Soul review

For F*** Magazine

Director: Pete Docter
Cast : Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga, Wes Studi
Genre: Animation/Comedy/Fantasy
Run Time : 106 min
Opens : 25 December 2020
Rating : PG

Of the mainstream animated studios out there, Pixar has a reputation for generally making more sophisticated fare than its competitors. With Soul, Pixar tackles a question no loftier than “what makes you who you are?”

Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) is a middle school band teacher and an aspiring jazz pianist. Just when he’s about to get his big break performing with the Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett) quartet, he falls down a manhole and goes into a coma. Joe’s soul, bound for The Great Beyond, escapes to the You Seminar, formerly known as “The Great Before”. This is where souls live and gain defining characteristics before they enter corporeal bodies on earth. Joe meets 22 (Tina Fey), a soul who has spent thousands of years evading becoming human. As Joe fights to return to his body on earth, 22 gains an unexpected understanding of, and perhaps an appreciation for, the life she has been trying so hard to avoid.

Soul is hugely ambitious, a metaphysical, existential odyssey that is challenging and sometimes satisfying to embark upon. It is a lively, funny creation; obviously the effort of artists and technicians who have poured their hearts and, well, souls into their work. Director Pete Docter, who co-wrote the film with Mike Jones and Kemp Powers, gives Soul a poignancy that is difficult to describe.

Soul also faces the immense challenge of creating a view of the afterlife (and the ‘afore-life’) that is compatible with multiple belief systems. Great care was taken in shaping the world of the film, with the filmmakers consulting with various religious and cultural experts. The result is something vaguely new-agey and spiritual, but never explicitly religious.

Soul’s design is also often eye-catching, with some clever ideas at play. To convey the ephemeral, intangible nature of a soul, the designers were inspired by the low-density material aerogel. There’s a lot going on here, and a lot of it immensely clever. Soul is, naturally, an intensely emotional film that left this reviewer in tears. It is especially resonant for anyone who’s tried to make a living doing anything creative.

Soul does not seem like a movie made primarily for children and might be Pixar’s least accessible film yet. It is perhaps more difficult to get into than Inside Out, Docter’s previous Pixar film. This does not mean that it doesn’t have elements in it that children will enjoy, but it is going to be difficult for parents to explain what the movie is about. Soul also feels like a movie that is often in search of itself, which befits its themes, but also means it sometimes goes off in many directions. This is a film that demands to be engaged with, but its take on heady philosophical matters can seem a little simplistic or reductive at times.

There are few things as universally moving as music, so it is a canny move to centre the movie on a musician. Soul’s soundscape is a richly textured one, with jazz at its core. Co-writer Powers is, like the protagonist Joe, a Black man from New York in his mid-40s and was a journalist and music critic. Jon Batiste wrote and performed the original jazz tracks in the score, in addition to providing the animators reference for Joe’s piano playing. There is great attention paid to the cultural significance of jazz, with jazz legend Herbie Hancock and anthropologist Dr Johnnetta Cole being two of the consultants on board. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, known for scoring David Fincher films like The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl, seem like unlikely candidates to score a Pixar film, but they deliver moving, uncharacteristically gentle work that is still the right amount of haunting.

Pixar’s films are generally cast well, and Soul is no exception. Jamie Foxx effortlessly essays passion and earnestness, while Tina Fey is endearing as the cynical 22, world-weary despite having never lived. Fey contributed to her character’s dialogue; 22 makes a great throwaway dig at the New York Knicks. Phylicia Rashad breathes life into the relatively small role of Joe’s stern yet loving mother and Angela Bassett is as commanding a presence as ever, voicing a legendary saxophonist. Talk show host Graham Norton brings a friendly quirkiness to hippie sign-twirler Moonwind and Rachel House is funny as the tightly-wound bureaucrat Terry, a soul-counter.

