Lightning McQueen was once the fastest car on the track. The fictional racecar blew away the competition and helped propel the first animated Cars movie to the title of the most profitable Disney Pixar film of all time.
Cars 3 comes 11 years after the first instalment was released and Lightning is older and fending off competition from younger, more technologically-advanced rookies.
The same might be said for 48-year-old Owen Wilson, who has lent his voice to the character for all three movies, as well as numerous toys, rides, games and spin-offs.
He has aged just as much as Lightning - and he’s feeling it.
“I wonder if my voice has changed from the first one,” he says. “Do people’s voices change as they get older? For an actor you play a certain type of role in your 20s and 30s and I don’t know if those roles would be appropriate for me now.
“I kind of felt that at least I didn’t have to worry about that in the animated world, the ageing, and then I get this script for Cars 3 and even Lightning McQueen is getting older.
“Is nothing safe from the ravages of time? It is brutal.”
Wilson is aware he’s not far off 50, but says of ageing: “It’s more something that I would ignore or pretend isn’t happening than something where I’m thinking ‘yes I can’t wait to get older’.
When you’re a kid you like getting older, but once you’re older I don’t know that you like getting older.”
When it’s put to him that the passage of time might bring with it a greater sense of contentment, he replies: “I guess that is the sort of thing you can say to console yourself.”
The young new pretender threatening to topple Lightning from the top spot is rookie Jackson Storm, who is voiced by The Social Network star Armie Hammer.
As Hammer says: “Jackson Storm epitomises the next-gen racers. They’re young, brash and confident. Jackson Storm is newer and faster. He can calculate the drag coefficient on the spot. It’s hard to compete with that.”
But our hero finds a new sense of purpose when he meets innovative trainer Cruz Ramirez, voiced by Cristela Alonzo, who helps him discover he has an important contribution to make, and Wilson says this idea particularly resonated with him as a father to two little boys.
He says: “As parents you try to teach your children. You want them to learn the lessons you’ve learned along the way and hopefully avoid some of the pitfalls. I think it applies to the world of Cars, too.
“One of the most important things in life is finding those mentors. For me, when I was just starting out, it was James L Brooks. He brought Wes Anderson and me out to Los Angeles and produced our first movie [Bottle Rocket]. He worked with us for a year on the script.
“To have somebody like that take the time to help us get that movie made - it made all the difference in our lives.”
Collaboration is an important part of Wilson’s career - until 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom he had either helped write or starred in every film Anderson, his college roommate, had made. He has also starred in 11 films with Ben Stiller, his pal of more than 20 years, so for an actor who works so closely and so frequently with other creatives, it must be strange for him to return to the relatively solitary life of the voice-over booth to make the Cars films.
He said: “A few times they would bring in other actors for some sessions, Bonnie Hunt I worked with on Cars 2 and with Paul Newman (who voiced Doc Hudson in Cars before his death in 2008) we had a day together, and then Cruz Ramirez and Lightning McQueen, we recorded together on the same day.
“But it is mostly by yourself but in a way it’s a more pure form of acting, in the sense that it’s child-like and how you are as a kid when it’s total make believe, and luckily I’m very in touch with that and I’m able to do it. I think and I would hope that I’m not too cynical. When you’re beginning, it’s new and exciting and then you’ve done something for over 20 years, but it’s still that feeling of when you feel like you did a good job or came up with an idea to make the story better that is always something that makes you feel good.”
Cars 3 is out now.