(In French, Outdoors theater, July 2018) Pixar’s hitting the sequel profit-making button a bit heavily these days, and while Coco and Inside Out are welcome reminders that they’re still able to do original material, Cars 3 comes in the middle of a production schedule that includes Monsters University, Finding Dory, The Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4. Following up on the widely reviled Cars 2, however, this third instalment does feel like an apology of sorts. Going back to its American racing pedigree, Cars 3 makes most of its references to the first film, as if the second hadn’t happened. Mater is wisely relegated to a supporting role, the film foregoes any foreign trips and a big theme is one of modernity versus history. Our protagonist spends much of the film trying to recapture his racing mojo after an early-movie blowout, and the plot mechanics are an excuse to go back to Appalachia for some stock-car chassis-crunching action, plus a look at the pioneers of American racing. It generally works, even though it’s wise to avoid getting hung up on the details: The ending sequence hinges on one of the most outrageous cases of rule-lawyering that I can recall—even kids are liable to be dubious about it. I suppose that the film’s emphasis on aging, retirement and passing the torch is also more liable to reach the parents than the children in the audience. As is almost de rigueur with Pixar films, the visual polish of the film is as good as contemporary CGI can be—the background is often photorealistic, while the characters themselves are immensely detailed. Much of the world-building remains as nonsensical as the rest of the series (It even becomes infuriating the longer you think about it), so it’s best to approach Cars 3 as a caricature rather than detailed fantasy. The result is, all things considered, not too bad—thankfully much better than the second film, to the point where it’s more or less as good as the first (which, admittedly, remains among Pixar’s weakest). As atonement, it was worth Pixar’s effort.
(On Cable TV, June 2014) I can still remember the cackles that accompanied the first trailers for this “From the world of Cars” spinoff: Everyone knows that Cars and its sequel are regarded as the weakest Pixar movies yet some of Disney’s biggest merchandising brands. Now that Disney can do whatever they want with the concept, handing over the franchise to another studio and creating new licensing opportunities seemed like the easiest, crassest thing possible. But here we are now, with a Cars knock-off that barely attempts to hide its source of inspiration. The “little plane that could” set-up has the first half-hour of Cars (with small town characters, a wise mentor and scenery shaped like vehicles) leading to a globe-trotting tour borrowed from Cars 2. The film, obviously geared for boys, doesn’t spend much thought in trying to deliver something different, or to avoid casual racism-by-nationality. (Ah, yes, the harassment-grade romantic behavior by a Mexican boy-plane that eventually sweeps the French-Canadian girl-plane off her wheels rather than earn the harasser a restraining order…. is this the kind of thing we need to show today’s pre-teens?) The story is dead-simple, with obvious narrative threads picked up just in time for the predictable climax. Even the flying sequences seem surprisingly short. I’m not going to complain about the impossible logistics of the Cars universe any further except to say that this film just pushes the whole thing into I-don’t-care-anymore nonsense. And yet, for all the basic silliness, there are a few good moments in Planes: most of them have to do with the sheer joy of flying, and the animation can be impressive when the planes behave like planes rather than oddly-shaped characters. It’s not quite enough that make Planes a good film, but it is enough to make any adult sit down and watch the entire film, which is probably just what the filmmakers intended. As I write this, the trailer for Planes: Fire and Rescue is already out, making it clear that the Cars universe will keep spinning off more licensing opportunities whether we like it or not.