Summary: Made with an abundance of sensitivity and intelligence, Soul artfully tackles some gigantic questions in a resonant manner. Its thematic maturity means that parents will have their work cut out for them in explaining the movie to younger children, but this is a wholly rewarding experience.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Onward review

For F*** Magazine

ONWARD

Director: Dan Scanlon
Cast : Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodriguez
Genre: Animation/Adventure/Comedy
Run Time : 1 h 42 mins
Opens : 5 March 2020
Rating : PG

Marvel Cinematic Universe stars Tom Holland and Chris Pratt take a detour into another fantastical realm in this animated adventure comedy from Pixar.

Holland and Pratt voice elf brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot respectively. They live with their mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), their father having passed away when Barley was very young and before Ian had any memory of him. On the day of Ian’s 16th birthday, he is gifted a magical staff and an accompanying scroll – inscribed upon it is a spell that could bring their father back to life for just one day. Unfortunately, there’s a hitch and only their father’s legs materialise. Ian and Barley must go on a quest in search of the Phoenix gem to bring all of their father back before the 24-hour window expires.

Onward uses its lead voice actors to great effect, with Holland and Pratt both playing to type – Holland’s Ian is the awkward reserved young man who’s coming of age, while Pratt’s Barley is enthusiastic and boisterous if irresponsible. The movie hinges upon Ian and Barley’s relationship as siblings and does a good job of showing how even though they fight and disagree, they ultimately love each other and must be there for each other especially since they have lost their father.

This being Pixar, the animation is superb, even if the film is not quite as remarkable design-wise as some of the studio’s other efforts. There isn’t much in the way of elaborate set-pieces, save for a big climactic battle sequence. There’s still a great attention to detail and there is amusement to be derived from the film’s milieu of a modern world populated by magical creatures. There are several inspired gags that are set up and paid off nicely, as well as a good amount of physical comedy – the film gets a lot of mileage out of the floppy “dummy” that stands in for the missing upper body of Ian and Barley’s father.

Octavia Spencer voices Corey, a Manticore who runs a tavern and whose glory days are somewhat behind her. The film includes a subplot in which Laurel seeks Corey’s help to find her missing sons and ensure their safety. Corey makes for a fun side character.

While Onward has the novelty of being Pixar’s first real foray into the high fantasy genre, its plot is extremely generic – it’s a chosen one hero’s journey, right down to the rite of passage that takes place on a significant birthday. It feels like the movie has bursts of inspiration, with serviceable story beats in between. Almost all of Pixar’s movies can be classified as road trip stories in some form or another, and Onward is no exception. We know our heroes will meet colourful characters and get into scrapes along the way, but it feels like Onward falls just a bit short of its full imaginative potential. It lacks the poignancy and the considered observations of other Pixar films – it is effectively emotional and moving, but also often in danger of coming off as emotionally manipulative.

The filmmakers demonstrate a palpable affection for Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: The Gathering and tabletop/card games of their ilk. The film even includes two actual D&D monsters, which appear courtesy of Wizards of the Coast. Once the target of the 80s “Satanic panic”, Onward is yet another sign of how D&D has entered the mainstream pop culture consciousness.

A big part of what makes the movie work is that there is a personal component for director and co-writer Dan Scanlon, who also helmed Monster’s University for Pixar. Scanlon’s father passed away when he was one and his brother was three, leaving behind a tape recording of him simply saying “hi” and “bye”. The film’s palpable emotional resonance is a result of Scanlon bringing this personal history to the table.

Summary: Onward’s plot may be an old-fashioned hero’s journey and its fantasy elements might be familiar even though they’re blended with modern day trappings, but there’s sincerity and joy in this tale of brotherhood and bereavement. This is not quite Pixar’s best, but it’s still going to find a devoted audience.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Toy Story 4 review

For inSing

TOY STORY 4

Director: Josh Cooley
Cast : Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Christina Hendricks, Joan Cusack, Madeleine McGraw, Keanu Reeves, June Squibb
Genre : Comedy/Animation/Family
Run Time : 1 h 40 mins
Opens : 20 June 2019
Rating : PG

            The denizens of Andy’s toy box are back, reuniting audiences with friends old and new in the fourth instalment of Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story film series.

