[Warning: This story contains spoilers for Cars 3]
At the outset, Pixar’s newest film Cars 3 appears to be all about how race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) can maintain and further his legacy as one of the sport’s biggest names. He’s desperate to prove himself opposite a host of cocksure, younger, and more technologically advanced racers. But by the end of the film, he’s ceded his spotlight to Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), a younger, female trainer who didn’t think she’d ever have the chance to achieve her dream, to be a race car like Lightning. Herein lies the biggest, most welcome surprise of Cars 3: its best part is Cruz and her arc of self-actualization.
Up until the final half of Cars 3, when the relationship between Lightning and Cruz takes center stage, the Cars franchise (as well as the two Planes spin-off films) has been male-dominated. While each of the films does have a handful of female characters, such as Lightning’s longtime girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt), the core relationships are largely male-driven: Lightning and his mentor Doc Hudson (Paul Newman) in the first film; tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and his British spy handler Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) in Cars 2; and so on. So it’s a relieving breath of fresh air that Cruz gets to reclaim her desire by the end of the new film, the implicit suggestion being that Lightning’s future is less important if it doesn’t involve him helping others.
Before the film’s climactic race, where Lightning is still unable to keep time against the newer generation of racers even after training hard, Cruz has an equally impactful emotional moment where she clarifies why she chose not to pursue her dream of racing. “Dream small or not at all” is what her family told her; once she approached a racetrack, she backed down because she looked at the other competitors and figured she didn’t have what it took to contend next to them. The subtext-laden suggestion appears to be that, either because of her gender or her race compared with that of Lightning, Cruz accepted that she would have to scale down her ambitions if she wanted even a modicum of success in the world of racing.
The way that Cruz is almost literally handed a second chance at racing in the climax, one at which she triumphs, is both a positive step forward for Pixar as well as being a little more delayed than necessary. Especially in a summer that’s included the justifiably well-liked Wonder Woman, seeing a female character get to defeat her male counterparts is an empowering image. Cars 3 stumbles not in its signal boosting or its sensitive portrayal of Cruz, as much as in creating a character so interesting that you wish she was on screen more frequently, to the point where the entire story ought to be about her.
Of course, it’s only in the last few years that Pixar has offered more diverse stories or characters outside of the norm, i.e. white and male. Pixar’s first film to feature a non-white actor was 2001′s Monsters, Inc., which included a supporting role for Jennifer Tilly, who’s half-Chinese. Samuel L. Jackson was the first black actor to have a major part in a Pixar film, 2004′s The Incredibles. The last few years have suggested an encouraging shift for Pixar. In 2015, their wonderful Inside Out not only featured Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, and Mindy Kaling among its stars, but literally took place inside the mind of an adolescent girl. Also that year, the studio released the eye-popping and wonderful short Sanjay’s Super Team, dealing with Indian culture and Hinduism from the eyes of a child, directed by Sanjay Patel. Later this year, they’ll release a new original film, Coco, that features an entirely non-White cast in keeping with the story’s Mexican setting. Not as much is currently known about Pixar’s next two projects, The Incredibles 2 and Toy Story 4, but Jackson’s return in the former is already confirmed.
So the placement of Cruz Ramirez — really, the placement of a female character — in Cars 3 is a move in the right direction. Cruz represents not only another push towards diversity for Pixar’s characters and stories, but the first push in the Cars franchise towards poignancy for a character instead of a location. (The first Cars features a montage set to a ballad, a la the “When She Loved Me” scene in Toy Story 2, but is meant as a memorial to the small town of Radiator Springs, not the memories a character has to his or her own past.) While Cruz is such a vibrant character, and Alonzo so engaged and multidimensional in her voice work, that you wish she was the central figure of Cars 3, it’s good to see Pixar embrace the new at the end of a franchise that started off wistfully pining for the good old days.