Last month, I had the opportunity to travel to Emeryville, California to screen footage from Pixar’s Cars 3, at the company’s headquarters and studio. At these sorts of advanced screenings it’s made clear from the start that you’re not seeing the entire movie, only select portions, and the amount they show you can vary. I attended a similar preview for The Good Dinosaur a few years ago in New York City and only saw three brief scenes from the movie.

This Cars 3 preview was way more extensive. All told, Pixar showed the visiting press about 40 minutes of footage, which they said was just under half of the finished film. Those scenes included race car Lightning McQueen’s brutal crash on the race track (the same scene featured in the film’s unusually somber teaser trailer) and his return to Radiator Springs to recuperate and remember the good old days with the late Doc Hudson (voiced by the late Paul Newman; Pixar used old recordings of Newman to supply Doc’s voice during some flashback scenes). We also saw McQueen (Owen Wilson) refuse to retire and begin training for a comeback under the tutelage new coach, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo). She tries to use advanced training technology to bring the aging racer into the future; he rejects her approach and brings her along on a journey to get back in touch with racing’s dirt-track roots.

What we saw, with its emphasis on aging and the limits that puts on athletes, looked heavier and sadder than either of the previous Cars films. What we didn’t see in any of that footage was a glimpse — or even an acknowledgement of existence of — any of the characters from Cars 2, the 2011 sequel that took McQueen and his best pal Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) on a globetrotting adventure. Heavily inspired by old spy movies, Cars 2 broadened the universe of Cars in ways that were as surreal (there’s a Popemobile, which suggests that these sentient automobiles pray to some kind of higher power) as they were unpopular. Adjusted for inflation, Cars 2 is Pixar’s second-lowest-grossing film ever, and it’s the only Pixar movie to date with a negative Rotten Tomatoes score.

Given the generally negative reaction, I wasn’t expecting a ton of screen time for Cars 2 characters like super-spy Finn McMissile, secret agent Holly Shiftwell, or Italian racer Francesco Bernoulli. But I was a little surprised they didn’t appear anywhere in the footage; Cars 3 almost acts as if Cars 2 never happened. At the press day, screenwriter Mike Rich called Cars 3 ““the third act in the overall Cars story,” and referred to Cars 1 as the film about young McQueen, while Cars 3 is about an old McQueen, but he never mentioned Cars 2.  That made me curious whether Cars 3 totally ignores Cars 2, and if those characters would pop up in the half if the film that wasn’t screened for the press.

When I had the opportunity to speak with Cars 3’s writers — Rich, Kiel Murray, and Bob Petersen, along with story supervisor Scott Morse — I put that question to them. At first the group tried to laugh the whole thing off, noting that McQueen and Mater were in Cars 2 and they are both in Cars 3. When I followed up by asking specifically about the spy characters Petersen said “That was Mater’s world. We’re back to Radiator Springs and that team [in Cars 3], because this is McQueen’s story.” 

That’s where it started for him, Radiator Springs,” Rich added. “So we have him at this position in his life and his career.” In other words, Finn, Holly, and the rest have been put up on blocks, at least for Cars 3.

The quartet didn’t confirm these characters are completely absent from the movie; I wouldn’t be shocked if they made a brief cameo somewhere. But they’re definitely not playing a significant role in Cars 3 — and neither, for that matter, did Mater in the half of the film I saw. He popped up occasionally, but his role as McQueen’s sidekick is largely filled by Cruz.

That said, even the “unsuccessful” Cars 2 made half a billion bucks worldwide, and the merchandise from it was making Disney $2 billion annually as of a few years ago. So I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility for Mater and his spy buddies to make a comeback in the inevitable Cars 4 or some future shorts. In the meantime, Cars 3 opens in theaters on June 17.

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