‘Cars 3’ Is The ‘Rocky III’ Of The ‘Cars’ Franchise

Ah, yes, the Cars franchise: the coconut-filled chocolates of the Pixar candy smorgasbord. “Hey,” I’m being told right now, somewhere, “my kid really likes coconut.” Well, that’s great, but I don’t. While watching the first Cars film, I was overcome with the sense of, “I’m confused, why isn’t this as good as the Toy Story movies?” The second tripled down on the voice-acting skills of Larry the Cable Guy, sending the Cars characters on an international spy mission.

With Cars 3, thankfully, the main character is Lightning McQueen again, voiced by Owen Wilson who really is great in the part. And it’s hard to ignore the parallels between Cars 3 and Rocky III, of all things (more on that in a bit). But this does feel like a movie aimed at a slightly older audience than the previous two Cars movies – which makes sense since a seven-year-old when the first Cars came out would now be 18. (It’s hard to believe the first Cars is now 11 years old.) And to finish off my coconut chocolate analogy that I already regret making, Cars 3 is filled with enough other ingredients that I actually found this one enjoyable. (Also, I really like Rocky III.)

When Cars 3 starts, Lightning McQueen is still winning a lot of races in this strange Cars universe in which automobiles are sentient creatures. Unfortunately for McQueen, a new, sleek, more powerful line of car – specifically, Jackson Storm, voiced in “full prick mode” by Armie Hammer – has been introduced to racing and McQueen can no longer compete with the upgraded cars.

This is when McQueen starts seeing visions of his old trainer, Doc Hudson, using previously unused recordings of the late Paul Newman. Yes, it’s a little weird. Also, when anything like this is attempted, the dialogue doesn’t always match up because the story has to be advanced, but the leftover Newman audio is limited. So what’s left are exchanges in which Newman is answering Lightning McQueen’s questions in vague ways that didn’t always make sense, then just starts laughing.

Anyway, Lightning McQueen accepts an offer to train at a highfalutin facility with the hope he can someday beat Jackson Storm. This is where he meets Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), an intense trainer who has been told all her life that she’s not a “racer.” (Psst, she wants to be a racer.)

Eventually, Lightning gets fed up with the highfalutin-ness of it all and decides the only way to beat Jackson Storm is to get back to basics, which includes a race between Lightning McQueen and his new trainer, Cruz Ramirez, on a beach.

Now, my friend Matt Singer at ScreenCrush told me he asked the Cars 3 writers if there was any inspiration from Rocky III and they denied it. And I’ll take them at their word (mainly because I have no idea why they would lie since there’s no shame in drawing inspiration from Rocky III), but these movies do have a lot of the same beats. The beach race aside, it’s about a champ (Rocky/Lightning) losing to a better opponent (Clubber Lang/Jackson Storm) and having to find a new trainer (Apollo/Cruz) after his old trainer dies (Mickey/Doc) and having to go “back to basics” after a new and improved training regimen doesn’t work – then eventually facing that same better opponent once again.

Direct inspiration or not, I am on board with a Rocky III Cars movie. Also, there are a lot of themes here about getting older and knowing when it’s time to let someone younger and better take your place. There’s a hint of sadness that seems to be present throughout Cars 3 that gives it a little more weight than the previous installments. And I obviously won’t give the ending away, but I found aspects of it confusing – and when I addressed these concerns to other people who have seen the movie, I was (twice) given the answer, “This is a universe in which cars are sentient so I have no idea why what’s bothering you is bothering you.” And this is a fair answer.

So, I now live in a world in which I liked a Cars movie. (I should add, if you’re not a fan of Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater, well, you are in luck because he’s barely in it.) Who knew that adding some emotional weight and unconsciously using some themes from Rocky III could add a little much needed depth and humanity to these sentient automobiles?

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