Let’s start this “Cars 3” review by talking about Rocky. The Italian Stallion’s most recent outings, “Rocky Balboa” and “Creed,” respectively featured Rocky dealing with a world that was seemingly leaving him behind and training the son of his late best friend. I open with this because everything done in those two separate movies, “Cars 3” tries to do in one. In one movie, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson, “Masterminds”) is supposed to come to terms with the changing landscape of racing while mentoring a younger character and making peace with his legacy. Its story hinges on these arcs, yet by the time the credits roll, neither of them has been given enough attention to carry the movie. In its rush to do everything, “Cars 3” does nothing instead.
It’s hard to even decipher what the main story of the movie is supposed to be. The gist of it at first seems to be that Lightning has to prove that he’s not washed up. That’s simple enough and potentially emotional. The problem is that it’s not clear who Lightning has to prove that to. Is it himself? No, he’s as confident as ever. His friends? They barely feature. The only people who we ever see doubt Lightning only appear on TV screen to remind you that this is allegedly an underdog story, but by the end, even the crowd is still on Lightning’s side. It’s like the ordinarily brilliant minds at Pixar wanted to tell an underdog story but forgot to add the underdog. There’s no doubt on anyone’s part — least of all the audience’s — that he will win until far too late in the movie.
If Lightning’s struggle had been focused on and developed a bit more it could have worked and worked well, but then comes the other part of the story: Lightning mentoring newcomer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo, “Cristela”). In theory, Cruz is supposed to share the spotlight with Lightning. It’s clear this it’s meant to be her story as much as it is his, but as with Lightning’s struggle, she is never given enough focus to make her anything other than a jumped-up side character in her own movie. It’s hard to care about her when she is distracting from his story and he is distracting from hers.
“Cars 3” should have either been Lightning’s story with Cruz playing a supporting role or vice versa. As it is, it splits its focus between the two, seems to finally put it on Lightning, then pulls back and puts it on Cruz, only to finally cop out in the worst way possible and try to give them both Big Emotional Endings without having properly done the character or story work to earn those moments. It cheats and continues to cheat even when it makes no sense. Finally, in the late second act, “Cars 3” arrives at an interesting place that could potentially sustain both stories. But by that time, it’s too late. It can only spend a few scenes in that interesting new setting with its interesting new characters before it’s time for the climax that no one in the audience will care enough to get excited for.
As per the Pixar norm, the animation is quite spectacular. The environments are nearly photorealistic, especially during the otherwise lackluster racing scenes, and that complements the more cartoony designs of the characters to create an effect like the one on display in “The Good Dinosaur.” That’s almost all that can be said for “Cars 3,” though. It’s not even clear what the lesson kids are supposed to learn is. Do your best? Even if this wasn’t Pixar — possibly the best storytellers not just in animation but in cinema itself — that’s boilerplate and boring. But in a way, that sums up “Cars 3” quite well. For a normal animation house, this would be a subpar, pointless flick. For the masters themselves, it comes close to being their worst work so far.