It's nigh on impossible to start a review about a post-Toy Story 3 Pixar film without harking back to the early glory days when the studio had been one of the best in the business for a straight 15 years. Sure, we've had Inside Out and Finding Dory, but give it five years, and come back and see where they sit in your ranked list. The success was always bound to wane at some point and the sequels haven't helped either, but surely it's no coincidence that shortly after being swept up by Disney, the magic rapidly faded away.
Now that we’ve conclusively established the orchestrated downfall of a once great animation empire by an evil Mouse and his funny-faced friends, it’s time to move onto the subject at hand. Which brings us to Cars 3, the latest release in a franchise that has never once threatened to become more than a side-note to the absurd amounts of money made from flogging merchandise. To give you an idea of how much that might be, to date, $10bn worth has been wrenched from the pockets of weary parents. Given the amazing work the studio has done in the past, you want to wipe away the cynicism and believe that these films were made for purely the right reasons. But the release of each new film only serves to confirm the opposite.
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) remains front and centre of the story, this time facing something of an existential crisis (although this is not exactly The Seventh Seal). His days at the top seem numbered as a new breed of supercar, led by the self-centred Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), threatens to consign him to the scrap heap. McQueen’s stubborn streak keeps him on the track before a bad accident ends his racing season. His last chance comes in the shape of a tycoon who welcomes him into his state-of-the-art training centre, pairing him with trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who seems to think he should drawing on his pension.
Things don’t go quite as planned and McQueen insists on returning to old-school methods, heading back to the dirt tracks with Cruz to get his tires dirty, determined to rediscover his missing speed. It soon becomes clear that no matter what he tries, he’ll never be as fast as Storm, who in the meantime is breaking circuit records for fun in preparation for the new season ahead. We learn that Cruz once had ambitions of becoming a racer before settling for a career as trainer and the pairs burgeoning friendship helps them both figure out what the future could hold in store.
One of the continued failings of the three films has been the lack of personality found in almost all of the characters. The one exception in the first release was Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater, whose country-bumpkin routine quickly began to grate in the sequel and continues to do so now. Aside from driving and talking, there isn’t a whole lot the cars can actually do and those physical limitations restrict how we interact with their personality, and thus, how much we care about any of them. Pixar’s classic short, Luxo Jr., entertainingly brought to life two desktop lamps, but the key was it was only two minutes long. Cars doesn’t seem aware of the limitations of its own world and probably never will.
The story writing in the Pixar universe has undoubtedly fallen by the way side but their technical artistry still remains the best in the business. There is no doubting that Cars 3 is amazing to look at and the photo-realism of McQueen’s world is stunning at times, especially when speeding round dusty dirt tracks. The humour is so-so and while certainly better than the dirge offered up in films like Despicable Me or Frozen, it’s not the most fully rounded compliment you could receive. Under-12s will probably lap this up, which is no bad thing, although it’s hard not to dream of a time when Pixar were able to consistently do far more than just that.