Cars (Image: Disney. Graphic: Jimmy Hasse)

With Run The Series, The A.V. Club examines film franchises, studying how they change and evolve with each new installment.

From 2007 to 2010, the animation company Pixar, fresh off its purchase by Disney, went on an astonishing run that equals or surpasses just about any streak of American feature animation made by anyone, including its parent company. While picking the “best” Pixar movie is probably a fool’s game, convincing cases could be made for any of these four released in successive years between 2007 and 2010: Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3. It’s all the more surprising, then, that this spectacular quartet is flanked on the Pixar timeline by two pillars of relative embarrassment: Cars (2006) and Cars 2 (2011). This summer, Pixar made it a trilogy with Cars 3.

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When Cars came out, it was only the seventh Pixar feature, so there wasn’t a great deal of shame when it was more or less universally considered the studio’s weakest film. Appropriately, its status as a consensus worst-of choice was supplanted five years later by Cars 2—a movie that, if anything, has fewer defenders than its predecessor. I wish I could offer a thoughtful dissenting opinion, but while I’ll stick up for Brave and The Good Dinosaur as underappreciated original efforts, I have to agree with the cranky adult masses about Cars 2: It is the worst Pixar movie. Handily.

Yet the Cars series is only the second Pixar franchise to reach three entries, with the release of Cars 3, and the only one to produce a series of spin-offs, the non-Pixar (but John Lasseter-produced and theatrically released) Planes and Planes: Fire & Rescue. It did all of this in far less time than the Toy Story series, which in 2019 will see the release of its fourth installment, nearly 24 years after the groundbreaking original. The Cars saga managed to produce five installments in just 11 years—almost as if it required less thought and effort than Pixar’s flagship series.

Some parents may issue the rare Pixar-related groan, but the Cars trilogy-plus has been a big business for the studio, and millions of kids love it. This makes sense: It is extremely—in the hallowed words of ’90s Warner Bros. executives—toyetic. Kids have been ascribing personalities to their toy cars for decades, and like Toy Story, the central conceit of Cars confirms what children have long suspected and/or dreamed of: that inanimate objects they love are, in fact, alive. Cars goes further than Toy Story, though, by making the toys life-sized, and (as far as we can tell from the series) beholden to no larger humans who might want to control or limit their adventures. In the Toy Story movies, just leaving a room is a momentous undertaking for the characters. In the Cars movies, the vehicles are utterly, perhaps terrifyingly, free.

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This makes the world of the series fun to speculate about, as ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer has done gleefully this past spring. But the delightful weirdness of the Cars universe may also be its limitation. There may be a certain formula to the way that Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo all explore unseen facets of a world that resembles our own. In fact, it’s definitely a formula; that’s part of the reason those Pixar projects from the late ’00s seem even more inventive. But Pixar isn’t always about bucking formula. It’s very often about executing formula with great wit, style, and emotion, obscuring the story mechanics beneath all of those qualities. The strange accidental science fiction of the Cars series should be an even more elaborate distraction from a formulaic story, but it goes too far in the other direction. So little of what is compelling about these movies has to do with the characters, plotting, jokes, or emotions. They don’t run quite as smoothly as even second-tier Pixar.

Yet the first Cars is not remotely a bad movie. It’s certainly more beautiful and idiosyncratic than any number of other contemporary animation studios’ better efforts. As many have pointed out, the story is basically the Michael J. Fox movie Doc Hollywood minus the surprise nudity (or, depending on your interpretation of the social mores in the Cars world, plus near-constant nudity). Here, the hotshot waylaid in a small town en route to more glamorous environs isn’t a surgeon with a sweet car but an actual car by the name of Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson). He’s desperate to get to a tie-breaking NASCAR-style championship race, but forced to repair his damage to a single main road that runs through Radiator Springs. This formerly bustling town on Route 66, somewhere around Arizona or New Mexico (statehood seems to remain in this human-free alternate universe), is populated by the usual small-town eccentrics, including the hick-ish tow truck Mater (Larry The Cable Guy), the positive-thinking Sally (Bonnie Hunt), and the grumpy vintage recluse Doc Hudson (Paul Newman).

The movie espouses the virtues of slowing down to appreciate life’s quieter, simpler pleasures. This is something the movie both practices, by setting a still-held record for longest Pixar feature, and flouts, by needlessly complicating McQueen’s long road to the movie’s actual plot. Pixar movies often show off brilliantly staged chase sequences, and it’s refreshing that its race car movie is often downright prosaic by comparison. But the elaborate circumstances of McQueen’s stranding in Radiator Springs (and several subsequent escape attempts) have all of the business and movement of classic Pixar set pieces without much of the fun.