At the end of Toy Story 3, Woody (Tom Hanks), Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Hamm (John Ratzenberger) and the other toys were given by Andy to a young girl named Bonnie (Madeleine McGraw). A few years later, Bonnie is starting kindergarten, and at orientation, she makes a new toy from arts and crafts: Forky (Tony Hale), who is comprised of a disposable spork, pipe cleaners, googly eyes, a popsicle stick and plasticine.

Forky becomes Bonnie’s favourite toy, but Woody and the other toys have a hard time dealing with Forky because formerly being a spork, this new existence has been unexpectedly thrust upon him. When Bonnie takes Woody, Buzz, Forky and other toys along with her on a road trip with her parents, Forky attempts to escape. While chasing after him, Woody discovers an antique store where the long-lost Bo Peep (Annie Potts) now lives. The antique store is also home to the doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks) and her unsettling army of ventriloquist dummy henchmen. Woody must escape Gabby Gabby’s clutches and bring Forky back to Bonnie, as his unexpected reunion with Bo Peep upends his existence.

The Toy Story trilogy comes extremely close to perfection, and the announcement of a fourth film was met with understandable scepticism. We should’ve known that Pixar would deliver – while it may not have the richness and complexity that Toy Story 3 did, Toy Story 4 is an excellent addition to the series. Josh Cooley, who started out at Pixar as a storyboard artist on The Incredibles, helms a film that is funny, thrilling and moving. It’s a road trip movie that hits all the right notes.

Thematically, Toy Story 4 is about purpose, and what happens when purpose goes unfulfilled. The purpose of a children’s toy is to be played with, and multiple characters in the film long to be loved by their owners but have instead been neglected. This has been a running theme in the series, but Toy Story 4 emphasises it by re-introducing Bo Peep. Through the Forky character, the film explores what exactly it means to be a toy.

The animation is, as expected, technically polished. The film places familiar characters in unfamiliar environments, with the main new locations being the bright, inviting travelling fairground and the shadowy, dusty antique store. Key to making the fantastical premises of toys that come alive work is in establishing the world as believable and tactile, which is accomplished here. Great attention is paid to the geometry of the set-pieces, in which potential dangers and obstacles are highlighted before the characters attempt to navigate them.

Many of the voice actors from the previous films return. Once again, it’s Woody who drives the story, with Tom Hanks’ performances helping to further flesh the character out. Woody’s insecurities were the catalyst of the conflict in the first Toy Story film, as he felt threatened by Buzz’s entrance onto the scene. In this film, Woody’s insecurities manifest in his fear of becoming a ‘lost toy’, and he projects some of these feelings onto Forky. It’s a satisfying arc that makes sense for the character.

Bo Peep has been turned into a resourceful action heroine, not entirely unlike Rey from the Star Wars sequel trilogy – they even both wield a staff. Bo Peep was absent from the third film, with Annie Potts returning to voice her. Her relationship with Woody and his reaction to how she has changed play a big part in the plot of this film, and the film attempts to give both parties closure.

Christina Hendricks’ Gabby Gabby is ostensibly the film’s antagonist, even if she’s not exactly a villain. There are superficial similarities between her and Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear, the villain of Toy Story 3, but Gabby is a less interesting character. She still manages to be equally threatening and empathetic – the film’s horror movie-inspired sequences are entertaining but stop short of being legitimately traumatising.

Tony Hale charmingly captures the neuroses of Forky, who is caught in the throes of existential panic. The idea behind the character is a witty one, and the film manages to get more out of Forky than just the one joke that he’s a toy who’s freaking out because he was not meant to be a toy.

The duo of Key and Peele voice plush toys Ducky and Bunny and provide some of the biggest laughs in the film, with a standout sequence being their plan to acquire a set of keys from the elderly owner of the antique store. The movie uses them just enough, such that their presence doesn’t feel overly gimmicky.

