The third installment of the “Cars” franchise is little more than an attempt to churn out more grist for the merchandising mill. Ironically, one of film’s plot points is that Lightning McQueen might have to sell out, slapping his number and likeness on everything from mud flaps to detergent. It’s part of the “brand,” his new sponsor purrs, and we’re to understand that this is bad; it takes away from McQueen’s individuality and personal freedom. And yet, what is a “Cars” sequel if not a brand extension? It certainly isn’t a movie.
Directed by Brian Fee, it’s a sketch of a movie, a series of familiar tropes and characters known from the prior two “Cars” films, or the Disneyland ride, or perhaps a Happy Meal toy.
Legendary racer Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is a washed up old race car, made obsolete by the tricked out new rides equipped with new technology and the willingness to talk smack. His nemesis is rookie Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), and though Lightning should hang up his tires, he insists that he’ll decide when he’s done.
After a nasty crash, he snaps up a new sponsor, Sterling (Nathan Fillion), and starts trying to beat the young guns at their own game, with his own state-of-the-art training facility and trainer, Cruz (Cristela Alonzo). She’s the vehicular version of a SoulCycle instructor, urging her charges to push harder, while thinking of fluffy clouds. But Lightning is old school and wants to get his wheels dirty, so the duo set off for some unconventional outdoor training.
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Within this surreal world of talking cars, there’s a hollow storyline about female empowerment. Cruz has always dreamed of being a racer, and her fight to achieve this dream feels hollow and like more brand extension — little girls can be consumers of toy cars, too! — than any sort of story development with heartfelt meaning.
The one thing the writers nail is the sense of impostor syndrome that Cruz feels in this masculine world. In this wacky world, the one thing that’s easy to make realistic is the ways in which men belittle women. Cruz’s ultimate redemption is too little, too late in a movie that’s too thin to sustain any real emotion.
Rated G. 1:49. Bourbon Drive-in, Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester.