Critical Mass: The first reviews of Pixar's new 'Cars' installment have arrived

A little more than 10 years after the first Cars movie revved its way onto the big screen, a second sequel is set to follow in its tracks when Cars 3 hits theaters this Friday.

The third movie in Pixar’s franchise — following Cars and Cars 2 — sees Owen Wilson return to voice race car Lightning McQueen, who must go on a journey to get in touch with his inner racing legend while bonding with, and later inspiring, his new trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). Unlike 2011’s Cars 2, which was widely panned and booked a 39 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Cars 3 has so far proved mostly fresh at 69 percent, with critics who’ve seen the movie mostly agreeing that the film is a perfectly serviceable ride.

“First-time director Brian Fee, whose résumé is stacked mostly with art-department credits, feels like a farm-team substitute for in-house superstars like Andrew Stanton (A Bug’s Life, WALL·E, Finding Dory) and Pete Docter (Monsters Inc., Up, Inside Out), the Pixar auteurs whose signature mix of visual wizardry, comic whimsy, and tenderhearted storytelling has come to define the company’s best films,” says EW’s Leah Greenblatt in her B- review. “Instead, Fee steers Cars 3 like the sleek piece of movie machinery it is — a standard ride with a half-full tank, a gorgeous paint job, and not much at all under the hood.”

Similarly, Variety‘s Owen Gleiberman notes the new sequel feels very much like the first Cars movie, but with a few twists in themes thanks to the featuring of Alonzo’s character.

Cars 3 is very much a tale of mentorship, of learning how to give up your ego in order to bolster someone else’s. As such, it’s touching in a pleasingly formulaic, pass-the-torch way. It turns out to be a girl-power movie: Cruz Ramirez is a trainer because she never believed in herself as a racer, and it’s up to Lightning to set her straight,” writes Gleiberman. “Yet even as I was moved by the story, with its gender paradigm shift, that didn’t stop me from wishing that Cruz was a more idiosyncratic character; she should have been wilder and funnier, defined by something other than her self-doubt.”

UPROXX‘s Mike Ryan finds similarities between Cars 3 and Rocky III.

“These movies do have a lot of the same beats. The beach race aside, it’s about a champ (Rocky/Lightning) losing to a better opponent (Clubber Lang/Jackson Storm) and having to find a new trainer (Apollo/Cruz) after his old trainer dies (Mickey/Doc) and having to go ‘back to basics’ after a new and improved training regimen doesn’t work – then eventually facing that same better opponent once again.”

Cars 3 hits theaters Friday. Check out a selection reviews below.

Leah Greenblatt (Entertainment Weekly)
“Once [Lightning and Cruz’] axels hit gravel, the script finally begins to settle into something less mindlessly metallic and more recognizably human. The pair’s bonding sessions — and obligatory “just dream it!” life lessons — are hardly revelatory, or even especially engaging. But they have a folksy, loose-limbed ease that feels like stark relief after the ­sterile dazzle of the high-octane stadium scenes, which are played for such straightforward NASCAR action that they seem almost documentary — a faulty cable box flipped to an ESPN highlight reel. In the midst of those technically impressive but narratively numbing stretches, the mind inevitably begins to wander, and wonder: Where do Cars babies come from? Why do all the doors have handles if they don’t have hands? Are their hearts under the hood, or is that where the brains are?”

Owen Gleiberman (Variety)
“On the short of list of movie sequels that are great (The Godfather Part II being the ne plus ultra), both the Toy Story sequels loom as brilliant follow-ups that audaciously extend the appeal of the original “Toy Story.” That’s the bar that Pixar set for itself. Cars 3 is a friendly, rollicking movie made with warmth and dash, and to the extent that it taps our primal affection for this series, it more than gets the job done. Yet in many ways it’s the tasteful version of a straight-to-DVD (or streaming) sequel. Audiences should come out satisfied, and in satisfying numbers, but the upshot is that this year’s Pixar film is a finely executed product rather than an inspiring work of animated artistry.”

