No matter how invested you are, or aren’t, in Pixar’s Cars films, the latest entry creates a weirdly interesting narrative around the franchise. Imagine if, after Blade Runner, Harrison Ford made a rom-com-dram sequel where Rick Deckard was suddenly running a hotel. And then he made Blade Runner 2049, where he was suddenly a Replicant Hunter again, and no one mentioned the hotel at all.
Basically, Cars just did this with its sequels.
Pixar released Cars 2 in 2011, five years after the 2006 original which was built around community and car racing. But in the sequel, Lightning McQueen and his pal Mater basically become spies to help solve an international scandal involving a world wide racing circuit. It was a sudden, major shift in genre for the franchise, as well as a life-changing moment for the Cars (assuming you think they’re alive and not ghastly simulacrums of living beings).
But in Cars 3, it’s like the first sequel never happened. Outside of the passage of time allowing Lightning McQueen to believably become a veteran race car, the events of the second film are completely ignored. Cars 3 is actually Cars 2, and Cars 2 feels like a strange “what if?” tale.
While this is weird, there is some sense to Pixar’s decision to scrap it. Cars 2 is almost universally considered not just the worst Cars movie, but the worst Pixar movie, period. It’s the only Pixar film to ever get a Rotten rating on Rotten Tomatoes and, at the time, was the first film of the studio’s to make less than $200 million domestically in over a decade.
Part of that is Cars 2 is a radical departure from the tone of the first film, which was a mostly laid-back tale about friendship, family, and racing. Besides being a high-tech sentient car spy movie, the sequel also put Larry the Cable Guy’s aw-shucks sidekick Mater into a leading role above Owen Wilson’s Lightning McQueen. Mater is certainly a fan favorite among the film’s target audience, but putting him at the forefront created a very different, Mr. Bean-ish quality to the film. Not to mention the emotional core and meaningful messages usually found in Pixar films are eschewed in favor of non-stop action.
Cars 3, on the other hand, has more emotions and messages than you can count. The story once again centers on Lightning and deals with the fact that he’s now the old guy on the racing circuit. In the first film, he was the brash rookie, filled with unlimited confidence. Now the tables have turned, both because of his age and because of advances in technology. So Cars 3 explains how an over-the-hill athlete deals with his professional mortality, a disconnect from the new generation, and trying to find happiness in places that aren’t the finish line. It’s deep, especially for a kids movie, but it’s also what Pixar usually excels at.
But while it works at times, the complex, emotional story still regularly loses its focus. After a strong start, the story shifts so quickly to Lightning’s new trainer and friend Cruz Ramirez that not only is Lightning’s dilemma lost, but many of the side characters that make Cars so memorable are virtually non-existent. However, the film finishes strong with a surprising, heartfelt finale.
Cars 3, much like the first film, works in spite of its flaws. Personally, I’d even argue that’s the case for Cars 2. No, it doesn’t have the heart of the other two movies but it also never pretends to; instead, Cars 2 feels like Pixar’s attempt to make a fun, silly James Bond movie for kids. If any other studio besides Pixar had tried it, audiences may have had no problem with it. However, Pixar has set such an impossibly high bar for itself over the years that Cars 2 couldn’t help but be a disappointment.
Which is why the fact Cars 3 distances itself from Cars 2 almost seems forgivable. Speaking to Screencrush, Cars 3 co-writer and long-time Pixar producer Bob Petersen explained the disconnect: “[Cars 2] was Mater’s world. We’re back to Radiator Springs and that team [in Cars 3] because this is McQueen’s story.”
Which is true. There’s no doubt McQueen and Mater share the spotlight much more in Cars 2 than the other movies. In fact, in Cars 3, Mater has a smaller role than he even did in the first film. When you take the critical reaction to Cars 2, its departure from the core of the franchise, the international setting, tying them together might have been too much. But no acknowledgement at all feels like a passive-aggressive apology to Pixar fans still disappointed with the sequel.
There’s also another possible reason for the Cars 2 slight. The year after Cars 2 came out, Disney opened a Cars Land section in their California Adventure theme park. It’s a full creation of Radiator Springs—and coming right on the heels of a Cars movie that didn’t feature that much Radiator Springs, you have to think someone pushed Disney synergy and asked for the third film to feature the town prominently. Since it does, it’s going to give a whole new generation of kids more of a reason to visit the theme parks.
Cars 3 is a solid entry into Pixar’s most lucrative franchise, which is nice. It’s not among Pixar’s best, but in terms of basic summer entertainment, it does the job. It’s just not Cars 3—it’s a brand new Cars 2.