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The following contains minor spoilers for Cars 3.
Cars 3 focuses very heavily on Lightning McQueen, which is a drastic departure from the last film in the franchise which was essentially a movie about Lightning's friend Mater. So how big a role will the residents of Radiator Springs play in the new movie? While the town, and all its inhabitants, will be in the movie, they won't be playing nearly the role that they have in the previous installments of the series. I had a chance to sit down and talk to the producers of Cars 3, Kevin Reher and Andrea Warren, and they explained to me that the characters would be playing a much more supporting role because this film has a very different focus.
Reher: It isn't about Radiator Springs, its a jumping off spot.
Warren: They're important because they're his family. They play that role. It's less of a discovery and more of a supporting [role.]
The original Cars took place almost entirely in the town of Radiator Springs, and as such the characters who lived there were vital to the story. While the sequel didn't spend much time in the town, several of the townsfolk traveled with Lightning as part of his pit crew, and ultimately Cars 2 was a movie about Mater, not Lightning. The tow truck took a major role while other characters still had a significant part. I had the opportunity to see a large piece of Cars 3 and, with the exception of one early scene in the film, the town of Radiator Springs and the people who live there were nowhere to be seen. I was assured by director Brian Fee that they will be seen later in the film as well, but it does seem clear that the Cars 3 is truly designed to focus on Lightning McQueen and his new trainer Cruz Ramirez, and it seems that the rest of the familiar faces are being left behind so as not to make things too crowded.
In fact, it seems that including Radiator Springs at all was something of a challenge for the filmmakers. Producer Kevin Reher told me that in order to justify having the characters in the film they had to give them something to do, which wasn't as easy as it seemed. According to him...
We had to give everybody a moment, that was the hard part, we had to give everybody a line.
And because everybody needed a line, a good joke or some other reason for being there, a couple of characters the filmmakers were trying to fit into Cars 3 didn't make the cut. According to Kevin Reher...
We had a couple of characters that had been in Radiator Springs that we were trying to shoehorn in, they weren't the main characters in Radiator Springs and we tried a bunch of different ways and unfortunately, the joke didn't land, they were kinda flat.
Unfortunately, I didn't take perfect notes of every character that I did see during the Radiator Springs scene, and Kevin Reher and Andrea Warren refused to tell me who the missing characters were, however, I do have a guess. There is a pair of characters that, while not technically residents of Radiator Springs, have appeared there in both previous Cars films. Van and Mini appear as a couple passing through town in the first Cars, and are also seen in town at the end of Cars 2. It would make sense that Pixar might try to fit them into Cars 3, however, it would also not be surprising if they had difficulty doing so.
There are two characters who will play slightly larger roles than the rest of the Radiator Springs folks. Luigi and Guido, as key members of Lightning McQueen's pit crew, will travel with him when he leaves town to go down to Florida to begin to train in an attempt to get back on the Piston Cup circuit, following the massive crash that he's involved in that has been a key part of the trailers.
On the one hand, fans of particular characters of the Cars franchise might be disappointed if a favorite isn't going to get much screen time. However, on the other hand, it should be said that the last time the Cars movies were really great, it was when Lightning McQueen was front and center. Cars 3 drives into theaters June 16.