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The road not taken on "Cars 3" : Settings & storylines that Pixar explored, then abandoned

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The road not taken on "Cars 3" : Settings & storylines that Pixar explored, then abandoned

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"Cars 3" got off to a solid start this past weekend, racking up over $53 million in ticket sales during its first three days in domestic release.

Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

And given that this Brian Fee film currently has a 66% freshness rating over at Rotten Tomatoes (which is a significant step up from the 39% freshness rating that "Cars 2" received back in 2011. More to the point, it's within spitting distance of the 74% freshness rating that the original "Cars" got back in 2006), it would appear that critics approve of the narrative rerouting that Pixar Animation Studios recently gave its multi-billion dollar franchise.

To explain: While the first "Cars" sequel did do better at the worldwide box office than the original film had (i.e., $562.1 million worth of tickets sold in 2011 versus $462.2 million in 2006), there were a fair number of Pixar fans who were turned off by that movie's Mater-centric storyline. Which had that small-town tow truck being mistaken for a globe-trotting super spy.

For folks like John Lasseter - who grew up in the 1960s watching Sean Connery in the 007 series (more importantly, watching James Colburn parody James Bond in his "Our Man Flint" films) - "Cars 2" was an affectionate look back at all of those gadget-filled espionage pictures that they had loved as kids. But for moviegoers who were expecting that this "Cars" sequel would be a return to Radiator Springs and the gentle, eccentric characters that could be found there ... "Cars 2" -- with all of its explosions & fights & gunplay -- was something of a shock.

Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

To give Pixar credit, they did listen to people's complaints about the first "Cars" sequel. Which is why - when that animation studio first began developing "Cars 3" back in 2012 - they initially decided to go in a completely different direction with this film's story. Dropping "Cars 2" 's international intrigue as well as the small-town charms found in the first "Cars" film and - instead - driving on out to the Coast.

As Bill Cone, one of "Cars 3" 's production designers recounted in "The Art of Disney Pixar Cars 3" (Chronicle Books, May 2017):

Most of our films take a few turns in story and design on their way to the finish line, and this one was no exception. The first few years on this project we studied locations in California, including dry lake beds, towns in the valley, and how aspects of Southern California culture, such as celebrity, Hollywood, and skateboarding, could be adapted to a Cars-based world.

Copyright Disney Pixar / Chronicle Books. All rights reserved

(To be specific), in the early stages we explored the potential of SoCal culture, incorporating car-sized skateboard parks, automotive high-fashion expressed through wrap jobs, cosmetic body works, custom wheels and tires, and the appearance of "celebrity cars" at swank parties in the Hollywood Hills. This world was contrasted with the stark minimalism of a dry lakebed in the desert where cars raced for the sheer joy of speed.

Why go in this particular direction with "Cars 3" 's storyline? The answer can be found in this exchange between Lightning McQueen & Sally in the first "Cars" film:

McQueen: You know, I don't get you. How does a Porsche wind up in a place like this?

Sally: Well, it's really pretty simple. I was an attorney in LA livin' life in the fast lane, and ...

McQueen: Oh, you were, were you? Were you rich?

Sally: What?

McQueen: Just clues to the puzzle.

Sally: Yeah, OK. Well, that was my life. And you know what? It never felt happy.

McQueen: Yeah. I mean ... Really?

Sally: Yeah. So I left California. Just drove and drove and finally broke down right here. Doc fixed me up, Flo took me in. Well, they all did. And I never left.

Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

So why - after saying something like that - would Sally ever want to return to SoCal? "The Art of Disney Pixar Cars 3" kind of skates around this issue. Bill Cone - in an interview that he did for this making-of book - eludes to an abandoned plotline that dealt with " ... identity theft (which then) mingled with a budding mentorship story." Over time, though, Cone recalled that the storyline for the second "Cars" sequel shifted away from being a celebration of all things Californian to a much " ... more specific tale about an aging, mid-career athlete."

"And where did that plot thread come from?," you ask. In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, Pixar head John Lasseter revealed that conversations he'd had with NASCAR racing legend Jeff Gordon (who announced back in January of 2015 that he'd be retiring from the sport at the age 43) had influenced his decision to noodge "Cars 3" 's story team in this direction.

