There are two ways to appreciate Cars movies, I’ve always been fond of saying: Be a child between the ages of 2 and 9, or have one handy. (I was privileged to have a mini-me at hand the first time I saw Cars, and through his eyes, I loved it as he did.)

Without that perspective, everyone grumbles about the same stuff: It’s not as sophisticated as Wall-E, nor nostalgic as Toy Story; it’s not nuanced like Ratatouille nor an emotional exploration like Inside Out. Boiled down, it’s a lot of “Boo-hoo, this is a kiddie movie!

Ugh, grownups — so whiny and spoiled! But as boring as it’s become to hear grownups bash Cars, some themes emerged in the release of Cars 3 reviews (first revealed Monday) that went well beyond the usual griping. 

Starting with one that’s old news by now, but for this exercise, I didn’t see coming at all:

We desperately need more female film critics

Cruz Ramirez

As of this writing, Rotten Tomatoes had 17 critics weighing in, 16 of them men. They mostly liked it — as did the one woman in that group, EW‘s Leah Greenblatt — to the tune of 71% fresh (so far). 

None had any issue with Cars 3‘s “female empowerment” thread, a new wrinkle for this franchise that, let’s face it, had been squarely aimed at boys. The movie introduces Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a female “trainer” car who once had dreams of becoming a racer.

To find more female perspectives on that new angle, we had to step outside the boys’ club that populates the big sites Rotten Tomatoes aggregated early Monday.

And boy, was that perspective wildly different:

Yolanda Machado, Sassy Mama in LA: 

Less Pixar-like and more like an attempt to gently ease middle America into acceptance, female empowerment and diversity, but just as long as it happens on the male lead’s terms. SIGH. … tried to tell a story of female empowerment through the perspective of the male lens … [Cruz Ramirez] is a very skilled trainer, one who could, in fact, run circles around McQueen, yet, he consistently refuses her advice and instead, makes her feel unsure of her methods and skills. … She is only allowed to have something if a male allows her to have it, this includes confidence, acknowledging her skills, and even, chances to speak up for herself. Ladies, this is not what girl power is. 

Courtney Howard, FreshFiction.TV:

[McQueen] gets a young woman to make him feel better about himself! … Don’t get me wrong. It’s absolutely wonderful that they wanted to be gender-inclusive, and should be commended for the diversity of the voice cast, but there are aspects they don’t totally nail. … The third act is particularly problematic, as it doesn’t fully commit to the bold choice of female empowerment it clearly sets out to embody. It feels like a cop out, done to appease a broader base rather than genuinely surprise audiences … as a female, I’m very disappointed it fumbles — as the message it sends is that we can’t have it all. We’ve got to share our seat at the table.

It’s interesting that Machado and Howard both strongly identify this as an issue, while the 16 male-penned reviews barely touched on it. And when they did, they saw it in an altogether different light:

Owen Glieberman, Variety:

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. 

Eric Kohn, IndieWire:

The earlier movies had an inherently masculine quality by virtue of their focus — men and their cars, you know — but Cruz’s determination to pierce the boys’ club with her own ambition wrestles the narrative away from Lightning’s pity party with no less cultural depth than Furiosa taking charge of Mad Max: Fury Road.

“But your sample size of women reviewers is too small!” you might protest, “how can you know that illustrates how women will see it?” And that’s just the problem here, friends: On the first day that Cars 3 reviews came out, only three women had weighed in.

What would you have me do?

To be fair, both Machado and Howard liked many elements of Cars 3 — but its female characters’ place in the story was clearly not one of them:

Yolanda Machado, Sassy Mama in LA: 

Even the treatment of a smaller character, like Natalie Certain (Kerry Washington), is given a stereotype of what a smart, successful female acts like — unfriendly, curt, and without humor. There were many moments where I wanted to scream at the screen — “THAT’S NOT HOW THIS WORKS” — but settled for rolling my eyes and quiet sighs of disappointment. … [Cars 3 could have] given a powerful, yet entertaining story for all to embrace, instead, it chose to mansplain girl power. Thanks, but no thanks Pixar.

Courtney Howard, FreshFiction.TV:

Analytics specialist Natalie Certain (voiced by Kerry Washington) has to deal with sexism at her job for no reason. She’s introduced as a trope (“corporate ice queen”), and has to stomp that down from a dismissive co-worker. Sally’s (voiced by Bonnie Hunt) there exclusively to give Lightning pep talks. 

Again — none of the Rotten Tomatoes guys caught any of this. And it just proves that a representative sample of voices is absolutely essential in cultural criticism, especially in a time when aggregated sentiment steers so much business.

And now back to your regularly scheduled look at Cars 3:

It rights some past wrongs — namely, ‘Cars 2’

Eric Goldman, IGN:

Cars is a film series many dismiss as only existing to sell toys, and it feels like Pixar – under the guidance of director Brian Fee for this installment – was well aware of this perception and wanted to prove this movie had a bigger, story-driven reason for existing. [Cars 3] feels like it’s about something deeper. 

Michael Rechtshaffen, The Hollywood Reporter:

In the wake of the noisy misfire that was 2011’s Cars 2, the Pixar pit crew ran the diagnostics and were able to pinpoint the winning formula of humor, heart and action (along with an added dose of Route 66-informed nostalgia) that made the 2006 original such a sweet ride.

The ol’ Radiator Springs gang has been pulled over

The gang's all here -- for a minute or two.

The gang’s all here — for a minute or two.

Eric Goldman, IGN:

Not only is the main plotline about the film’s protagonist dealing with aging, but the ever-goofy, wacky, and often annoying Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) – who, to be fair, many kids adore – is very much sidelined in this film, almost completely written out of the middle portion of the story.

Michael Rechtshaffen, The Hollywood Reporter:

As in the first film, the themes of youth vs. old age and change vs. heritage once again play a prominent role in the script … which does a nice job retaining the warmly regarded original characters (although in much smaller roles) while introducing engaging new ones — most notably Alonzo’s spunky Cruz.

Eric Kohn, IndieWire:

While the usual assemblage of supporting types surface here and there, including Lightning’s ever-reliable bucktoothed sidekick Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and Lightning’s supportive girlfriend Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), the bulk of Cars 3 revolves around the developing relationship between Lightning and Cruz.

Everyone compared it to a Rocky movie

Remind you of a particular beach run?

Remind you of a particular beach run?

Eric Goldman, IGN:

The set up makes it easy to assume Cars 3 is the Rocky III of the series — with Lightning meeting his match, taking a bad loss, and then fighting his way back to victory. 

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 … which amounts to Rocky IV with anthropomorphic automobiles. 

Eric Kohn, IndieWire:

This is a sturdy, mature sports movie about the aging process that — if the anthropomorphized vehicles were swapped for humans — wouldn’t look out of place in Rocky’s oeuvre. 

Matt Singer, ScreenCrush:

Lasseter’s replacement [as director] Brian Fee brings things back down to earth, telling a much simpler and more relatable story that draws clear inspiration from underdog sports movies like Rocky III. 

Mike Ryan, Uproxx:

Direct inspiration or not, I am on board with a Rocky III Cars movie. Also, 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. 

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