Another standout character is Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves). Reeves is enjoying a surge in popularity following the release of John Wick: Chapter 3, Always Be My Maybe and the announcement that he will be in the videogame Cyberpunk 2077. An Evel Knievel-type daredevil stuntman Duke seems to have come straight out of Robot Chicken. Reeves bring enthusiasm, gruffness and a hint of a Canadian accent to the part.

Director Cooley was 15 when the first Toy Story movie came out, and it’s remarkable that the series has maintained such consistently high quality across four instalments released over 24 years. Toy Story 4 offers up a beautifully realised adventure and engaging character dynamics, bringing more to the table than mere nostalgia. Yes, a fourth Toy Story film is not strictly necessary, but the film radiates such warmth and good heartedness that it’s useless to resist its embrace.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Incredibles 2 movie review

For inSing

INCREDIBLES 2

Director : Brad Bird
Cast : Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L. Jackson, Brad Bird, Jonathan Banks, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Sophia Bush, Phil LaMarr
Genre : Animation/Family/Action
Run Time : 125 mins
Opens : 14 June 2018
Rating : PG

A lot can happen in 14 years. While that’s how long audiences have had to wait for a sequel to Pixar’s The Incredibles, barely a minute has elapsed in-universe.

Incredibles 2 picks up right where the first film left off. Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), his wife Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), and their children Violet (Sarah Vowell), Dash (Huck Milner) and Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) seem like the ideal crime-fighting family. However, superheroes are still deemed illegal, with the authorities blaming the Incredibles and their ilk for the collateral damage incurred.

Enter Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), heir to a telecommunications fortune and superhero fanboy. Together with his sister Evelyn (Catherine Keener), Winston runs DeavorTech and has a plan to win over the public and lawmakers, to make superheroes legal again. Bob feels a touch insecure when DeavorTech gravitates towards Helen, making her the face of this campaign while he’s left at home looking after the children.

To complicate things, Jack-Jack begins manifesting an array of powers. In the meantime, Elastigirl faces off against a dastardly villain called ‘the Screenslaver’, who hypnotises his victims via monitors. Together with long-time allies Lucius Best/Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) and fashion designer Edna Mode (Brad Bird), The Parr family must adjust to the new status quo and save the world while they’re at it.

A follow-up to The Incredibles has been one of the most-requested films from Pixar fans. That movie was a game-changer, a stylish superhero film that also served as meta commentary on the superhero phenomenon. It’s been said that The Incredibles is the best Fantastic Four movie that could ever be made. It also touched on similar themes as the considerably more adult graphic novel Watchmen, primarily the relationship between superheroes and the public they protect, and following superheroes after they retire and attempt to adjust to everyday life.

As such, expectations for Incredibles 2 are sky-high. The film mostly meets those expectations. It’s unavoidable that the 14-year wait has dilated those expectations, but it’s important to consider how much the pop culture landscape has changed, and how big a boom the comic book movie genre has experienced in those intervening years. While Incredibles 2 isn’t as ground-breaking as its predecessor, it’s still enjoyable and, as expected from Pixar, finely made.

Many of the design elements first seen in The Incredibles are vividly expanded upon here. The appealing 50s-tinged retro-futurism is turbo-charged here – writer-director Brad Bird displays a similar mastery of nostalgia as he did with The Iron Giant. The Parrs move into a house that strongly resembles Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, and Michael Giacchino’s score homages both John Barry’s James Bond scores and Neal Hefti’s Batman ’66 theme. The influence of the classic Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons is also strongly felt. It’s nostalgia on multiple levels, since audiences are already nostalgic for the first Incredibles film. However, most nostalgia-driven media these days is centred around the 80s or 90s, not the 50s, giving Incredibles 2 a degree of novelty.

