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Cars 3 or: How Lightning McQueen Gets His Groove Back

The road ahead

Pixar's Cars franchise has had somewhat of a split personality so far, starting off as a traditional sports movie in its first iteration before veering into a completely new direction in its sequel as a comedy spy adventure. But like a NASCAR driver continually turning left, the series has finally come full circle. During a recent visit to Pixar's HQ in Emeryville, California, for a sneak preview of Cars 3, the film's creators told GameSpot and other assembled press that if the first Cars was about how a brash young athlete made it to the top of his sport, Cars 3 is about how that same athlete copes with the slow, sad realization that the passage of time has finally robbed them of their talent. Cars 3 returns to the franchise's roots by shifting its focus to the cocky Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) as he attempts to get to the top of the racing world.

But wait, you say. Wasn't that the plot of the first movie?

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While Cars 3 seems to follow the template of the original, the similarities look to be purely superficial. Yes, McQueen's main quest within the film is to win a big race, but everything surrounding that goal is different this time around.

"Cars 3 is really the third act of the Cars story," Cars 3 writer Mike Rich said. "In the first act, Lightning McQueen is a brash, cocky, young rookie who has speed on his side. It was even in his mantra: 'I am speed.' He had all the answers, and his appreciation for the sport was just very, very limited to what was in it for him in that particular moment.

"But the problem, the challenge that he presented us with when we last we saw him was that he's on top of the world. He's a champion race car driver. He's had so many things go his way, and that's not a good place to start when you're trying to craft a story."

Story supervisor Bob Peterson (a longtime Pixar writer who worked on films like Finding Nemo, as well as doing the voices for Dug in Up and Roz in Monsters Inc.) said the creative team looked to the world of real sports for the next chapter in McQueen's life.

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"We talked a lot about Kobe Bryant and the tough time he had, and Michael Jordan, and any athlete as they get older. They just don't have the legs anymore. What do they do? Do they crumble, or do they try to rise up?," Peterson said. "It seemed to point to a universal truth, and one thing we always try to find when we're doing these films is if there's a universal truth that we all can hook into."

Rich says that in his research for Cars 3, he found that athletes all have their different ways of dealing with this problem. And some deal with it much better than others.

"The mistake that some athletes make is that they just try to stay young. So they don't adapt," he said. "There was this one athlete I heard interviewed, and actually, we put this line in the film because it worked so well. He was asked: 'How do you know when things are changing? How do you know when it's time to start thinking about doing things differently?' His answer was: 'The kids will tell you.' So we popped that one in there."

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But age isn't McQueen's only rival. In Cars 3, serious competition is introduced in the form of Jackson Storm (voiced by Armie Hammer), a state-of-the-art vehicle with all the modern bells and whistles that an older ride like McQueen simply doesn't have. Remember Strip "The King" Weathers from the first Cars? He was the aging, antiquated character the then-modern Lightning McQueen was up against. In Cars 3, McQueen has taken on the role of Strip Weathers.

"Jackson has all of the things that McQueen had when he was a rookie," Rich said. "He's young. He has speed. He has swagger--maybe a bit more of an edge than McQueen even had in Cars 1. But what he represents is the same thing that McQueen actually represented when he was younger: the very real possibility that Storm and this next generation of young racers could be the end of the sport that McQueen truly loves."

If you've seen any of the downbeat trailers for Cars 3, you'll know that McQueen suffers a serious crash in the movie. After seeing the first third of the film during our visit to Pixar, we now know that the crash occurs during a race that sees Lightning overexert himself in an effort to best Storm. An injured McQueen, determined to finish his career on his own terms, now asks himself a question: Does he try and get faster, or does he race smarter? The answer, it seems, comes in the form of another new addition to the cast: Cruz Ramirez.

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Ramirez is a technician and trainer who works for McQueen’s sponsor Rust-eze, and she aids him in his rehabilitation efforts. The relationship, according to Peterson, doesn't start off smoothly, however. "[Ramirez is] a young trainer, and she pushes [McQueen] and reminds him that he was old every step of the way, which is what he didn't want to hear," he said.

"Both of them had really great things going for them, but also things that they were stuck on. McQueen was stuck thinking he had to be young and train like a young man. And she was stuck thinking that her racing days were past her. It gave us something for both of them to learn as they came together."

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For a franchise that's one of Pixar's kid-friendliest (if you have any doubt, just walk outside and see how much Cars merchandise you see on toddlers and preschoolers), tackling heavy themes dealing with the complexities of aging and becoming less relevant may seem like a misstep. But for story supervisor Scott Morse, Cars 3 falls perfectly in line with Pixar's long history of focusing on creating heartfelt, relatable narratives.

"The one thing we've learned at Pixar is that we don't make kid films. We make family films. We do our best to not talk down to anybody in the audience," he said. "We've noticed that kids tend to want to understand something that's just above their level. McQueen is maturing; he's evolving. McQueen's a character that kids grew up with. For kids in particular, to see somebody they're comfortable with going through an evolutionary change, it helps them understand how to do that. It makes a nice conversation."

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