I probably have a weird relationship with Pixar’s Cars franchise. I never thought it was about selling toys, which apparently it is. I also never thought it was overtly cheesy or kiddy, despite the spinoffs it has birthed. I legitimately liked the first movie and the universe as a whole. I believe this goes beyond my love of cars or motorsports but it’s definitely related to how Pixar used the two to tell a very real story about being young and ambitious while also being romantic about the simple joys in life. Cars 1 came out in the spring of 2006 when I was entering my second semester of college. Lighting McQueen was young, fast, and arrogant. So was I. Cars was a cautionary tale of how blind ambition and the pursuit of greatness can lead to finding yourself alone and isolated, how it’s important to care about others, and to care about winning right and not just winning period. To me, at that point in my life it was a very good lesson to be taught. It also helped that there were legit “petrolhead” references and jokes throughout the movie as well as beautiful homages to the joy of driving. That’s what Cars means to me.
Cars 2 doesn’t exist.
Cars 3 was released 11 years after the original, or about 30 years later in car years apparently. Lighting Mcqueen is no longer a rookie, he’s a seasoned vet. A multi time champ and has managed to have a long fulfilling career. He’s at the mountaintop when a young rookie shows up and starts tearing up his world. Jackson Storm is part of a new generation of hybrid engine, ceramic brake, carbon fiber, high downforce racing car that on paper simply outclasses Lighting McQueen and his whole generation. This leads to McQueen quite literally crashing and burning as he tries to keep up with him and throws him into an existential crisis. After years of being effortlessly at the top of his field, he’s no longer there. This means he has to adapt or die and young trainer Cruz Ramirez is enlisted to help bridge the gap.
If you haven’t watched the movie stop here, watch it, then come back. There’s gonna be spoilers. If you don’t care about spoilers, or have watched it go on...
What we very quickly find out is that Lightning McQueen isn’t ready for this new world. His old sponsors have sold their company and instead of the dirt race tracks of radiator springs he’s in a high tech training center(that looks a lot like the McLaren F1 team headquarters) he’s unable to master a driving simulator and is being subjected to strange training methods that he’s not at all comfortable with. As the last season ended he’s lost for the first time in a long time and entering into the new season he’s the last of his kind of racer left on the grid. Everyone else has been pushed out for the new style of racer. There’s really no chance for him to win. Here’s where my discomfort starts. Lighting McQueen’s problems are the same problems that we all face. Sure it happens to big athletes all the time, but it also happens to real people. There was a time when I was the youngest person in every job I took, that hasn’t happened for a while now. There was a time when I could eat whatever I wanted, now eating hot wings can give me acid reflux. The fact is I’m not a young person anymore.
On his quest for improving himself, Lighting McQueen risks it all on one bet with his new sponsor, ‘let me train my way and if I don’t win the first race I’ll retire but if I win I get to choose when I retire’ this leads to him searching for his mentor’s old crew chief. Doc Hudson was in a position similar to his, he was the best racer of his day and after having a crushing accident he wasn’t allowed to return because the new class of rookies was simply much faster than him. McQueen wants to learn from his mistakes and prevent that from happening to himself. He finds his mentor’s old crew chief along with a band of old race cars that hail from the old moonshine running NASCAR days. He knows that Doc was crushed when he was no longer allowed to race, but he learns that Doc was also revitalized by his time with McQueen and that mentoring him brought him a lot of happiness and meaning late in his life. Throughout the whole thing McQueen is confronted with his mortality time and time again by his new trainer consistently outclassing him at every turn. Even at the top of his game, he’s just not fast enough. So McQueen follows his mentor’s path. He starts the race but realizes his trainer who was along with him all this time has it in her to be a racer if only she has someone who believes in her the way Doc believed in him.
Lighting McQueen aged just like I did. When he was no longer able to compete at the highest level he chose to “have a kid” and invest all his time and wisdom on her. Lighting gives her his number and he becomes “The Fabulous Lighting McQueen” stepping into the role of the “old guy” and letting Cruz Ramirez become the new young racer. Once again I’m hit with the realization that I’m definitely not in the prime demographics for this movie, I’m neither a kid nor a parent with a kid. I don’t think Jackson Storm is cool enough to buy a toy of him and I don’t feel a kinship with the value and worth that McQueen derives from stepping aside and propelling his kid forward. I was hoping that Cars 3 would be a return to the first Cars movie, and while its lesson is definitely good I can’t help but feel that it’s a lot less universal than the first one. Pixar has chosen to use the Cars franchise to zero in on kids, Cars 3 extends the net so that parents who are forced to watch this movie over and over again can derive something from it too but the rest of us have been cast aside. I guess I’m finally ok with admitting this franchise, even though it once might have been, isn’t meant for me. You got there a lot faster than I did, I’m not ready to have a kid McQueen.