When the movie gets genuinely slow, though, it takes on a contemplative tone, particularly in the history montage where the characters explain how Radiator Springs went from popular road-trip spot to bypassed curio too far from the highway. This is where John Lasseter, directing his first Pixar movie since Toy Story 2, shines—celebrating bygone Americana while maintaining the hope that it might not be lost forever. This celebration just so happens to feature the comic stylings of Larry The Cable Guy.

It’s probably not fair to beat up on Mr. The Cable Guy; little of his stand-up act’s affected idiocy makes it into his character beyond the hillbilly veneer and a single catchphrase utterance (repeated at least once in each subsequent sequel). Frankly, if Mater was assayed by an anonymous voice actor saying the same lines, hatred for him probably would have been reduced by at least 50 percent. But Larry The Cable Guy’s presence in Cars, his subsequent elevation to a leading role in Cars 2, and even his continued presence in Cars 3 (however scaled back) clearly rubs plenty of Pixar fans the wrong way. Lasseter and his non-Pixar ringers made a stylistically dissimilar but weirdly compatible decision when they cast Dane Cook as the lead voice in the Planes series. Dusty Crophopper, the crop-dusting plane eager to race in those movies, doesn’t take on the more noxious elements of Cook’s stand-up persona; he was probably cast, as Patton Oswalt or Dave Foley or Amy Poehler were, for vocal qualities, not to shape the comic sensibility of the film. But his vocal presence alone will be enough to irritate plenty of snobs in the audience (yours truly included).

Hipness has never been this series’ concern, though. The first Cars was one of three racing-themed movies that came out in the summer of 2006, the other two being Talladega Nights and The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift. Of those three, it’s by far the most unironically appreciative of NASCAR culture, as opposed to the satire of Talladega or the quasi-underground cool of Tokyo Drift. Sincere interest in vehicles going fast to the delight of a roaring crowd is also all over Cars 2 (which takes a more international approach but also follows a feature-length global car race) and the first Planes (which is basically the same as the Lightning McQueen half of the Cars 2 plot, married to an inversion of the first movie: Instead of a hotshot racer who gets stuck in a small town, Dusty is a small-town dreamer who yearns to become a hotshot racer). Even Cars 3, which attempts to address the aging process, wraps that up in concern for whether cars can go really, really fast.

Cars 2 deserves some credit for doing something entirely different from its predecessor—in addition to being a racing movie, it’s a globe-hopping, action-heavy adventure starring Mater rather than a lesson about life’s quieter pleasures starring McQueen. Its opening is even one of the best sequences in the series. An episode of spy intrigue populated entirely by sentient vehicles is a deeply silly idea, but the first scene of Cars 2 perfectly realizes that silliness, following the exploits of spymobile Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) as he sneaks onto a ship in the middle of the ocean, spies on nefarious enemy cars, and makes a spectacular getaway.

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Eventually, the movie sucks Mater into its spy plot as part of an extended mistaken-identity farce, and while it’s still fun to watch spy cars voiced by the likes of Caine and Bruce Campbell perform impossible vehicular stunts, adding a slapstick dimension (which seems like it should be right in Pixar’s wheelhouse) turns Cars 2 into one of those overblown action-comedies where the action drowns out the comedy and simple-minded lessons overpower the action. It also feels, more so even than Cars, like a movie solely for children.

The Planes spin-offs continue that progression, adding in the strange-but-true disadvantage that plane-windshield eyes are less expressive than car-windshield eyes. The first Planes reverses that Cars pokiness into pure kid-movie expedience: Dusty doesn’t stumble unexpectedly into the path of his crusty Doc Hudson-style mentor figure; he seeks him out within the first 10 minutes. Similarly, Dusty’s entry and participation in an ambitious multiday worldwide plane race isn’t especially complicated; he gets lucky, and then bad guys conspire against him. The animation isn’t nearly up to Pixar standards, but it’s better than a bargain-basement rip-off, which presumably explains Disney’s decision to release the Planes movies theatrically instead of directly to DVD as originally planned. Although it makes a few intriguing missteps, like a bizarre detour in the Pacific Ocean theater of the Cars-world version of World War II via a brief and casualty-heavy flashback, Planes isn’t offensively terrible. It’s just talkier, exposition-heavier, and all-around duller than its four-wheeled cousins. It feels nearly as long at 90 minutes as Cars does at two hours.

