After a detour into spy territory with “Cars 2,” Pixar gets back on track with another animated mid-life crisis movie. “Cars 3” finds champion Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) struggling past his prime and channeling the late Paul Newman’s sagacious Doc Hudson from “Cars” for a comeback.
The filmmakers were able to use outtakes from John Lasseter’s “Cars” recording sessions with the late Newman for the sequel’s flashbacks. Fortunately, the director left the mic on the legendary actor and celebrated race car driver, who had a lot more to say than his lines. Newman would regale them with anecdotes, play practical jokes, and often utter, “That’s not racing!” They added some of his ad libs in “Cars 3.”
In a clever reversal of “The Color of Money” riff from the first movie, McQueen plays mentor to trainer and wannabe racer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) in a bid to win one last race against upstart Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). Ramirez knows everything about simulated training but nothing about real racing, so McQueen teaches her some old-school tricks on a road trip back to Hudson’s hometown, where they soak up the origins of racing.
While the movie was always about mentorship, said Brian Fee, who was promoted to director after being a storyboard artist on the “Cars” franchise, “my way into that was as a parent. I think of McQueen and Doc as a father-son relationship. And now that I’m a father, my two daughters influence me a lot.”
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Fee devised a little art lesson for his daughters. “I set up one of their dolls and I painted it,” he said. “I wanted them to see how a finished product is made, if you sit and put the time into it. They didn’t pay attention — they didn’t care. I actually thought I wasted my time. A week later I go in my oldest daughter’s room and I saw these paintings on the floor of her stuffed animals, and it overtook me, this profound feeling of what a parent gets out of it. That’s what I think McQueen and Doc had. And I don’t think McQueen ever knew how Doc felt. That’s what I wanted to get into the movie.”
But the key to “Cars 3” was rising racer Ramirez. Originally, it was a more generic story about mentoring, but not only did Fee bring in his daughters’ vulnerability, but Alonzo contributed her own backstory as well. She told Fee and the other filmmakers about her struggle to be a stand-up comic and how she overcame gender prejudice and lack of confidence.
A crucial moment occurs when McQueen shows Ramirez how to prevent sliding when racing on a beach. He realizes that she has little to offer him in terms of practical training, but, with her back turned to him, she confides that McQueen was her idol, yet she lacked the talent and confidence to be a racer. Only then does McQueen start being sensitive to her vulnerability.
McQueen has no alternative but to tap into the racing genius of Hudson in order to beat the faster Storm. He even meets four of Hudson’s friends (inspired by real NASCAR legends Wendell Scott, Junior Johnson, Smokey Yunick, and Louise Smith) as well as his trainer, fittingly, a Hudson pick-up truck.
“I love hearing the genesis of anything,” said Fee. “So I tried to [connect] the high-tech of racing all the way back to how it got started with stock racing in this country. There was a lot of soul there. They were Doc’s high school friends.”
And thanks to the global illumination of RenderMan RIS, the photo-reality of “Cars 3” is vastly superior to “Cars” from 2006. There’s greater detail in the vehicles and landscapes as well as more nuanced performances.
“John pushed us to use the new renderer,” said producer Kevin Reher. “‘Don’t dumb it down,’ although we had to dial it back a bit. When he first saw there were four eyes because of the reflection on the window, he said you couldn’t have that. It still has reflections and sparkle in the paint. John wanted Jackson to be incredibly cool with glowing blue numbered lines and graphics. And where the reflections landed was important.”
Not surprisingly, the mentoring serves as a metaphor for what goes on at Pixar, with Lasseter (“Toy Story 4”), Pete Docter (“Inside Out”), and Andrew Stanton (“Finding Dory”) nurturing the next generation of directors and animators. “I rely on them every moment that I can to pick their brains,” Fee said. “‘What do you wish you knew when you were in my situation?’ ‘How can I get there even faster because I can soak in your wisdom?'”
As Pixar continues to demonstrate, it’s more than a toy, a fish, or a car. It’s about a journey with relationships and choices that viewers can see themselves in.