retirement. One newcomer in particular, Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), is proving to be a thorn in Lightning’s side.

During one such race, Lightning – desperate to beat Storm and prove he’s not ready to hang it up – overdoes himself and ends up in a terrible crash. Lightning fears he may end up like his mentor, Doc Hudson, and be forced into retirement without getting the chance to show what he has left. From there, Lightning’s sponsors sell their company to billionaire Sterling (Nathan Fillion), who plans to put Lightning through vigorous new training techniques to get him back on the winning side.

When it looks as though Lightning is too old to handle these new training methods, Sterling wishes to send Lightning into a quiet retirement, and continue his legacy through branding. Lightning, wanting to decide for himself when he’s done, makes a bet with Sterling. If Lightning can win one more big race, then he gets to continue to race for as long as he sees fit. But if Lightning doesn’t win, he will agree to retirement. Sterling assigns Cruz Ramirez to help train McQueen who – along with Luigi and Guido – are ready to do whatever they need to make sure Lightning continues racing.

It’s a simple enough premise, and echoes the 2006 original in a number of scenes (I suppose playing it safe to what worked just fine is better than whatever happened with Cars 2). But Cars 3 has enough heart to hold its own as a film.

The Doc Hudson character (voiced by Paul Newman in the original Cars) was the heart and soul of the first film. When Paul Newman passed away in between the first two films, the character was written out of the sequel. An understandable choice on the part of the filmmakers, but no doubt the absence of the first film’s best character was one of the many aspects that left the second film feeling so empty. Cars 3 finds a way to keep the character’s presence intact in a way that’s still respectful to Newman, with flashbacks involving both returning dialogue from the first film, as well as unused lines recorded by Newman. It also helps this threequel that Doc Hudson’s passing is actually used as a thematic point, and not just present in a throwaway line like in Cars 2.

The film as a whole has a nice message about growing older and continuing what you love, even if the world may suggest you’re passed your prime. And the presence of Doc Hudson brings back the heart the second film so sorely lacked. But it’s Cruz Ramirez who gives Cars 3 an identity separate from the first film, with her relationship and interactions with Lightning McQueen standing out as high points for the entire Cars series. And she even proves to be effective comic relief.

Cars 3 is also a beautifully animated film. Though it uses many of the same characters and assets as the other films in the series, Cars 3 looks sleeker and more eye-popping than ever. The racing and action scenes in particular, are quite stunning to behold.

If there’s any fault to be had with Cars 3, it’s simply that it is unambitious. Perhaps it has its reasons for playing things safe after Cars 2, but the similarities to the first film in Cars 3’s narrative are more than a few. And as unfair of a complaint as this may sound, the concept behind the Cars movies has always been far more creatively limited than Pixar’s other works. There’s only so much that can be done with talking cars both in terms of  their movements in animation and the stories they can tell. Cars 3 does the best with what it has, and is certainly a worthwhile rectification for the Cars series, but if one were to compare it with Pixar films such as Inside Out, The Incredibles or Wall-E, then Cars 3 falls drastically short.

With all that said, Cars 3 is a fun movie from start to finish. Its fast-paced action, coupled with its exquisite animation and charming characters (also including Doc Hudson’s former crew chief Smokey, voiced by Chris Cooper) make for a film that children can easily love, and one that may prove surprisingly entertaining for adults.

 

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Cars Review

Cars

2006’s Cars was an interesting release for Pixar Animation Studios. The animation giant had found early success with the Toy Story movies, and later created cultural phenomenons with the releases of Finding Nemo and The Incredibles in the early 2000s. Cars was, by comparison, a modest critical and commercial success, with many claiming it to be Pixar’s weakest film up to that point. While Cars may not hold up as a classic – as many of the better Pixar films do so effortlessly – it is perhaps better than its reputation suggests.

Much like A Bug’s Life or Brave, Cars’ status in the Pixar canon may be a simple case of a good movie being produced by a studio that usually churns out great ones (either that, or its dreadful sequel – Pixar’s only flat-out dud – may have sullied audiences’ perception of the franchise entirely). There’s nothing innately wrong with Cars, but it just doesn’t evoke that sense of something special that Pixar has excelled at with alarming consistency.

The film takes place in a world inhabited entirely by anthropomorphic automobiles. Admittedly, it’s the most restricting premise of any Pixar film. There’s only so much you can work with in terms of how to animate car characters, and there’s only so many ways to make them relatable. When compared to the underwater beauty of Finding Nemo, or the complexity of human characters in The Incredibles, it’s a bit understandable why Cars may have seemed underwhelming upon release. But story-wise, Cars is a solid film.

The story centers on Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), a hotshot rookie race car who has found his way into a three way race against veteran Strip “The King” Weathers and obnoxious rival Chick Hicks for the prestigious Piston Cup. But on his way to the big race, Lightning is accidentally sent off-course, and ends up lost on Route 66. Lightning later finds himself stuck in the small town of Radiator Springs, after he inadvertently damages the town’s roads and is sentenced to repair them.

CarsIn Radiator Springs, Lightning befriends a comical and rusty tow truck named Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), becomes infatuated with a Porsche lawyer named Sally (Bonnie Hunt), and often butts-heads with Doc Hudson (the late Paul Newman), the town’s most respected citizen.

It’s a really simple story that manages to bring out the charm and humor in the characters, despite the aforementioned limitations of them being cars. It may lack the profoundness of Pixar’s greater films, but it still does showcase some good messages for younger audiences.

