By Carlos Aguilar.

There is a new driver behind the scenes of Cars 3, the latest installment of Pixar’s highly popular franchise. John Lasseter, who created the concept and directed the two previous films, passed the reigns to a first-time director, Brian Fee. Although a newcomer in the captain’s seat, Fee had worked in the story department under Lasseter in Cars and Cars 2, which meant he understood the characters and their world. Learning how to be a leader and command a crew, addressing all their concerns, and keeping the ship afloat while meeting deadlines and expectations was a rigorous transition.

During an elaborate press day for held partly at Pixar studios, where press was able to see a significant part of the film as well as the short film Lou, and partly at the Sonoma Raceway, the artists, consultants, writers, producers, and director delved into the massive undertaking that was crafting a new story for the already-beloved vehicles. Having lived with these cars for numerous years, Fee felt responsible for telling their latest adventure in a loyal manner, never losing touch with what Lasseter originally intended. “These characters are like family to me. Part of me felt ‘I can’t wait to direct this movie because I want to protect these characters.’ I felt like it was my duty to tell their story.”

“I had never directed anything before, so I had a lot to learn on the job,” said the new helmer. “One of the skills you have to have as a director, and I always knew this but I never knew just how much, is to compartmentalize. You have to go from a story meeting where you are hitting your head against the wall with a problem that you don’t know how to solve, and you just got to leave and go to another meeting, and you have to leave that problem behind because you have 45 minutes with this next group and you are just going to talk about sand. You have to be able to cut off that problem you were just having and push it aside, not forget about it, but push it aside and deal with this other problem as if it’s the most important part of your day, because to those people you are talking to it is the most important part of their day,” Fee explained.

A defining aspect of animated characters is the actor behind their voices and how these are recorded. For Fee, that was a deeply enjoyable part of the making of the film. “Recording the voices is one of the few, if not the only chance in animation for actual improvisation to occur. What I love about working with the voice cast is that we have an opportunity to try things.”

Owen Wilson returns to reprise his role as Lightning McQueen, as do most of the previous cast members, but there are also two major new actors joining the team: Armie Hammer as antagonist Jackson Storm, and Cristela Alonzo as McQueen’s sidekick Cruz Ramirez. “Armie loved playing with the lines. We would always make sure we got what was on the page, just in case we needed it, but Armie would go, “Can I try something?” and the answer is always “Yes” because that’s usually what’s going to be really good,” adds the director about working with the actors who is having a very prolific year.

As it’s often the case with the studio’s projects, Cars 3 will attempt to walk the line between being amusing for young audiences and insightful for adults. This time, the film touches on more mature subjects when McQueen is forced to confront the changes that come with age, and the difficult realization that perhaps his better days are gone and he should focus on his legacy. When a wealthy mega-fan wants to exploit his brand, McQueen must choose between selling out and proving that he “still has it.” When questioned if these thematically complex elements would only appeal to adults, Fee avidly replied ”The youngest of children will still realize McQueen can’t race. They can understand that McQueen wants to keep racing and he might not be able to.“ Indeed, children are smarter than we think they are.

“In any endeavor of life you have people that are nipping at your heels or your own abilities start to fail you, and you have a choice to make, whether to crumble or endeavor. It pointed to a universal truth,” said Bob Peterson, a Pixar veteran who served as one of the writers in the film. The relatable notion of getting older or losing your groove was at the core of the screenplay. All athletes as they age face these problems, and McQueen is not different. In order to imbue the narrative with a sense of realism, the studio also hired Mike Rich, who brought in his experience writing sports-related films such as The Rookie and Radio.

To allow McQueen to navigate these new uncertain circumstances, the writers decided to include a new character that wasn’t as confident as their protagonist, but that could provide him with a bounce board for his own struggles. Cruz Ramirez, voiced by Latina comedian Cristela Alonzo, became that counterpoint. The character is a young trainer who believes that knowledge learned in the classroom is king, but hasn’t experienced real problems in the outside world.

As the team was building the character of Cruz, Cristela’s own journey trying to break into comedy inspired them. In a male-dominated world as comedy is, Cristela always felt different, looked different, and sounded different, but she persevered to transform those differences into her strengths. All those traits were relevant for the character. Her relationship with McQueen represents a dialogue of generations because he is stuck thinking that he has to be young and train like a young car, and she thinks her racing days were past her. Cruz wanted to be a racer herself but her fear of failure took her to a safer position as a trainer. This push to make diversity a tangible concern addressed with real actions speaks well of Disney/Pixar’s efforts to be more inclusive. Let’s hope this becomes the norm and is not a one-off.

The massive resources, man-hours, and talent, on all fronts, entailed in creating a tent pole like Cars 3 might seem overwhelming, but in the context of the well-oiled machine that is Pixar, it works. Technical difficulties like creating realist mud for a prominent sequences required a large number of effects experts; historical references to honor racing legends and pioneers are researched and seamlessly included in the plot; and since story is king, changes are made nearly until the last possible second if they improve the movie even slightly. Magic is labor-intensive, so when you see the final outcome, know that there was not a smooth path to the finish line.

Disney/Pixar’s Cars 3 will be released in theaters on June 16.

– All images via Disney/Pixar.

Blindsided by a new generation of blazing-fast racers, the legendary Lightning McQueen is suddenly pushed out of the sport he loves. To get back in the game, he will need the help of an eager young race technician with her own plan to win, inspiration from the late Fabulous Hudson Hornet, and a few unexpected turns. Proving that #95 isn’t through yet will test the heart of a champion on Piston Cup Racing’s biggest stage!