Cars 3: A Children’s Movie, and a Fable About Mentorship

By Angela Allan

The Disney Pixar franchise Cars launched in 2006, telling the story of Lightning McQueen, a young rookie race car voiced by Owen Wilson who must learn that winning isn’t everything. Even so, the franchise itself has done just that, making over $8 billion in merchandise alone. While Cars has long used its platform to teach its youngest audience members about the importance of nurturing personal relationships, the franchise never seriously tackled how tricky interpersonal relationships can be.

That is, until Cars 3. Though it’s still nominally about anthropomorphic race cars, this year’s contribution to the series offers a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on differences of identity, and when viewed through a certain lens, actually has a lot to say about professional success in the increasingly diverse workforce of the 21st century. While the next generation of racers is billed as “better, stronger, faster,” reflecting the rise of a new tech-savvy generation of workers, the film suggests that everyone has something to learn about navigating the relationship between confidence and ability, and finding people to help along the way.

Like the original Cars, the third installment is a movie, at its core, about finding fulfillment in what one does, day in and day out. Cars 3 features a now-aging Lightning McQueen, who suddenly finds himself losing races and, consequently, his sense of self. But the movie’s central story isn’t one about getting back to form—as Lightning desperately wants to do—as much as it is recognizing that there is more than one way to prevent one’s own obsolescence.

In many ways, Cars 3 promises a fairly straightforward narrative where the former student learns he must now become a teacher, but it also grapples with the challenges that come with this transition. After Lightning survives a spectacular crash early in the film, he gloomily watches footage of his mentor, the late Doc Hudson, voiced by Paul Newman in recordings that never made the first Cars film, in a career-ending crash. Facing down the threat of his own forced retirement, Lightning seeks out Doc’s own mentor, Smokey. Smokey’s advice about racing frames much of the film’s general philosophy on mentorship as he instructs Lightning “to look for opportunities you never knew were there” and to seize those opportunities when they appear.

Those opportunities, however, are ones that Lightning fails to see for most of the movie. The film’s new heroine, Cruz Ramirez, voiced by Cristela Alonzo, is earnest and eager, but lacks confidence. After Lightning’s crash, Cruz Ramirez is assigned as Lightning’s trainer to help him get back up to speed. But Lightning has little patience for her help: He may be older, but he’s also more experienced. Although Cruz has the latest technology at her disposal, which Lightning is completely out of touch with, he knows “real racing,” something that Cruz has little knowledge of. That lack of experience requires more of Lightning’s patience than he’s willing to give: “If you were a racer, you’d know what I’m talking about,” he lashes out. …read more

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