The action set pieces are marvels to behold. From the city-spanning spectacle of Elastgirl attempting to halt a runaway train to the physical comedy of Jack-Jack tussling with an unruly raccoon, Incredibles 2 packs in memorable, eye-catching moments. Several new superheroes, including the portal-generating Voyd (Sophia Bush), allow for even more dynamic visual invention. Every comic book movie seems to struggle with outdoing the last in terms of delivering spectacle, so its admirable that the action sequences in Incredibles 2 are as stylish and animated with as much panache as they are.

The characterisation remains consistent, and much of the fun and the heart in this film, as with the previous one, is in how convincing the Parrs are as a family unit. Superpowers may be thrown into the mix, but the interactions between parents and children are eminently relatable. Bob struggles with feeling inadequate as the spotlight is placed squarely on his wife, and the film fleshes this out instead of reducing it to a single joke. We see Bob try to be a good father to his three kids, struggling with understanding new math, helping Violet deal with relationship issues, and wrangling Jack-Jack, who can now disappear between dimensions (among other things).

Helen wants to be there for her family, but enjoys the thrill of solo superhero work, realising how much she’s missed that. Given how filmgoers are opening up to female-led superhero movies, it makes sense to train the spotlight on Elastigirl.

The Screenslaver has a cool gimmick and his character is commentary on our dependence on passive consumption of media. It’s meta, but not quite as meta as this reviewer was hoping. A supervillain with the power to control minds and brainwash heroes to do his bidding is hardly a fresh idea, but Incredibles 2 mostly makes it work.

The show is completely stolen by Jack-Jack. The film relishes in depicting the various mind-boggling abilities he exhibits, and how Bob and the other kids attempt to wrangle him. Lucius’ reaction to Jack-Jack’s powers is priceless, and the scene in which Bob goes to Edna for advice regarding the baby is hilarious. Despite a tendency to take the form of a demon, Jack-Jack is adorably good-natured yet not overly cutesy.

If you loved The Incredibles, there’s a lot in Incredibles 2 to enjoy. It might not reach the same heights as its predecessor, nor is it as poignant and emotional as many Pixar films, but it’s clear that plenty of love and effort went into constructing this stylish, entertaining movie.

Bao, the short film directed by Domee Shi that precedes the feature, is a gorgeously-animated, adorable and heart-rending meditation on empty nest syndrome which also plays on how integral food is to familial relations in Chinese families. Try not to watch it hungry.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Coco Movie Review

For inSing

COCO

Director : Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
Voice Cast : Gael García Bernal, Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt, Renée Victor
Genre : Animation/Comedy/Musical
Run Time : 109 mins (+22 mins for Olaf’s Frozen Adventure)
Opens : 23 November 2017
Rating : PG

Coco-posterThe dead have never been more alive than in this animated fantasy-comedy-musical. Nobody’s suffering from even the slightest hint of rigor mortis, and the Land of the Dead is filled with dancing and singing. That’s not to say there isn’t drama afoot.

Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) is a 12-year-old boy who dreams of being a musician, and who idolises the singer and film star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the most famous musician in the history of Mexico. There’s just one catch: music is forbidden from the Rivera household. This is because Miguel’s great-great-grandmother Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) was married to a musician, who abandoned the family and broke her heart. Miguel’s great-grandmother Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), the oldest living member of the Rivera clan, has never quite recovered from this.

On the night of Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead celebration, the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest. Miguel accidentally finds himself a visitor in the Land of the Dead where he meets his deceased relatives, who attempt to get Miguel safely home to the land of the living. Miguel befriends the roguish trickster Hector (Gael García Bernal), who says he can help Miguel cross back. It’s a family reunion between the living and the dead, but it’s also a race against time – if Miguel doesn’t make it back by sunrise, he will find himself a permanent resident in this ghostly realm.

Coco-Miguel-Hector-tram

The Mexican tradition of Día de Muertos has figured in popular culture before, notably in the computer game Grim Fandango, the earlier animated film The Book of Life, and in the pre-titles sequence of the Bond movie Spectre. Día de Muertos embodies an uplifting attitude towards death that treats it as a part of life – death is still mourned, but perhaps is not as feared or as a dreaded as in other cultures.