In terms of animation, Cars is still a pretty film to look at. Once again, the premise does prevent it from having the same visual inventiveness of many of the studio’s other works, but Pixar definitely made the best of what they had, with a stunning attention to detail in the environments, and managing to squeeze out as much variety in the character designs as possible.

Perhaps one of the more love it or hate it aspects of Cars is its heavy use of licensed music. Cars remains the only Pixar movie to rely heavily on pre-existing songs by contemporary musicians for its soundtrack (even Cars 2 didn’t follow suit), and while one’s personal taste on the music is entirely subjective (I myself don’t mind the song selection), its presence does prevent Cars from feeling as timeless as many of its Pixar peers. Though the use of popular music in animation was all the rage during the 2000s (a trend that still continues, though not as prominently), this was yet another trend that Pixar seemed to actively avoid, yet succumbed to in this one instance, which can make it feel out of place (and maybe even a little dated) in the Pixar canon.

Still, it’s hard to be too harsh on Cars. Even with its status as a “weaker” Pixar film, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment with some sharp writing, great visuals and voice work (particularly that of Paul Newman), and a good amount of heart (the key ingredient its sequel lacked). Perhaps it’s far from Pixar’s finest, but it remains a solidly entertaining film for younger and older audiences alike.

 

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Cars 2 Review

Cars 2

Pixar Animation Studios is rightfully held on a pedestal in the realm of animated filmmaking. Their ability to create deep and imaginative stories that appeal to children and adults alike is seldom approached, as is their consistency in quality. But even the greatest of animation studios have at least that one black sheep that ensures that their track record isn’t quite perfect. Disney has a few such movies, with Chicken Little being a particular standout, and even Studio Ghibli has Tales from Earthsea under their belt. For Pixar, their weak link is none other than Cars 2.

This 2011 sequel to Cars is everything that would repulse most other Pixar films: It’s juvenile, lacks emotional resonance, emphasizes cheap gags over storytelling, and was made for no other reason than to sell merchandise (Pixar’s films are generally commercially successful, but this is their sole offering that feels tailor-made for the money).

The story here is that Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) enters the World Grand Prix, a series of races that takes him from country to country as he attempts to become the greatest race car in the world. Meanwhile, McQueen has brought Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) along for the ride. Mater subsequently gets embroiled in international espionage, as British secret agents Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) mistake him for an American agent. What unfolds is a movie filled with explosions, cultural stereotyping, and the antics of Mater, which only ever seem to be pandering to the youngest of demographics.

In short, it’s a far cry from the “hot shot celebrity learns small town values” setup of the original Cars. The original film may have been predictable, but it had its share of heart. None of that heart can be found in this sequel. With actor Paul Newman passing away in between the two Cars films, his character of Doc Hudson was written out of the sequel, and all the aforementioned heart seemingly left with the character.

Cars 2

Cars 2 is at least aesthetically pleasing, with top notch animation and a musical score by Michael Giacchino that outdoes the original’s score. But one could easily say the production values are simply the norm for Pixar. Cars 2’s great fault is that none of the studio’s usual storytelling prowess translates into this sequel.

As stated, the story has no emotional resonance going for it, with the overemphasis on Mater being a large reason for that. Mater is the kind of character who was intentionally made to be comic relief, and by trying to build the narrative around him, the movie ultimately stumbles. The few jokes that aren’t aimed at the youngest tykes are geared solely for car enthusiasts, leaving all other audiences out of the loop. And despite that Cars 2 is supposedly targeted for a younger audience, it is also bizarrely the only Pixar film in which a character is tortured to death (some might argue that the characters here are “only cars,” but in the context of the film, the cars are people, making the scene in question needlessly gruesome).

Cars 2 simply comes off as a big mess. It’s convoluted and overbloated, and yet there’s no real meaning behind any of it. It’s almost shocking to think this came from the same studio that brought us deep animated stories like Wall-E and Ratatouille only a handful of years beforehand.

On the plus side, some of the secondary characters, like Luigi and Guido, are still charming, and McQueen’s rival racecar Francesco (John Turturro) has a good dose of personality, to the point that you wish more of the film was dedicated to his rivalry with McQueen.

So there might be a couple of bright spots here and there, but no doubt they are lost in Cars 2’s less-than funny humor, muddled plot, and overall inconsistencies. Cars 2 is like one long commercial, and not a very good one at that. The fact that it has the Pixar name attached makes it sting all the more. It’s a wreck.

 

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Ranking the Pixar Films

Buzz and Woody

Twenty years ago, Pixar Animation Studios released Toy Story, the world’s first full-length computer animated film. Though computer animated movies are a very common occurrence these days, Pixar remains at the peak of the medium due to the studio’s nearly unrivaled knack for creating original stories, memorable characters, and emotional depth.

To celebrate twenty years of Pixar films, and the release of their newest feature, The Good Dinosaur, I decided to compile a list of Pixar’s feature-length library. This was certainly not an easy list to make, seeing as the majority of Pixar’s films range from great to masterpiece. But I decided to have a go at it anyway.

The following list contains all fifteen of Pixar’s currently released features (I decided to make this list before The Good Dinosaur’s release, because who knows how long it might take for me to determine where it would rank among the others). The films are mostly ranked from least to greatest, but understand the quality of most of these films is so great that many of them are interchangeable. So when the day comes that I inevitably revise this list, please don’t think less of me if many of the films end up switching places.

I hope to one day get around to giving each of these films a proper review. But for now, enjoy them in list form.

So without further ado, let me give this my best shot. The fifteen feature films of Pixar, from least to greatest (more or less).

*Some spoilers follow!*

Continue reading “Ranking the Pixar Films”