If you want to talk to somebody about vehicular matters of any kind, you could do far worse than giving Pixar boss John Lasseter a bell.
“I read every car magazine every month. I love that,” enthuses the fanatic. “My father was a parts manager at a Chevrolet dealership. I’m a car guy.”
You don’t say. By 2004, Pixar Studios – for which Lasseter serves as chief creative officer – had just released The Incredibles , and was officially on a winning streak.
Two Toy Stories had convinced us to fall in love with plastic things, Monsters, Inc. had convinced us to fall in love with things that go bump in the night, and Finding Nemo had convinced us to fall head-over-fin in love with fish (they’re friends, not food).
With that unbeatable track record in place, Lasseter decided it was time to crack out his dream project - now he was going to make people fall in love with cars…
Except Cars , which hit screens in 2007, represented Pixar’s first bump in the road. Though its $461m worldwide gross trumped both Toy Story and A Bug’s Life (and certainly isn’t to be sniffed at), it was just a drop in the ocean compared to Nemo ’s staggering $867m.
The tale of rookie race-car Steve McQueen, who screeches off the beaten track into little-known town Radiator Springs, Cars wasn’t a total failure. It featured the same twinkly Pixar humour and a collection of likeable characters, with rustbucket Mater proving particularly popular.
But audiences couldn’t help feeling that the film didn’t quite live up to Pixar’s exacting standards. “The movie is great to look at and a lot of fun,” noted critic Roger Ebert, “but somehow lacks the extra push of the other Pixar films.”
At present, the film stands at 75% fresh on reviews aggregator Rotten Tomatoes (compare that to Toy Story 3 ’s 99%), which means Cars definitely has its fans, despite the vague apathy.
For Lasseter, the journey wasn’t over. “I loved the characters and the world that we created in Cars ,” he says. “They are near and dear to my heart.” Alright, how about a sequel, then…
Back On The Road
Except Lasseter wasn’t interested in earning a quick buck with his follow-up to Cars . As with the Toy Story sequels, he only wanted to make a Cars 2 if he could find a story to tell. Luckily, that wouldn’t be a problem, thanks to Car ’s beautifully well-drawn world.
“At Pixar, we will only do a sequel if we have a great story idea and we always strive to be different than the original,” Lasseter says. “If you look at all three Toy Story movies, they’re completely different in theme from one another.
“What’s so different about this movie is that the world of Cars 2 is as big as the world that you and I live in. This movie is vastly different than Cars in nearly every way, yet it’s still a part of the world of Cars . That’s what made it so much fun.
“The settings all over the world, the glitz, the glamour, the cool hipness of the European cities and Japan, the whole spy genre, the type of racing that they do, the type of race cars that are there. Everything about it was cool.” It’s story time…
“The story of Cars 2 was sparked by the idea of taking Lightning McQueen and Mater overseas,” Lasseter explains. “As I was travelling around the world doing publicity for Cars , I had cars as characters on the brain.
“I was constantly laughing to myself when I was in all these different countries, imagining what Mater would do in these different and foreign situations.”
Where the first Cars took place in a sleepy, dusty old town, Cars 2 would shoot for the stars with a whirlwind adventure that took its characters all over the world.
As Cars 2 begins, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is asked to compete in the World Grand Prix in Japan, Italy and Britain. Hitching a ride with McQueen is loveable buck-toothed sidekick Mater (voiced by Larry The Cable Guy), who has never left Radiator Springs.
“The World Grand Prix is just the setting for our real story,” Lasseter teases. “Mater is unknowingly embroiled in a case of international espionage!
“ Cars 2 is also a real spy movie with state-of-the-art gadgets, thrilling action and great car villains. It’s totally different and so much fun.” Better get that rubber burning…
True to form, Cars 2 fulfils its promise of bigger and better right from its opening moments. Instead of easing us in with some establishing scenes in Radiator Springs, Lasseter drops us straight into the action.
“I had a strong desire to start Cars 2 out as far away from what you would expect to find in a sequel to Cars,” the director explains.
“Everybody’s expecting Lightning McQueen, Mater, NASCAR racing, Radiator Springs, and the first thing you see is a boat out in the middle of the ocean.
“I just loved that notion of taking it as far away as you can from it. It also sets up sort of the gigantic oil platforms, and all that’s there.
“I thought it was a really, really interesting set piece, that it could be so different from the original.”
Not that he was going to short-change the returning characters, of course…
“Somebody was just asking me, ‘Do you ever say Ka-chow!?’” laughs Owen Wilson of his Cars cathphrase. “I say that. It’s because parents will say, ‘This is Lightening McQueen,’ and the kid just stands there. And so then I’ll go, ‘Ka-Chow!’”
