Why Was Pixar's Cars 3 Trailer So Dark?

Cars 3 poster (cropped)

Cars was released in 2006, and its characters instantly became classics - up there with Buzz Lightyear, Woody, Mike and Sully. In particular, Cars appealed to very young children with anthropomorphic vehicles that were endearing, engaging, and visually appealing. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cars broke the Disney/Pixar record for merchandise sales, taking over $10 billion in the first five years after the film’s release.

For a lot of young kids, Lightning McQueen was an accessible hero, and Mater like a best friend. Having grown up pushing Match Box or Hot Wheels cars about on a track, the cars featured in Pixar’s movie were exactly the same… only they could talk, which made them even better. In many households, Cars was watched over and over again, so it was a blessed relief when Cars 2 was released in 2011 and there was something new to watch (over and over again).

The plots of the Cars movies are not exactly multi-layered, but both movies tell a simple tale with a strong moral that made it easy for the targeted younger audience to understand. The animation was another big factor in the film’s success; the cars looked like toys, behaved like real-life race cars, and the actual racing scenes - particularly the Piston Cup and the World Grand Prix - were highly realistic. Given the success of both movies, and the lucrative merchandise potential, a third Cars movie was a no-brainer and is now set to arrive in 2017.

Cars 3 - Lightning McQueen

When the first teaser trailer for Cars 3 dropped online, many parents settled down with their kids to watch the brief 49 second glimpse at the movie, with kids full of excitement at the prospect of seeing Lightning McQueen on screen once more. Nobody really knew what to expect, but one thing parents really weren’t expecting, was to see Lighting McQueen getting destroyed in a brutal crash. Reports have since surfaced of kids crying, screaming, and generally becoming distressed by what seems to be the demise of one of their favorite ever characters. Given that Cars has always been targeted at young kids, why has Pixar chosen to take such a dark turn for Cars 3?

The theories and possibilities are endless, of course, but there are a few notable factors that could well have contributed to Pixar’s choice. Firstly, a good teaser should prompt discussion, speculation, and a desire to see and know more of this movie. Well, the Cars 3 teaser has certainly done that. It’s also the directorial debut of Brian Fee, who takes over from John Lasseter. Fee has worked on many other Disney and Pixar movies, such as Monsters University, Ratatouille, and both previous Cars movies, but always as a storyboard artist. Maybe Fee decided he wanted to make a big impact. The animation is darker, grittier and more realistic than ever before. The cars, though not really seen much in this clip, no longer feel like toys playing on a race track; they feel like real machines, gearing up to race, and in the world of motor racing crashes like the one hinted at here are commonplace. But this is Lightning McQueen!

Cars Pixar movie Owen Wilson Larry the Cable Guy

For someone that was 5 when Cars was released in 2006, this dark turn isn’t necessarily a problem. Since Cars 3 will arrive in 2017, that would make them 16 years old and perfectly capable of emotionally dealing with the implications of a car crash. However, DVD and Blu-ray ensure that kids who are only 5 now can also watch Cars and Cars 2, and have been doing so. For them, seeing their favorite character violently spinning off a track and disintegrating into pieces is quite a traumatic experience. Still, maybe Pixar is, in fact, aiming to appeal to this teenage generation - showing them that the movie characters of their childhood can still hold appeal later on in life.

Some online commentators have compared the teaser to the moment when Bambi’s mother was shot, but it's not quite on that scale: this is a car, after all, not a deer being killed and leaving behind a defenseless fawn. That said, it's fair to say that Disney/ Pixar have a long history of pulling on the heartstrings… or leaving audience members an emotional wreck.

By the time Toy Story 4 is released in 2019, the franchise will have spanned 23 years. That’s a lot of growing up for its viewers to do. In fact, those who watched Toy Story as a kid in 1996 were adults when Toy Story 3 was released in 2011. Pixar really put viewers through the emotional wringer, with an upsetting near miss with a furnace, as well as a frankly heartbreaking farewell between Andy and his toys. Monsters, Inc. was full of laughter and jokes, until it came time to say goodbye to Boo, and then everyone felt Sully and Mike’s pain. Pixar knows how to deliver an emotional sucker punch that leaves us all reeling, and it seems as though that might well be their intention here. Lasseter has previously spoken of the emotional storyline, so it could well be that we'll need to keep Kleenex to hand when the movie hits theaters.

Let’s be honest; it’s highly unlikely that Lightning McQueen is going to ‘die’ in Cars 3, and even less likely that if he did it’d be revealed in the first teaser for the movie. The tagline says that “From this moment, everything will change,” and the poster also highlights the crash, so it seems as though we could expect this scene to take place at the beginning of the movie, rather than the end (which would surely result in an entirely distraught theater). The synopsis for the movie also reads as follows:

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 female race technician Cruz Ramirez, with her own plan to win, plus inspiration from the late Doc Hudson. Proving that #95 isn’t through yet, he will test the heart of a champion on Piston Cup Racing’s biggest stage.

Cars 3 poster (cropped)

All of this seems to suggest that change is key; both the original Cars audience and the world of motor racing has moved on since Lightning McQueen last reigned supreme. Could the crash instigate a complete overhaul for Lightning, in order that he might win the championship? And, if that is the case, does that mean that Lightning will once again go on a journey of self-discovery, where he learns from his old pal Mater that nothing is better than being himself, or will the storyline, in keeping with the trailer and poster, be much more grown-up and darker in tone?

It’s a difficult call for Pixar to make; there’s no denying that the tone of this teaser has surprised everyone, and if it was aimed at enticing original Cars fans into watching the third installment, then it’s kind of failed. Comments on social media all seem to point to one thought only: this is not what we wanted or expected from a Cars movie. However, if this is all some elaborate ruse, designed to spark interest in a franchise that has been absent for a long time, then it could well come back to bite Pixar. Parents will be on guard when the next trailer comes, wary of letting their young children watch it until they’ve vetted it first, and the same could also happen with the movie. If the tone is too dark, then potentially Cars 3 could fail, all because it wanted to be too grown up.

Key Release Dates
  • Cars 3 (2017) release date: Jun 16, 2017
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