Michael Rechtshaffen (The Hollywood Reporter)
“Like its predecessors, the film is visually quite splendid and, especially for an animated feature, stirringly well lit, most notably in a racing sequence set along a photo-realistic beach during golden hour and another on a vividly moonlit night. But despite its many winning characters and good intentions, Cars 3 functions mainly as a tenderly rendered, wish-you-were-here picture postcard to Newman, whose absence, while affectionately noted, ultimately serves as a reminder why Lightning can never truly strike twice.”

Brian Truitt (USA Today)
“While still not a Pixar classic by any stretch, Lightning McQueen and his four-wheeled bunch at least get in the right lane finally with the surprisingly deep Cars 3 (**½ out of four; rated G; in theaters nationwide Friday), which amounts to Rocky IV with anthropomorphic automobiles. The aging champ has lost his mojo, he needs to battle a new-school foe to get it back and there’s a strange path to get there… Some punny lines are painful — just a warning, ‘Life’s a beach and then you drive’ does get uttered on a sandy track — and the plot doesn’t even pretend to be unpredictable. But Cars 3 at least tries to put a little extra in the tank this time around.”

Eric Kohn (IndieWire)
Cars 3 still lurches through an aimless middle section and, yes, runs out of gas before the credits roll, but it never completely derails the sense of a sharper, intelligent version of this otherwise familiar routine. Notably, the movie finds Lightning at odds with the demands of an affluent sponsor keen on cashing in on his appeal. Considering that it’s a second sequel in a less-than-revered franchise, it’s a minor miracle that Cars 3 hits the finish line with a fresh sense of purpose.”

Eric Goldman (IGN)
Cars 3 may not be among the best films Pixar has made, but it’s definitely the best film in the Cars series and the first to feel worthy of the Pixar label. It’s got more on its mind than simply being about Lightning trying to win a race and is the first Cars film likely to truly resonate with a larger audience beyond the kids who love it already. While it feels like it could use a more nuanced antagonist and is hit or miss in the comedy realm, there’s a nice sense of closure here, too, which would make this a perfect and redemptive beat to end the story on – both for the characters and the franchise as a whole. Lightning McQueen, you’ve come a long way.”

Tod VanDerWerff (VOX)
“Cars 3 skews more toward the original flavor than the sequel (a spy movie–inflected mess that revealed a Pixar slightly out of its depth with something so action-heavy). It’s not to the level of that first film, but its amiable, ambling nature keeps it from becoming too boxed in by its needlessly contorted plot (which all but spoils its own ending very early on, then spends roughly an hour futilely avoiding said ending).”

Alonso Duralde (The Wrap)
“It’s become impossible to watch the Cars movies without thinking about the inevitable product tie-ins; every new character means the opportunity for more toys, backpacks and bed sheets for the franchise’s toddler fan base, and every establishing shot of the town of Radiator Springs made me admire the degree to which the all-automotive village has been skillfully recreated at Disneyland. As a spawner of merchandise, Cars 3 fires on all pistons but, as a movie, it’s a harmless but never stimulating 109 minutes.”

Mike Ryan (UPROXX)
“There are a lot of themes here about getting older and knowing when it’s time to let someone younger and better take your place. There’s a hint of sadness that seems to be present throughout Cars 3 that gives it a little more weight than the previous installments… Who knew that adding some emotional weight and unconsciously using some themes from Rocky III could add a little much needed depth and humanity to these sentient automobiles?”

Drew Taylor (The Playlist)
“It’s been more than a decade since the first [Cars] film and it’s nice to see the filmmakers treat the passage of time with respect and dignity. Indeed, one of the lessons Smokey imparts is the dignity of aging and the fulfillment that comes from letting someone younger take center stage (it’s hard not to see this as a metaphor for Lasseter letting Fee take over the series’ directorial duties). If this is the end of the Cars franchise, at least in this form, then Cars 3 makes sure that the series goes out on a graceful, hopeful note. As the old saying goes, it’s not the years it’s the mileage and Cars 3 makes that metaphor beautifully literal.”

Cars 3
  • Movie
  • 109 minutes