To review the third instalments of two very different family film franchises, I braved the fiercest cinematic obstacle a man can face. I went alone. On a Friday afternoon. In screens packed full of irritating children and their exasperated parents. It’s indisputably the very worst way to spend time in a cinema – but I did it for you, dear reader. You deserve to know which of these films is the best way to distract a young cousin you’ve been forced to look after by an overbearing aunt who just wishes the two of you would get along even though you have nothing in common and you’d rather sit inside catching up on Game of Thrones before the new season comes out so you don’t get riddled with spoilers. Or, y’know…another totally random, non-specific scenario… Let’s just get down to the reviews, shall we!
I really like the first two Despicable Me films. I even think the second one is probably a stronger film than the first, so I was feeling ready to see what the third one would bring. My optimism was sorely misplaced. Despicable Me 3 is a lazily written, astonishingly inert film that numbed a hyperactive screening full of young children into submission through its sheer lack of ideas or coherent storytelling.
The warning signs start with the film’s main story idea – Gru has a long-lost identical twin brother, called Dru, who he must team up with because the script says so. Seriously, not only does this main arc employ the most tired cliche available to a writer with no ideas, but it doesn’t even make much sense within the actual movie. Dru is also incessantly irritating; at one point Gru stops and says “I miss the minions”, and you could hear the whole cinema wishing they were back, too.
This main storyline only takes up about half the running time, because it’s far too thin to support a whole movie, so the rest is a muddle of meaningless, unfunny comic interludes and sideplots. The minions are quite funny but have absolutely no impact on the plot, while the rest of the screenplay flounders in its attempts to give the rest of the cast anything at all to do.
While people generally seem to like the Despicable Me movies, the Cars trilogy is perhaps one of the strangest film series in cinema: a series of movies that not many people seem to like at all, that seems to exist only to sell toys so that Pixar can fund more interesting movies. It’s the Pixar series that no-one likes, never living up to the heights of Pixar’s best. Worse still for Cars 3, it’s preceded by a brilliantly inventive, charming, funny, warm-hearted short film called ‘Lou’ which seems like it’s setting the actual movie up to pale in comparison.
What a surprise, then, that Cars 3 manages to recapture the emotional heart of the first film, combining some of the most beautiful animation Pixar have ever done with some fairly canny story ideas to craft a solid, if not groundbreaking, film.
The conceit of this latest outing for Lightning McQueen is basically Rocky IV: Lightning is too old to compete with the new younger racers, but wants to race anyway, so he has to train to be the best again. It’s a simple, well-trodden story, and with a tighter focus could’ve produced a great movie to cap off the trilogy.
Unfortunately, large amounts of Cars 3 are far better to think about in retrospect than they are to watch in the moment. At one point towards the end of the second act, Lightning turns to another character and complains about how much time they’ve wasted, and I was left agreeing resignedly. The second act is just a series of skits which add very little to the story and feel like textbook filler, which is unusually weak storytelling for the Pixar team. But, like in the best sports movies, it’s when all seems lost that things turn around and improve – and such is the case with Cars 3 and its third act.
Thanks to some brave and interesting storytelling choices that I wont spoil here, and some borrowed heart from the first movie (including using some old recordings of the late, great Paul Newman as Doc Hudson), Cars 3 manages to stick the landing with relative ease. Though it isn’t exactly a resounding success, between these two films, I know which I’d rather be forced to watch as a babysitter on a rainy July afternoon.