 "In the last few years of his racing career, Jeff would talk to me a lot about the young drivers coming in," John said. "There was this energy they had and he realized, 'That's the way I was when I was younger.' I started thinking, 'Well, that could be where Lightning McQueen is at.' "

(L to R) Jeff Gordon, John Lasseter and longtime Pixar Animation
Studios good long charm John Ratzenberger.

With this new take on the series' central character, the story team at Pixar (SPOILERS AHEAD) crafted a story which had McQueen struggling to make a comeback after a racing season where - after first suffering through a string of humiliating defeats at the hands of Jackson Storm, a next generation racer - Lightning then experienced what could have been a career-ending crash (Which - as fans of the first "Cars" film will recall - is what also ended Doc Hudson's racing career back in the early 1950s).

It was about this point that the "Cars 3" story team realized that - rather than build this sequel around Lightning's friendship with Mater or his relationship with Sally - it might be smarter to have the latest installment of this series circle back on the first film. As story artist Rej Bourdages told the author of "The Art of Disney Pixar Cars 3" :

We thought it would be interesting to pair McQueen off with a younger version of himself, allowing him to play into the frustration that Doc Hudson felt dealing with a brash, confident, and headstrong character.

Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

Which isn't to say that Cruz Ramirez (i.e., the "brash, confident, and headstrong" character that Bourdages described above) didn't go through a few changes as "Cars 3" made its way through the story development process.

"For a brief period she was even a different gender," Rej continued. "Initially, Cruz was a fellow race car, who McQueen meets at Sterling's racing facility. She was young, cocky, headstrong - a very fast racer, not unlike McQueen was in the first Cars movie. (But) we soon found that this version of Cruz got in the way of a comeback story and was territory we had already done in the first movie. Cruz felt more interesting the more we gave her opposing traits. She slowly evolved into an awkward, conventional trainer, the perfect foil for McQueen, who secretly has dreams to be a racer, but lacks confidence. We found the more of an odd couple we made (Lighting & Cruz), the more entertainment and conflict we could have with them."

Mind you, because Lightning was new at this whole mentoring thing, he'd obviously need someone to show him the ropes. But since Pixar - what with Paul Newman's untimely passing back in June of 2008 -had decided to take the Doc Hudson character that this Academy Award-winner had voiced off of the canvas just prior of the release of the first "Cars" sequel back in 2011 ... Well, who was now going to mentor McQueen on the proper way to mentor? According to story supervisor Scott Morse, the solution to that plot problem came with the introduction of Smokey, Doc's old crew chief.

Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

"Very early on, we sensed there might be some real power in (Lightning) meeting characters that knew Doc in his early years, long before anyone knew him as 'Doc.' Smokey, especially, would remember 'Hud' very differently from his heyday as the 'Fabulous Hudson Hornet': a crafty, young, cocky rookie, ironically not so different from Lightning McQueen," Morse stated. "We knew Smokey would need to be crafted to compliment Doc: charming, tough, and undeniably 'old school.' Tying him into Doc's history by (making this character) a classic Hudson pick-up truck seemed appropriate and brought new life to our story."

And what of the Legend cars, those contemporaries of Doc & Smokey who then paid tribute to the true pioneers of stock car racing? To hear Chris Roman, a story artist on "Cars 3" talk, the inspiration for including these characters in this Pixar production was really the result of a very happy accident.

"Before the Legend cars were in the movie, the ("Cars 3" story) team had a meeting away from the Pixar Studios to discuss the direction of the story. This kind of off-sites are typically held in very mundane locations like conference rooms. At this particular off-site, a Vintage Car rally that was progressing up the California coast had stopped outside of the venue. Ironically, the seeds of the idea to include vintage NASCAR racers in the story began to grow at that meeting."

Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

This is just a sampling of the great behind-the-scenes stories that can be found in "The Art of Disney Pixar Cars 3." As you page through this 128-page hardcover, you can see that the folks at Chronicle Books did a terrific job of mapping out the roads not taken on this Pixar Animation Studios production. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Wednesday, June 21, 2017

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