Lightning McQueen, now facing the perils of being past his prime, returns in a touching sequel that gets the series back on track.
“Cars,” back in 2006, was the first Pixar movie that was far more beloved by audiences than critics. That meant something, since Pixar had long been a critical darling. The movie struck many reviewers as being less heady and artful, more insistently conventional, than the “Toy Story” films or “Finding Nemo.” And after it was followed up by the critically revered triple whammy of “Ratatouille,” “WALL-E,” and “Up,” “Cars” languished, in reputation, as a “lesser” Pixar movie. Yet it found a deep place in the hearts of kids (and in many adult kids too), and the critics, in my view, were always too down on its shiny and sentimental off-the-beaten-track-of-Americana appeal.
It was clear that the co-director of “Cars,” the founding Pixar guru John Lasseter, felt close to the film and even protective of it, so five years later, when he made “Cars 2,” you can sort of understand why he shot the works. The sequel, with its globe-trotting chases and Rube-Goldberg-on-STP narrative that wound up spinning, almost deliberately, out of control, was a true Pixar oddball: a piece of candy-colored virtuosity that sent cars flying off in every direction, to the point that you could scarcely keep track of them. It was one of the most visually astonishing films in the Pixar canon and, at the same time, one of the most impersonal. Lasseter had upped the ante on “Cars” by making a work of technological pop art that it was almost impossible to care about. The movie was a commercial success, yet it seemed to leave the legacy of Lightning McQueen lying in the dust of eye-tickling dazzle.
“Cars 3,” though, pointedly swings the pendulum back. Lasseter, with “Cars 2,” may have made the movie he wanted to make, but as Pixar’s chief creative officer, he surely registered the mixed reaction to it, and “Cars 3” feels like it has been conceived and directed, with scrupulous love and affection (and a bit of baseline corporate calculation), “for the fans.” It’s the first “Cars” film that Lasseter has handed off to one of his trainee/protégés — Brian Fee, who has never directed a feature before. Fee honed his chops as a storyboard artist, working on “Ratatouille” and the two previous “Cars” films, and what he’s come up with is an exceedingly sweet and polished fable that unfolds with a kid-friendly, by-the-book emotional directness. The CGI animation has a detailed lush clarity highly reminiscent of “Ratatouille,” and the picture moves at such an amiable pace that even the drawling, dawdling pick-up-truck doofus Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) doesn’t slow it down.