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Coco does not appear to cherry-pick elements of Mexican culture to bolt on to a generic product. This is a film which is richly authentic and takes sheer delight in being so. While director Unkrich is white and was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Coco does not feel like the work of a curious outsider peering in through the window. The screenplay is credited to Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich, and this is a strong, fully-realised story. Molina was promoted to co-director partway through production. The central conceit is clever, the characters are distinctive but not overly gimmicky, and the jaw-dropping twist is sheer masterful storytelling.

This being a Pixar film, the visuals are a joy to behold. The animation team had to rethink how the characters move, since the skeletal denizens of the afterlife do not have the musculature which informs how flesh-and-blood human beings move. The designers have great fun devising the look of the Land of the Dead. It’s colourful and zany, but everything feels guided by rock-solid design principles, and not one detail seems superfluous.

Coco-Miguel-Dante

Directors of photography Matt Aspbury and Danielle Feinberg utilise warm lighting that makes the afterlife appear inviting and festive rather than foreboding, while keeping it otherworldly. The film features a variety of creatures known as Alebrije, which function as spirit guides. Mama Imelda’s Alebrije, a winged jaguar called Pepita, is especially striking. Miguel’s ‘Alebrije’ of sorts is a mangy-but-loveable stray dog named Dante – after Dante’s Inferno.

The voice actors impart believable verve, and are just heightened and theatrical enough without coming off as too over-the-top. Miguel is eminently loveable, and the character’s conflict between following his passion for music and the life his family dictates for him is one that is readily relatable.

Coco-Hector-Miguel-1

The Hector character is a likeable scamp who can fast-talk his way out of any jam, and who ‘knows a guy who knows a guy’. Once Hector is introduced, we think we’ve got him all figured out, since he fits that old archetype to a tee. Bernal lends the character surprising nuance, and as we learn more about him, there’s considerable depth to be found.

Coco-Ernesto-dela-Cruz-Miguel

Bratt has fun as the beloved matinee idol Ernesto de la Cruz. He sings the song “Remember Me”, but for the other songs, Ernesto’s singing voice is provided by Antonio Sol. The mini-mythology of the canon of songs that Ernesto has sung and movies he’s starred in provides valuable texture to the world.

Coco-Miguel-1

As in almost every culture, music figures heavily in Mexican traditions. Coco features songs written by Robert and Kristen Anderson-Lopez of Frozen fame, as well as Germaine Franco and co-screenwriter Molina. The film’s signature song “Remember Me” is a stirring, evocative number and it works as a crucial plot point as well as it does a standalone ballad.

Coco did not just move this reviewer to tears, it made him bawl. There’s power and enveloping warmth to this tale and the visually inventive way in which it’s told. Just as Inside Out was the launchpad for many a family discussion on mental health after watching the movie, Coco is a great way for kids to process death and how it is a part of life. Steeped in a fascinating culture and bringing that culture to mass audiences, Coco is an all-involving celebratory masterpiece.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Cars 3

For F*** Magazine

CARS 3

Director : Brian Fee
Cast : Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Armie Hammer, Bonnie Hunt, Chris Cooper, Kerry Washington, Lea DeLaria, Tony Shalhoub, Katherine Helmond, Cheech Marin, Paul Dooley, Larry the Cable Guy, Paul Newman
Genre : Animation/Comedy
Run Time : 1h 49m
Opens : 31 August 2017
Rating : PG

Lightning McQueen (Wilson) was once the fastest car alive, but his days at the top of the heap are numbered. In the third instalment of Pixar’s Cars series, Lightning’s status as a seven-time Piston Cup champ is threatened by newcomer Jackson Storm (Hammer), a high-tech, hothead next generation racer. Lightning’s Rust-eze team has been sold by owners Rusty (Ray Magliozzi) and Dusty (Tom Magliozzi) to the wealthy Sterling (Fillion), who has constructed a state-of-the-art training facility. Sterling assigns trainer Cruz Ramirez (Alonso) to Lightning, who resents the implication that he is old and on the brink of retirement. While initially dismissive of Cruz, the two eventually bond as they go in search of Smokey (Cooper), the former mechanic and crew chief of Lightning’s late mentor Doc Hudson (Paul Newman). With his girlfriend Sally (Hunt) and his friends Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), Luigi (Tony Shalhoub), Guido (Guido Quaroni) and Mack (Ratzenberger) in his corner, Lightning gathers the courage to regain the title and beat Jackson.

