Of Pixar Animation Studios’ 17 feature films, 16 hold positive ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. The lone exception? Cars 2. And the second-lowest scoring Pixar movie on Rotten Tomatoes is the first Cars, with a 74 percent rating. Critics don’t like Cars.

Young children don’t like Cars, either; they loooooove Cars, with a passion that burns hotter than a Human Torch appearance on a Comedy Central roast. The first two Cars grossed more than $1 billion worldwide — and that’s before you factor in the billions more its anthropomorphic automobiles have netted Disney in licensing and merchandising. I’ve witnessed that obsession first-hand; my three-year-old nephew’s favorite movie is Cars. He has Cars T-shirts and backpacks, and talks about series hero Lightning McQueen like he’s a close personal friend. I bought my nephew a McQueen car on a recent business trip to Orlando; after I gave it to him, he wouldn’t let the toy out of his sight for the rest of the weekend. At one point, he walked up to me and, unprompted, shoved the car in my face and proclaimed “This is so cool, Uncle Matt!”

To fully understand the appeal of Cars, it helps to have someone like that in your life. Adults tend to get hung up on the peculiarities of the Cars world; how this planet of sentient cars came to be, and whether they might be self-driving automobiles that grew self-aware and then slaughtered all of humanity. Kids don’t care about that stuff; they just think talking cars are cool. To paraphrase a classic headline from The Onion, they appreciate Cars on a much deeper level than you.

And that’s where all those negative reviews come from. Throughout their 20-plus year history, Pixar has built a reputation as the rare purveyor of family entertainment whose movies genuinely entertain the entire family. Their films usually hold up to intense scrutiny; parents arguably get more out of dense, thematically rich movies like Up and Inside Out than their children. By and large, Pixar makes kids movies for adults. The Cars films are an anomaly. They’re kids movies for kids.

At least they were kids movies for kids. When I visited Pixar Animation Studios for a preview of Cars 3 last month, one of the things that struck me was how much of this franchise aimed at very young children seemed to be shifting its focus toward an older crowd. The success of Cars 3, and the overall future of the franchise, seems to hinge on this question: Can Pixar make adults care about Cars?


Granted, there will still be plenty of stuff for kids in Cars 3. Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is once again racing his way towards the Piston Cup. His sidekick Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) will get into more goofy shenanigans. But where the first Cars was about a cocky young racer encountering the offbeat residents of a small town, and Cars 2 shifted into broad spy adventures, Cars 3 is about…mortality.

“If Cars 1 is when McQueen is young,” explained Cars 3 screenwriter Mike Rich at the film’s press day, “Cars 3 gives us the opportunity to show him later in his career. We were starting to discover in both research trips and watching ESPN at night that a lot of these iconic sports characters ... they were now starting to approach the phase of their career where they were at the end of the road.” Rich went on to call Cars 3 “the third act in the overall Cars story.”

Drawing comparisons to athletes like Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and Jeff Gordon, and how they handled the final years of their careers, co-writer Bob Peterson (a Pixar vet also known as the voice of Dug from Up) added that Cars 3 is about what “any athlete does with age. Do you let the lack of spring in your legs crumble you, or do you learn how to be a smarter player?”

So Cars 3 follows McQueen in the aftermath of a potentially career-ending crash. McQueen is determined to return to racing, but finds it almost impossible to compete with a younger generation of faster, hungrier cars like the high-tech Jackson Storm, voiced by Armie Hammer. Even McQueen’s new sponsor wants him to retire and become a celebrity pitchman.

Instead, he teams with a young trainer named Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who gets him back on the right path — mostly by forcing him to confront the fact that he’s not a spring chicken anymore (or whatever the equivalent of a spring chicken would be in a world where there are no seasons or birds).

“All she does through the first act,” Peterson continued, “is say ‘You’re old, you’re old, you’re old.’ And it just starts to force [McQueen] into thinking about these things. And being a trainer, she pushes him. She’s pushing him into realizing who he is. The nice thing about her is that she’s got her own Achilles’ heel, which is she’s never been out in the real world racing, she’s always been on a simulator and so forth. So the hope was that the two of them, being from different generations, could have a dialogue and teach each other who to be in the next version of themselves.”


A dialogue between generations? That’s pretty high-minded stuff for a film series whose previous installment involved a yokel tow truck picking a fight with a Japanese toilet. And there’s other stuff in Cars 3 that’s more mature than anything in the previous Cars, including a subplot exploring the way young women are taught to abandon their dreams because of their gender; Cruz, a girl (or at least a girl car), always wanted to be a racer but never did because racers were boys (or at least boy cars).

During his training, McQueen and Cruz visit various racing pioneers who pushed back against different forms of discrimination; each of these characters are based on real-life NASCAR pioneers, like Wendell Scott, the league’s first African-American driver, and Louise Smith, who was famous in her day as “the First Lady of Racing.”

It’s sort of surreal to see serious topics and elements of real-life history in the world of Cars, but they’re not at all out of place in the wider world of Pixar, whose library regularly touches on topics like death and environmental conservation. The notion of getting older as a part of life is core to Toy Story 3, in which the toys find a new owner after their previous one moves to college, and to Inside Out, in which the emotions inside a little girl’s brain come to a deeper understanding of one another after they experience a major life upheaval.

According to Peterson, these concepts lend themselves to a “universal truth in all of us, which is ‘How do you deal with adversity? How do you deal with things when you feel obsolete?’ And hopefully that transcends athletics and cars and fish and birds or whatever and just speaks to people’s need to move past what would crush them.” (Pushing against perceived obsolescence might hold particular appeal for longtime Pixar staffers in the wake of the latest wave of “How Pixar Lost Its Way” pieces.)

Even with these more grown-up ideas, Peterson told me he was confident Cars 3 would still resonate with the series’ younger fans. “In all these films, there are relationships and friendships,” he said. “And Cruz and McQueen develop this great friendship. I’m not sure the little kids will quite get the sense of generations, but that the two of them are together helping each other — and that they’re different and arguing and then they find their way together. We talk a lot about, for the young kids, the idea of during adversity keep trying and you’ll find success. And that’s a nice simple little message.”

If that simple little message resonates farther and wider than the ones in the earlier Cars, this might not be the third act in the overall Cars story, as Rich predicted, but the first chapter in an even bigger franchise, for a much bigger audience. But there’s more race to run before we find out.

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