(This post contains plot spoilers for Pixar’s Cars 3)
Cars 3 is, for the most part and certainly in the first hour of its runtime, an unremarkable bore. It is easily dismissed as a cynical cash grab in a franchise that has always sold more in merchandising than ticket sales. But then in its cinematic final lap, it kicks it into high gear and finally finds a voice– and, even more importantly, something important to say.
Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is facing a midlife crisis. A new breed of faster race cars, led by Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer— who should just be considered a stand-in for the worst of dude-bro douche culture) has outpaced the once great champ. With his contemporaries retiring to make way for the new line, McQueen goes to train to regain his crown.
At the brand new, high tech Rust-eze Training Center, McQueen is trained by Cruz Ramirez. (Note the name. This is explicitly a woman of color, which becomes incredibly important.) When they go on a training road trip tracking down the old haunts of McQueen’s mentor Doc, the Hudson Hornet, she confides to him how it was she became a trainer rather than a racer herself.
She grew up watching McQueen on tv and was inspired by him. She trained and got up early and did laps to be as fast as she could. She was faster than everyone in her town, but when she got to her first race? There was no one there that looked like her, and was intimidated by the bigger, faster cars. Cruz asks Lightning where he got that confidence from. He replies he doesn’t know, he’s just always felt confidence and positive about his own abilities.
And this is one of the best explanations of what it means to be a white male in America. Always confident, always told how remarkable we are, given mentors and opportunities, and then told we make it on our own steam. We see ourselves represented on tv, on the news, reinforced through the media as the pinnacle of success. And kids of every race, color, gender look up to the heroes on TV and want to be them.
But how many will have a crisis of confidence when they show up for their races, and none of the their peers look like them? And Lightning, when facing his first crisis of confidence ever, has to figure out why he can’t do all of the things he’s always been told he could do. Just like the forces of toxic masculinity, this affects Lightning as much as it does Cruz.
Along their way, Lightning and Cruz track down the mentor of the Hudson Hornet, who trained Lightning in the first Cars. Upon finding him in a roadhouse in the Carolina mountains, they also meet a group of classic racers, including a woman and a car who is a fairly obvious stand-in for an African American. They talk about how in the old days people wouldn’t let them race, but they forced their way in. And then they had to compete even harder to get the respect of others who thought they didn’t deserve to be there. This will certainly slip by younger audiences, but is a key moment– and also a good reminder of just how far we’ve come.
The final climax of the film occurs when Lightning realizes he is outclassed by the other racers, but that Cruz is the only one capable of taking them on. He comes in for a pit stop, and forces her out onto the track to finish the final ten laps in his stead, cheering her on as her crew chief.
And with someone showing the confidence in her and having received the mentorship from several masters, she’s able to win. This sends shockwaves across the racing world, even including a race correspondent named Natalie Certain (Kerry Washington). Up to that point, Certain had received a huge amount of disrespect from her on-air colleagues despite being the stats expert and far more competent at her job than anyone else. Cruz’s win inspires her, and you can see and hear it in her voice that it matters that she could win.
And this is where we learn the lesson about white privilege: Lightning McQueen isn’t the villain in this movie because he’s white and male. He’s the hero, too. Being white or male isn’t bad– it what we do with the fact that society has been set up to, more or less, work for us and people like us. But he is most heroic when he uses the confidence and access and privilege he has been afforded to pass that along to someone new– specifically to a young Latina racer who just needs to be given a shot.
This mirrors the sort of mentor relationship we get in Star Wars, with Lightning McQueen as Luke Skywalker and his first mentor Doc the Hudson Hornet as Obi-Wan Kenobi. When that mentor passes on and he faces new challenges, he has to seek out the Yoda of this story. And then, perhaps most important, he is challenged to pass along what he has learned to Rey. (We eagerly anticipate seeing the continuation of that story later this year.) It’s a sort of beautiful universal story, and it’s great to see a studio saying that our heroes don’t have to be all white and all male– they certainly were in the first two films of the franchise.
And the moment Cruz realizes her potential and finds her inner confidence and strength, it is equally as powerful and potent as when the lightsaber flies to Rey’s hand, or when Diana of Themysicra walks out into No Man’s Land and becomes Wonder Woman. Indeed, this would make an excellent daddy-daughter double feature this Fathers’ Day weekend for dads who want to show their girls that they are the heroes of their own stories.
Pixar’s Cars has long struggled to find anything to say other than “ka-ching!” as the merchandising money rolls in. Here they find their voice and say something powerful, and say it to an audience — girls — who are not always the main demographic consideration for a movie about race cars.
Don’t get me wrong– most of the movie is a relatively boring piece of commercial cinema interchangeable with the most banal parts of the previous two films. But those moments when it shifts into high gear are something to behold.