Lightning Strikes Thrice: Disney and Pixar Off to the Races with ‘Cars 3’

They say lightning never strikes twice. Lightning McQueen, however, can strike three times. The iconic red race car voiced by Owen Wilson is back for Disney and Pixar’s Cars 3, in theaters June 16. Boxoffice traveled to the studio’s Emeryville, California, headquarters in March to learn about Pixar’s attempt to revive the franchise’s mojo.

Although nobody involved with the production admitted so outright, frequent phrases like “We wanted to return to the original film’s tone”—and a plot that snubs the new characters introduced in the second installment—implicitly sent a message. If Cars (2006) was a Ferrari, Cars 2 (2011) was Fred Flintstone’s feet-mobile.

Domestically, the sequel earned a higher opening weekend than its predecessor (a measure of pre-release hype) but a lower cumulative gross (determined much more by word of mouth). As The New York Times reported, “The [bad reviews] did dent morale at the studio, which until then had enjoyed an unbroken and perhaps unprecedented run of critical acclaim.”

Here are five ways the studio hopes to improve the franchise, including the addition of a female main character, new, innovative animation techniques, and gambling on a first-time director.

A more dramatic story

The tantalizing slow-motion crash sequence seen in the teaser trailer, which has attracted more than 24 million YouTube views as of this writing, could be the most intense scene Pixar has produced to date. Our hero flips through the air in excruciating slow motion after a crash, careening back toward the pavement and imminent wreckage — if not death. The screen blacks out a millisecond before impact.

“An eight-year-old wrote us and said, ‘Are you really killing Lightning McQueen? I want to buy the toy that kills him, so that I can kill him,’” recounts producer Kevin Reher. “His mother wrote also: ‘I had just gotten him calmed down after Trump!’”

The full scene produced a similar audience reaction during an advanced preview. It’s perhaps the scariest scene Pixar has produced since the heroes of Toy Story 3 found themselves trapped in the incinerator.

While most of Pixar’s 17 feature films have incorporated elements both humorous and touching, Cars 2 mainly had slapstick—and racing. The new film reverts to a slightly lower comedy-to-drama ratio and contains more emotional nuance. And in addition to that nail-biter crash, they’ve also upped the scares with new characters: the demonic Miss Fritter is a school bus whose stop arm contains a saw blade.

Returning the plot’s focus to Lightning McQueen

Voice actor Wilson is now 48 years old, and McQueen is now an implicitly middle-aged character, considered past his racing prime and encouraged not so subtly by his manager to retire. He’s been surpassed as the sport’s champion by arrogant upstart Jackson Storm (whose tempestuous surname is clearly meant to one-up his rival’s first name).

To craft the ideal dialogue for this tale of an athlete considered too old to win, Pixar hired as a co-screenwriter Mike Rich. Rich penned the 2002 Disney biopic The Rookie, a film about a high school science teacher who became one of the oldest Major League Baseball rookies of all time at age 35. Rich is one of this century’s most prolific sports screenwriters, specializing in underdog stories including Secretariat and the football film Radio.

What was the biggest difference between writing for live action and penning his first animated film? “The number of people,” Rich says with a laugh. “You know, having to work with storyboard artists and everything. I had a serious question: Is there something different that I need to do on the page? They said, ‘No, just tell the story like you always have.’”

Pickup truck Mater, voiced by comedian Larry the Cable Guy, was a comic-relief side character in the first film but promoted to arguably the main character of the second film. This came across like Ron Weasley and the Chamber of Secrets. Mater is now relegated to a bit character in the third installment, with notably fewer lines than even his supporting role received in the first film.

A female main character

Cars had ranked among the most popular Pixar films of all time among boys. Among girls? Not so much.

According to Disney, among the opening weekends for Pixar releases this decade, Finding Dory skewed 62 percent female, 57 percent for Brave, 56 percent for Inside Out, 56 percent for Monsters University, and 53 percent for The Good Dinosaur. By contrast, Disney didn’t even publicly release statistics broken down by gender for Cars 2. It’s probably safe to assume the female audience percentage fell below 50.

In the first film, McQueen’s love interest, Sally Carerra, voiced by Bonnie Hunt, was at best the third most important character. Then, in the second film, Sally was relegated to a bit role, tipping the gender balance by screen time even further. But in this new installment, the second most important character is newcomer Cruz Ramirez. Voiced by comedian Cristela Alonzo, the bright-yellow sports coupe begins as McQueen’s motivational trainer in the run-up to his comeback attempt, turning into more of a confidant as the narrative progresses. As she slowly opens up to McQueen, it becomes apparent that Cruz entered the coaching business in order to live vicariously through the racers, too afraid to compete herself.

“My daughters are 11 and eight, and we were talking about musical instrument lessons,” says director Brian Fee. “How about the guitar? And the response I got back from them was, ‘Guitar? That’s for boys.’ That just floored me. At such a young age, they were already drawing labels and attaching as ‘not for them.’ That was a red flag for me. When I see Cruz, I see my girls. I want them to see somebody that can rise above.”

Better animation

Pixar continuously attempts to outdo itself with state-of-the-art animation, crafted on both in-house computer programs including RenderMan and outside applications like Houdini.

Effects supervisor Jon Reisch started as an intern in the effects department for the first Cars. He noted that in animating the driving scenes he now takes into account factors such as the air currents around the vehicles and tire suction on the road. And the cars are not “just” driving; during various scenes, especially the Thunder Hollow Speedway demolition derby sequence, the cars interact with physical elements including water, fire, sand, and mud.

“What’s so hard about mud?” Reisch asks rhetorically. “It’s not really a solid or a liquid. That’s really hard to capture on the computer. So we went out and filmed ourselves playing in mud!” His smile implies, And I got paid for this, too. “Our early tests looked like chocolate cake icing. They looked terrible.” Over the course of many long days, they eventually crafted a digital substance indistinguishable from the real thing.

A new first-time director

“I was literally tapped on the shoulder three years ago and called into John’s [Cars and Cars 2 director John Lasseter] office. He basically told me I was directing Cars 3,” says Fee, who had never even directed one of the famed Pixar shorts, let alone a full-length feature. “[Pixar Animation Studios president] Ed Catmull was sitting right next to him and added, ‘We realize we’re not asking!’”

Fee, who had previously worked only in Pixar’s story department, now found himself coordinating many hundreds of people across more than a dozen departments. “When you start putting numbers after movie titles, the likelihood of holding up [to the original] gets lower and lower. Toy Story 3 set a high bar I wanted to match,” he says.

 

Jesse Rifkin

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