That’s also true of the hasty and even-shorter follow-up Planes: Fire & Rescue, which seems to exist to answer a cynical series of rhetorical questions: Hey, kids like firetrucks, too, right? And their parents get some satisfaction from nodding in solemn approval when others laud the heroism of firefighters? And, as such, audiences of all ages will surely be roused by the sound of guitar riffs, alternately faux-bitchin’ and faux-inspirational, accompanying the sight of a bunch of tough airplanes and trucks training to take out fires?

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In Planes: Fire & Rescue, suddenly crop duster turned champion racer Dusty needs to become a firefighter to save his local airport, which isn’t up to code. The existence of stringent safety regulations in the Cars-verse is puzzling, because the vehicles seem vastly more likely to survive a terrible crash than either humans or vehicles in our world. Even the hilariously dark and realistic-looking crash that served as the teaser trailer for Cars 3 takes Lightning McQueen about 15 seconds of screentime to recover from in the actual movie, at least physically, with no reference made to any significant rehabilitation work on his body.

Planes: Fire & Rescue is almost as tedious as its predecessor. But if it’s arguably more craven for approval than the Cars films that came before it (dedicating itself to real firefighters before the Disney logo even comes up), it’s also less directly derivative of them. Making Dusty a wannabe firefighter instead of a wannabe Lightning McQueen does make him more likable (though not especially more interesting), and the movie sometimes comes up with amusingly weird gags, like one of the rescue choppers having previously starred on a TV show called CHoPS, a tape of which is inexplicably housed in a case for the movie Howard The Truck. Still, it’s a pretty thin broth for all but the younger-but-not-too-young kids (my under-2 daughter, who lasted a solid 20 minutes into Cars, bailed on Fire & Rescue after about five).

Cars 3 returns the series to Pixar, and clearly wants to redeem itself to some degree. Mater’s role, as mentioned, is minimized, though the pauses for his shtick feel longer than ever, and the movie returns Doc Hudson to the fore, despite his being dead. (Doc’s offscreen departure into whatever insane hell passes for a Cars afterlife was written into Cars 2 to coincide with Paul Newman’s death.) It also gives McQueen a coach-turned-protégé in the form of a younger, female-identified car (how is that determination made, by the way?) named Cruz (Cristela Alonzo). The plot is a mishmash of everything from Rocky III to Rocky Balboa to Creed.

As ever, a speed-obsessed Cars movie is surprisingly slow out of the gate and decidedly overlong in general, and the jokes more than ever seem to depend on characters delivering lame car puns and sometimes even pointing them out. But McQueen’s anxiety about aging does ground the movie to some degree, even if it seems reluctant to show him aging in any way but placing him alongside newer, sleeker, meaner car opponents. Cars 3 also contains perhaps the series’ only race that generates actual suspense, in part because the clear modeling on the Rocky series makes it seem possible that the good guys could actually lose for once. Like any Pixar movie, it has some great visual touches, like a crazed demolition derby sequence or the more wistful shallow-focus textures of a flashback scene. It’s less bonkers than Cars 2, but more involving.

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The main problem with Cars 3, really, is that it’s a Cars movie. Even at its first-movie best, this is a difficult origin to transcend. They’re all happy to equate race car driving with athleticism, co-opt a Larry The Cable Guy catchphrase, or compete for the title of dumbest down-home music cue. (Do you go with the straightforward awfulness of Rascal Flatts covering “Life Is A Highway,” or the more elaborate atrocity of Brad Paisley and Robbie Williams performing the awkwardly named ode to cross-culture pollination “Collision Of Worlds”?) The series is the closest Disney has come in recent years to constructing an expensive monument to bad taste.

This actually makes it difficult to rail against the Cars movies without sounding like the adult who wants to appreciate Pixar on a much deeper level than mere children—or, say, an East Coast film critic who finds it hard to gin up interest in NASCAR unless Will Ferrell is making fun of it. To Pixar’s credit, there is something delightful about the pure, kid-hypnotizing simplicity of goofy-talking automobiles chased with, say, a chilling glimpse of a Cars-ified Statue Of Liberty (thanks, Planes). There are fleeting moments when Lasseter’s deranged enthusiasm for this world becomes infectious. Even when Pixar tries to pander, it comes up with something singular.

Final ranking:
1. Cars (2006)
2. Cars 3 (2017)
3. Cars 2 (2011)
4. Planes: Fire & Rescue (2014)
5. Planes (2013)

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