The Cars series is not viewed as one of Pixar’s crowning achievements, with 2011’s Cars 2 often viewed as the studio’s worst film. Cars 3 is a definite improvement on the second entry, often sincere and never aggressively obnoxious. However, it’s still difficult to get swept up in the story: the basic plot structure of an aging champion threatened by a rookie competitor brings films like Rocky Balboa to mind. It’s no surprise that co-writer Mike Rich is primarily known for penning sports films, including The Rookie, Miracle and Secretariat.

Lightning’s arc in this film isn’t exactly the easiest for kids to readily relate to. The themes of re-evaluating one’s purpose after getting a wake-up call in the form of a younger, faster rival might not resonate as well with the film’s young target audience as Pixar hopes. There’s also a great deal of sentimentality, with the impact that Doc Hudson had on Lightning, and Lightning’s search for inspiration in his late mentor’s wisdom being a crucial plot point. The adults might get a touch misty-eyed, but this might be lost on most kids.

As expected from Pixar, the animation is top-notch. The Cars are easy to buy as actual characters, and the way the characters shift their weight from one wheel to another is amusingly expressive. We get some gorgeously-rendered backgrounds and realistic atmospheric effects such as sparks and dust. However, Cars 3 lacks memorable set pieces. A Demolition Derby sequence is the most exciting the film gets, and even that falls a good distance short of the creatively conceived set pieces in other Pixar films. The bulk of the movie is spent chronicling Lightning’s training, which is good for character development, but isn’t all that exciting.

Wilson’s easy-going charm makes Lightning likeable even when the character gets caught up on his own success. The biggest thing Cars 3 gets right is the new character Cruz Ramirez. Alonso lends the character an upbeat eagerness and she’s set up to be annoying because she’s standing in Lightning’s way, but the character’s motivations are gradually revealed and the relationship between her and Lightning evolves organically. The dynamic between the two characters is sufficiently different from what we usually see in animated films, and to make another comparison to a boxing movie, is a little Million Dollar Baby-esque.

Thankfully, Mater takes a back seat in this one – arguably the biggest mistake the second film made was elevating him to a leading role. Fillion’s performance as billionaire Sterling is coolly sophisticated and just the right amount of condescending. Unused recordings of Newman from the first film are used for the flashbacks featuring Doc, displaying significance reverence for the legendary actor. Orange is the New Black’s Lea DeLaria has plenty of fun as the sadistic monster schoolbus Miss Fritter. As in the previous instalments, real-life racing drivers and sports commentators making vocal cameos: listen out for Lewis Hamilton, Bob Costas, Darrell Waltrip, Junior Johnson, Daniel Suárez and others.

While Cars 3 has its heart (or engine, as it were) in the right place, it’s far from impressive enough to justify its own existence. It surpasses the low expectations generated by its disappointing sequel and showcases surprising depth, but instead of sending heart rates racing, Cars 3 mostly coasts along.

As is customary for Pixar films, Cars 3 is preceded by an animated short. This one is Lou, directed by Dave Mullins, and about a loveable creature who lives in the lost and found box at an elementary school playground. Built on a charming, simple premise and packing a whole lot of emotion into its six minutes, Lou is a fine example of the storytelling power can summon.

Summary: Despite a story that most kids might find challenging to connect to and a dearth of memorable set pieces, there’s enough amiable sweetness to Cars 3, making it a marked improvement on its immediate predecessor.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong