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The Road to Cars 3: Developing the Story of a Late-Career Lightning McQueen…

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This inside look at Cars 3 is presented in collaboration between The Rock Father and Disney•Pixar…

“Sequels are increasingly challenging. There has to be a meaningful story, or there’s just no reason to tell it.” – Scott Morse, Story Supervisor, Cars 3

When the first teaser for Disney•Pixar’s Cars 3 hit the scene, audiences immediately knew that the third chapter in Lightning McQueen’s story would be very different than anything we’d seen before. It’s been eleven years since the world of Radiator Springs first came speeding into theaters, and in the decade-plus since, McQueen and the crew have never gone away – though with several short films and one theatrical sequel in 2011’s Cars 2 (the film I credit for starting The Rock Daughters’ love of cars in general), it was always a grey area as to whether or not another cinematic adventure would be in the cards. For Cars 3, the spirit lies in the groundwork provided in that very first film – largely by inverting it. When we first met McQueen, he was on top – a brash newcomer with an unstoppable spirit… but as history has shown us, you’re never on top forever.

In a presentation with writers Kiel Murray (Cars), Bob Peterson (Up, Finding Nemo) and Mike Rich (Secretariat, The Rookie) alongside Story Supervisor Scott Morse (WALL•E, Mater’s Tall Tales) I had a chance to go under the hood to find out more about “the story of their story.”

The guy in the Radiator Springs “Champions” jacket? That’s me – taking notes old-school with a pen and paper.

When we catch up to McQueen this time around, he’s coming to the painful realization that he’s no longer the youngest, fastest or even flashiest on the track. Mirroring the real-life world of NASCAR racing, there’s always someone new speeding up behind you, and that forces the seasoned drivers to race smarter. Rich entered the Cars fold as a screenwriter with an established history of penning sports movies, approaching the world of motorsports with the same thoughtful analysis that he brought to the subjects of baseball and horse racing. “Pixar characters are allowed to evolve,” he explained, telling that crafting the third act of McQueen’s career meant looking to aging sports stars for inspiration, those “who must adapt or face the end of their career.”

Peterson, a 23-year Pixar vet added that a lot of the story meant getting inside McQueen to answer the internal question, “can I go on when someone is better than me?” That meant bringing in some fresh eyes, and new characters to help push McQueen – and with the addition of racing trainer Cruz Ramirez (voice of Cristela Alonzo), there’s a new dynamic that opens up a mentorship that goes both ways. McQueen becomes as much a teacher as he is a learner.


Murray says that Ramirez is an important figure in several ways, starting with being what McQueen needs her to be. But there’s also some important lessons explored in the confidence differences between girls and boys – something she sees first-hand as a parent of both. “Cristela’s own life was inspirational,” she noted, a prime example of overcoming self-doubt, which becomes a central element of Cruz’s own story within Cars 3.

Morse adds that dealing with “impostor syndrome” (being doubtful of one’s own success) is an issue even within Pixar, and that storyboard artist Louise Smythe (Toy Story That Time Forgot) helped with the development of Cruz since she has dealt with the same issues in real life.  “[Louise] got her dream job at Pixar and wondered if she’d measure up,” he said, “and she’s constantly challenging herself.” 


While the team worked on the emotional development of their leads, for race fans in particular, the amount of care shown for the history of racing is going to be a big treat.  In the development of the film, the writers headed south – deep into the heart of where racing was born. Visiting locations from the asphalt Superspeedways to the dirt tracks and “ghost tracks” (long-since closed), there’s a lot of truth that went into Cars 3, making it a very different kind of Cars story. After presenting some of their ideas to real-life athletes and racers who have had to face the evolution of their sports and careers, NASCAR great Jeff Gordon might’ve said it best: “This feels really familiar.”

Disney•Pixar’s Cars 3 races into theaters on June 16, 2017.

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