Cars 3 opens in the same way as the original Cars, with Lightning McQueen, the central character, sitting in his trailer before a big race. As usual, McQueen is prepping for the race with a little motivational self-talk: “Focus. Speed. I am speed,” he says to himself. “One winner, 42 losers. I eat losers for breakfast.” After this line, however, the scene goes in a different direction; McQueen follows up with, “Wait. Did I really used to say that?” It’s as if he still can’t believe that he used to be such a jerk.
It’s a clear signal from the start that, all these years later, McQueen remains a nice car. The lessons he learned in the original film are still with him. Free of ego, he has the same rundown sponsors and lives in the same rundown town (the economic boom viewers saw in Radiator Springs at the end of Cars having apparently been a passing one), yet he is at the top of his industry—a racing superstar.
The problem that McQueen has in Cars 3 has less to do with the out-of-control ego of the original and more to do with something far more intractable: He is getting old. A good percentage of his demographic can relate, as many of the parents who took their kids to see Cars when it was first released in 2006 are now approaching middle-age right along with McQueen himself.
Getting old isn’t fun, whether you are a human being or an animated racecar, and it’s not long before McQueen’s legacy is threatened as he is outrun by the next generation of cars. Thanks to enhanced technology and data-driven training, these cars are fast, and McQueen doesn’t have a chance against them. In short, then, Cars 3 turns out to be a story about millennials and gen-Xers—and since seemingly everything in culture has become about intergenerational disconnect, it makes sense that the film explores the same territory.
The good news is that, when the film does cover familiar sociological ground, it takes the conversation in a different direction, avoiding the tropes of the characters’ surprise at discovering that young folk having something to teach their elders and that old folks are useful to have around. Instead, the story takes for granted that things inevitably change, that communication between generations is difficult, and racecars—even the best ones—get old and have to figure out their next move.
What is especially distinctive about Cars 3 (beyond the obvious fact that it ignores the travesty that is Cars 2 and returns our beloved Mater both to being a supporting character and to Radiator Springs—two places in which he shines) is that nothing is especially distinctive. The movie is standard narrative fare, presented in a thoughtful, visually compelling way. Cars 3 is not trying to be innovative, and that is the central part of its appeal, especially for a parental audience (and arguably their children) worn down by the trend of reinventing the wheel when it comes to storytelling.
Instead, Cars 3 simply and in generally charming fashion looks at what it means, exactly, to consider one’s legacy. McQueen is offered a couple of options: Does he want to preserve his superstardom—his brand—at its peak? Quit racing while he is still valuable, in consumer terms? Or does he want to think about pressing on, staying on the track even when it is impossible to win?
McQueen answers this question by looking to the past. He looks toward the legacy of his mentor, Doc Hudson, before going beyond Doc Hudson to the community of mid-20th century cars that taught him. And, in a refreshing twist that pushes the story past sentimentalism, McQueen also looks toward the future—not in the sense of his own future, but the future of racing as represented by Cruz Ramirez, the young trainer assigned to McQueen by the fancy sponsor who bought out McQueen’s rustbucket former patrons.