When we meet back up with Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) in Cars 3, he’s at a crossroads, so to speak, in his career as a racer. A new generation of cars has come up while he’s been on the circuit that is faster, sleeker and surer of their abilities. Just as he and his contemporaries took over from the cars of Doc Hudson’s era, a crop of cocky young upstarts is now ready to push McQueen to the background.

He’s not quite ready to give up, though, and is determined to not quit until it’s on his own terms and in his own time. To stay at the top of his game he finds he needs the help of not just his old friends but also a technician who can help push just a little bit harder and get a little more out his efforts to stay relevant until he feels it’s time to hang up his racing stripes.

The Posters

The first poster hit the same tone as the first teaser trailer, showing McQueen in some serious danger. It actually shows him flying through the air upside down as sparks fill the space between him and the pavement, speaking to the danger that he faces in the story.

Another one came later that continued the theme of hiding things, showing McQueen and some of the other racers from ground-level so you can’t see everything, especially with the water that’s being splashed up obscuring things a bit.

A handful of character posters didn’t share anyone’s names but did show off McQueen and a couple of the other new cars that are featured in the story.

The Trailers

The first teaser trailer is kind of darkly disturbing. We see a race going on, with McQueen in the lead. But then we hear an announcer say he’s “fading fast” before the screen goes dark, only to reveal him flying out of control through the air as it fades back in. “From this moment, everything will change” the title card reads, hinting at big changes in the status quo of our favorite cars.

Another teaser keeps up the “next generation” theme to show that McQueen faces some serious competition. That leads into more talk about how he might be past his prime but that doesn’t mean he has to give up. More teases of footage showing Lightning undergoing some other training follows, but there’s still no real sense of the story here.

Finally more of the story is explained in the official trailer. We start off by seeing that McQueen is being pitched on becoming a franchise, part of the plan to capitalize after his fading racing career comes to an end. He’s facing irrelevance, in part because of the emergence of a new racer that’s setting all sorts of new records. So he goes back and trains for the new challenges he faces, with all the usual friends in tow and with the attitude that it’s not about “the stuff” that comes with it, it’s just about the racing for him.

It’s great that we’re finally getting a look at the full story and the conflict that will drive the action of the story. It’s exactly what you’d expect as the third installment of this series.

The next – and final – trailer finally lays out the full story for the audience. The focus as it starts is on Jackson Storm, the latest contender to McQueen’s throne. With the racing world changing around him he needs a new approach in order to compete and preserve his legacy and so gets a whole new training team and regimen. Talk of retirement looms but McQueen is determined not to quit but to come up with an approach that keeps him in the game on his own terms.

One more short trailer for that is all about seizing the opportunities given to you, not being too afraid to fail.

Online and Social

You get the usual Disney design when you open the movie’s official website, with a still and title treatment at the top of the page. One thing notable about Disney’s sites is they include ads, in this case a banner at the top that wants you to buy Mattel licensed toy cars based on the movie’s characters.

Anyway, the first section of content is “Video” and is well-stocked with the trailers as well as older animated shorts that debuted around the time of the second movie and in the years between releases. These mostly feature Mater and the rest of the Radiator Springs residents and were meant to just be fun little brand extensions, nothing that’s tied to this or any other movie in the franchise.

Below that there’s a link to find out more about the “Road to the Races,” a nationwide tour featuring life-size versions of the movie’s three main characters that went to 27 cities across the country. That tour is just about done, having run from mid-March through the end of June.

Keep scrolling down the site and you’ll find lots more content that’s generic to the Cars franchise, not specific to this movie. That includes games, stills, character bios and more.

If you want movie-specific information you’ll have to use the menu at the top of the page. After “Videos” the next section there is “Games & Activities” which is where you can play some games, download some iMessage sticker packs and more. “Galleries” then has stills from this movie as well as albums from the previous films.

After that, the site devolves once more into generalities, with prompts to buy all the movies in the Cars franchise, visit the “Store” to buy merch and ultimately visit the “Parks.”

They aren’t linked to on the official site but there are also Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts for the movie.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

An extended TV spot expanded on the teaser trailer and showed more of the story, including the up and down arc of McQueen’s journey. It offers quite a look at what’s going and what will happen to him and some of the other characters, though there don’t appear to be any of the old friends like Mater or anyone else from the earlier movies on display here.

A number of promotional partners joined in the marketing fun, including:

  • AutoTrader, which debuted the first in a series of spots during broadcasts of the NBA Playoffs that used the variety of cars in the movie to highlight the variety of cars available on the website.
  • Waze, which gave users the ability to change their own appearance in the app to resemble McQueen or Storm or change the voice that offers directions to one of these two characters. The app will also remind people the movie is coming out.
  • NASCAR, which aired commercials during the race broadcasts and engaged in a lot of co-branded activities at various racetracks and other events.

Outdoor ads with the key art and online ads, including social media units using the video, were also run heavily across the web.

Media and Publicity

A piece in USA Today gave us a first look not only at Lightning McQueen but also at Ramirez, the new character being introduced in the movie along with other details. During the publicity cycle for Finding Dory, Pixar’s John Lassater talked about this movie as well and what McQueen’s journey in this installment was going to be.

Later on a look at some of the movie’s new characters, along with descriptions of who they are and what their story is, continued to keep people talking about it.

John Lasseter made an appearance along with a life size Lightning McQueen at the Detroit Auto Show.

There was also a focus on the role played by Jude Brownbill, an animator on previous Pixar films who was promoted to directing animator on this movie. She also played a large part in developing the new character Cruz Ramirez, a female car we’ve seen in the trailers and who helps train McQueen.

Wilson, Fillion and others from the cast also made various TV and other press appearances on talk shows and elsewhere to talk about jumping back into this world and these characters.

Overall

I know who the Cars movies are aimed at in general. Boys love toy cars and that was the main conceit of the first movie and why the franchise keeps selling tie-in toys between movies or when the movies themselves aren’t that great. And the filmmakers have done what they can to make the stories as appealing as they can to girls as well, not wanting to draw too many clear gender stereotype lines around who is and isn’t invited to the theater.

But I’m struggling with who this movie specifically is aimed at attracting. A child who was five years old in 2006 when the first movie came out is 15 or 16 now and…are they contemplating their own mortality. I get that characters have to evolve, but this seems more at someone my age than either current 3-8 year olds or those who have grown up with the franchise. It just seems a little…dark. I’m sure it will be life-affirming and all that in the end, but from the mysterious teasers showing McQueen getting into a massive accident to those that explained the story of his chapter apparently coming to an end, this just seems like an oddly-toned campaign. Disney seems to be counting heavily on franchise-familiarity here and that might not be enough.

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