The Stars of ‘Cars 3’ Discuss the Importance of Mentorship, Optimism, and Empowerment

When Owen Wilson first voiced Lightning McQueen, he was a Hollywood bachelor. More than a decade later, he’s a father anxiously anticipating key “Cars 3” reviews. The assessments will come from his sons Robert, 6, and Finn, 3. “My kids are here today and they are going to the premiere tonight,” Wilson told us a few hours before taking the red carpet at the Anaheim Convention Center. “It’s exciting for me to watch the movie with them and get their reaction. It makes it a cool experience.”

In the latest Pixar animated movie, Lightning (voiced by Wilson) is a veteran racer but not as successful as he once was. A new generation of racers are taking over, including the self-important Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). To improve Lightning’s approach, slick new sponsor Mr. Sterling (Nathan Fillion) provides a modern makeover, which means working alongside enthusiastic trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo).

Returning from past Cars productions are Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), Ramone (Cheech Marin) and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), who shows up a few times to deliver one-liners.

“A lot of people would like to have a neighbor like Mater,” says Larry the Cable Guy, a.k.a. Daniel Whitney. “He may not be the smartest fork in the knife drawer but he’s a faithful friend, and that’s what everybody would like to have.”

So let the “Cars 3” journey begin. The third installment is interspersed with lots of laughs, some intense NASCAR racing sequences and a few life lessons. Indeed, the latest is a redo of the formula that made 2006’s Cars and 2011’s Cars 2 big hits for fans of all ages. “I know when they were first animating the cars, they were figuring out how they were going to do the eyes,” Wilson says. “There is something that is kind of human (and) inviting about the expressions.”

But there is substance to the “Cars 3” narrative. That’s according to Alonzo, the stand-up comic who voices Cruz. “What I like about Cruz is that she’s very good at what she does, but she still has doubts about herself regarding the same skill she uses to coach the cars,” Alonzo says.

Over the course of the film, Cruz learns to have faith in her abilities:  “At the end of the day,” adds the comic, “the only way you can ensure that you can do your best is to actually go for it and trust your instincts.”

Even better, Cruz’s potential for success is measured by initiative, not gender. “That’s a great way to do a story about female empowerment, by reminding everybody that we’re all pretty much alike,” says Alonzo. “If you work hard and have the skill, whoever is the best will win.”

On the other hand, Hammer’s Jackson Storm is another story. He’s the “next gen” racer who is smarter and sleeker. “At the same time, there’s not the same heart in (winning), not the same spirit and love in it,” says Hammer of the “Cars 3” antagonist. “It’s more of a technicality, so it’s a big paradigm shift in a world where so much of it is the love of (racing).”

The true believer significance is found in the relationship between Lightning and Cruz, who support each other at the right times and for the right reasons. “It’s an important message for everybody,” says Wilson. “It’s the idea that we all need encouragement, and everybody sometimes falls a little short or fails, but we are part of a community.”

Cars 3” opens nationwide on June 16.