If there’s anything I know about writing movie reviews, it’s that they probably shouldn’t be written while the movie’s afterglow is still washing over you.
Cars 3 was so good that I can’t help myself. I have to tell you about it now.
I think if movies can do three things I’ll like them.
The first is to tell a good story. This comes in two parts in my mind. The first part is the so-called “refrigerator test,” which I’ve heard attributed to Alfred Hitchcock. It goes like this: if you wake up in the middle of the night and go to the refrigerator in order to get something to eat and you realize that something in the movie didn’t make sense, the movie passed the refrigerator test. The movie did a good job and made sense in the moment.
On the other hand, if you’re watching the movie and realize something is wrong, the movie fails the test.
The second part of a good story lies in how much it engrosses you. Can it catch and hold your attention for its duration, or does it leave you bored or less engrossed for long stretches?
Cars 3 passes on both counts.
The second thing good movies do is use good dialogue. I can like the story, I can like the acting or animation, I can like the themes and the music, but if the dialogue is bad, I’m out.
To be clear, this isn’t dialogue that seems like something the character wouldn’t say. Anything any character says that seems wrong to you is just an extended failing of the refrigerator test.
What I’m talking about is when the dialogue that is uttered sounds like something no one would ever say because of the way in which it was constructed. It’s tinny and it sounds fake even if delivered well, and even if, in its own roundabout way it makes sense as something that he character would say. Not every character needs to sound distinctive. In fact, most people sound fairly normal and so should most characters.1
The third thing good movies do is say something. I think a lot of people would say that it needs to say something profound, but I don’t think that’s the case. One of the best pieces of advice I got in college, and I’m giving this away for free,” is this: Don’t try to write a conclusion that frames your paper as something utterly powerful that ought to reshape the way in which we see the world. Instead, focus on writing a conclusion that speaks to the actual importance of the argument you laid out in the paper. Even if you’re forced to say that it’s not that important in the grand scheme of things, your paper will be stronger as a whole because you didn’t overstate things at the very end.
And I think that’s a big part of what makes Cars 3 so good. It doesn’t try to sell you on big themes or big ideas. They’re not trying to save the world. In fact, one of the big themes of the movie is that the world is moving on regardless of what the main cast does. The big ethical dilemma they face is in finding what they can do despite the changes that are going on.
It’s a movie about growing old and moving on with grace, which are weird themes for a kids movie. I should probably do separate pots about these topics, and maybe I will at some point, but I’m ready to rank Cars 3 somewhere in the top half, or maybe even the top-five Pixar movies of all time. And I’m also ready to make the case that Pixar doesn’t make kids movies; it makes movies for adults.
At the moment, I only have circumstantial evidence. There’s a ton of humor in the movies that is destined to sail right over most kids’ heads. My dad still brings up “Mount Wannahockaloogie” a few times a year, almost 15 years after the movie came out.
Cars 3 features the line “Life’s a beach, and then you drive,” which is both a topical pun and horribly inappropriate for children. That doesn’t mean that the movie won’t be fun for children—just that there are layers they won’t understand. By the way, Cars 3 is a wonderfully funny movie.
And let’s look at the stories themselves. Cars 3 is about growing old. Ratatouille is about finding your calling in a world that doesn’t understand you. Finding Nemo is about a reclusive father searching for his lost son. The Incredibles is about knowing and doing the right thing in a world with superpowers.
Sure, some of the plots, settings, or characters might look like something you’d choose for a children’s movie, especially Toy Story, there’s usually some heavy stuff. Mrs. Incredible thinks her husband is cheating on her. Carl is desperately lonely. Doc Hudson is bitter. Syndrome wants revenge—on the good guys. WALL-E features both a post-apocalypse and an evil AI. Inside Out features a depressed adolescent.
I guess what I’m trying to say is this: these movies tell adult stories and address adult themes, but they do without any of the violence or sex or gritty and dark tones that adult movies so often have. Which makes me wonder what a kids movie actually is, as I feel like, at their core, Pixar movies have a way of getting at emotional truths that are on par with their “adult” equivalents.
Amazingly, I appear to have just reviewed Cars 3 without saying much about the movie. Now that it’s out of theaters, find it on Netflix and give it a watch. I was entertained, I laughed, and the quality of the movie made me wonder if Pixar is on the verge of reentering a golden age.