Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
Up is down, left is right, and Cars 3—yes, the sequel to the movie that most agree signaled the end of Pixar’s storied golden age—is a critical hit. Okay, so a 63 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes isn’t exactly top marks; that’s a solid D, just decimals away from a gentleman’s F. Nevertheless, the threequel wins extra points for exceeding the dismal expectations set by Cars 2—and for promoting a surprisingly feminist message. (That’s right: Cars got woke.)
Does this mean you should actually see Cars 3? That’s a slightly more complicated question that depends largely on your willingness to suspend disbelief, as well as how much fun you have ovethinking movies made for kids. We’ll attempt to answer it in the dialogue below.
I’m an adult. Which one is Cars again?
The Cars franchise is either an endless chasm of existential horrors, or a series of movies about talking cars.
So they’re talking cars. They like, live on a made-up cars-only planet, like the zootopia in Zootopia?
You’d think, right? The first movie seems to be set on an alternate Earth where sentient cars have lived all of human history—there’s a car America and a car England and a car Japan. There’s a car talk-show host named Jay Limo (voiced by Jay Leno) and a car sportscaster named Bob Cutlass (voiced by Bob Costas). When a vehicle mentions Jimi Hendrix, he’s presumably talking about a version of Hendrix who was also a car. This obviously raises a few questions—was there a car Protestant Reformation, and a car Julius Caesar, and a car World War II? Do car historians study the political implications of the Magna Car-ta?—but no more than typical children’s entertainment (i.e., “why is Goofy treated like a person, but Pluto treated like a regular dog?”).
There’s just one problem with this interpretation: the cars have doors and handles, even though (presumably) there have never been any humans to drive them. This detail has led car-spiracy theorists over the years to posit that the world of Cars isn’t meant to be imaginary—that instead, Cars takes place in a distant future, after humanity has been wiped out and mutant cars with teeth and tongues are the only sentient creatures left. That theory got an extra boost just this past April, when the creative director of the Cars franchise revealed that in his mind, the series is set in the real world but after an autonomous car rebellion, during which the cars killed all the humans and took on the personalities of the last people who drove them. Which makes Jay Limo seem just slightly more sinister.
Wait, doesn’t Orange Is the New Black star Lea DeLaria play a school bus in Cars 3?
That she does.
So this means she murdered all the children insider her and absorbed their personalities?!
Yes. Or maybe she just murdered the driver. Either way, she has killed before, and she may kill again.
But can cars themselves die?
They can: Doc Hudson, voiced by Paul Newman, passed away sometime between Cars and Cars 2. (Newman himself died in 2008.) A big part of Cars 3 is race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) paying homage to his lost mentor. But it’s unclear how Doc died—apparently, a scene depicting it was deemed too depressing for Cars 3—so we may never know why these hyper-intelligent murder machines can’t just keep replacing their own parts ad infinitum.
Did anything besides the cars survive the car-pocalypse?
Well, in this universe, there are insects—except if you look closely at them, they’re actually teeny VW Bugs with wings. Cars 3 indicates that there are still crabs, although we don’t get to see them up close, so it’s not clear whether we’re talking crab-crabs or car-crabs. Then again, the Japanese cars in Cars 2 eat sushi, which I guess means there’s still fish? I don’t know, man.
On that note: how do cars reproduce?
That is a total mystery. We know that there are male cars and female cars—though sex in this world may be based entirely on the way a car’s voice sounds and its name, since all cars appear to have the same general anatomy—and that the cars have families; Lightning’s racing sponsors are brothers. We also see at least one child car in Cars 3. Was he born or built? If he was born . . . how? The world may never know.
I feel like we’ve gotten off track here. Weren’t you going to tell me whether Cars 3 is any good?
Well, as a movie, Cars 3 is pretty ho-hum and derivative; it’s basically an automotive Rocky III—Lightning is past his prime, but he’s determined to come back for one more race—with a surprise dash of Million Dollar Baby. (Not that part.) It’s loud and colorful, and there’s enough vroom-vrooming to keep any automobile-obsessed kid happy for an hour and 49 minutes, but that’s about it. As a jumping-off point for bizarre thought experiments, though, Cars 3 is unparalleled. I’d argue that overthinking Cars is the whole point of seeing a Cars movie, at least if you’re over the age of, let’s say, 9.
But sure, to its credit: the movie’s ending is a slightly encouraging stab at inclusivity, especially coming from a studio that, great as it is, has historically had trouble creating distinctive female characters.
How’s that, exactly?
Assuming you don’t care about Cars 3 spoilers: throughout the movie, Lightning has been working with a scrappy young trainer named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who’s always been too afraid to try racing herself. Why? Because she’s a female car and all the other racers are male, though the movie never comes right out and says this in as many words—perhaps because it realizes how ridiculous it sounds. (Cruz tells us that she isn’t like the other racers, even though she still has four wheels and an engine and those creepy, creepy teeth.)
In the climactic final competition, though, Lightning graciously steps—drives?—aside so that Cruz can finish the race, after acknowledging that she’s faster than he is, and all she really needs to do is believe in herself. (Lightning never had issues with self-confidence, probably because of his unchecked male-car privilege.)
So there you have it: Cars 3 is ultimately about a man recognizing his own obsolescence and clearing the track for a woman who’s better than him.
Or it’s just a way for Disney to get girls to buy more car toys.
That is also very possible.