Wilson may be best known for his cheeky grown-up comedies, but to a legion of young fans, he is the voice of their favourite race-car, Lightning McQueen.
After McQueen learned the meaning of true friendship (aaah) and the value of not always coming first (sniffle) in the first Cars , the sequel whisks him off for an adventure with Mater.
“It’s a funny, friendship, buddy movie between Mater and Lighting McQueen,” Wilson notes.
So how was it coming back for a second film? “It felt pretty seamless,” says Wilson. “I was excited when John Lasseter said he would direct this one, and that I would be working with him again.
“I like the idea of having the character already worked out. Now we just take them on a new adventure. With this one they’re going all around the world, there’s the Michael Caine spy/espionage element, it just seemed like a fun ride.” We’ll get to Caine in a bit, but first…
Perhaps the main highlight in Cars was Mater. A One-Ton Wrecker Tow Truck, he’s adorably inept and uneducated, but always has his motor running in the right place. How could a Cars 2 not lavish him with more screen time?
“Mater is such a special character,” says Lasseter. “He’s honest and completely straightforward and tells it exactly like it is. He’s just fun and loveable.
“Lightning McQueen and Mater have this deep friendship and it’s the emotional core of this movie. This special friendship gets tested in a very different and interesting way. It’s about how the strength of a friendship can be tested.”
Like all sequels should, Cars 2 adds new layers to its characters – and in particular Mater.
As he begins to realise that the world is not laughing with him, but at him, the character goes through a change – and his friendship with Lightning McQueen is put through the wringer.
“What may be solid in one place can appear much different in another,” notes Lasseter. “Put a friendship to the test under a different set of circumstances and in a different setting - how true and deep is this friendship, really?”
Alright, that’s our two mismatched heroes, how about some villains…
Lets Talk Villains
When it comes to villains, Lasseter knows exactly what he wants. For a start, they have to be super-smart. Perhaps more importantly, they don’t necessarily see themselves as villains.
“When at the end of the movie you find out what they were about,” the director muses, “and it makes absolutely perfect sense from their point of view. There’s a term that you use it’s called ‘the centre of good’.
“They’re doing the right thing, sometimes just for pure greed, but it’s like they’re so far ahead of everybody else.”
In Cars 2 , the main villain is Professor Zündapp and a secret mastermind who owns the largest untapped oil reserves in the world.
Together, the duo plot to protect their oil profits by using a weapon disguised as a television camera to ignite the Allinol fuel in race cars and sully the competition’s name.
The only things standing in their way are undercover spies who are attempting to root out the rotten roadsters. As Lasseter previously mentioned, Cars 2 is as much a road movie as it is a spy movie - and a spy movie’s nothing without its spies…
Enter Finn McMissile. A British secret agent, he recruits Mater when he mistakes him for a very cleverly-disguised American agent. McMissile’s not just any secret agent, either – he’s voiced by Sir Michael Caine himself.
“We were very excited to get Finn McMissle to be voiced by Michael Caine,” Lasseter enthuses. “That was so awesome, MICHAEL CAINE! One of the greatest actors that ever lived.
“He was fantastic, he has this twinkle in his eye that comes through in his voice, that’s so much fun, he’s an amazing actor.”
For Caine, Cars 2 represented an opportunity to do something a little bit different.
“I have honestly never played a car before,” ha admits. “I drove some cars in The Italian Job , but I’ve never been a car.
“This is a brand new experience for me and one of the reasons I did it, because I’ve been in the business a long time and it’s very difficult to get a brand new experience.”
Even Caine thinks McMissile is cool. “That’s an incredible name, isn’t it?” he says. “Finn McMissile. It’s lovely. It makes me sound as though I’m dangerous. I will say my missile is dangerous.” Yes, uh, so moving on…
So Pixar is one of the most celebrated animation houses in the world (alongside Studio Ghibli and, alright, Disney). Their offices are no doubt fitted with chocolate fountains and the like. But how was it working with the animation wizards?
“It’s surprisingly easy to do because everybody facilitates what you’re going to do and where you want to be at and it’s very straight,” reveals Caine.
“It’s not like making a movie where you go through a studio. It’s very simple. You read the lines. You don’t have to remember any of them and it’s good fun.”
Eddie Izzard, who voices former oil tycoon Miles Axelrod, isn’t quite so generous. “It is slightly annoying in a way,” he drawls. “It’s John’s game.
“John takes the essences out of our vocal things, and they do film us when we’re performing so that they can animate from that, but it means that you put as much as you can into the voice and then you don’t know quite where it will go after that.
“Then you see the finished product afterwards. So it’s a director’s oeuvre. What really annoys me – because I do love doing animation and this is great – but I would have liked to have met everyone on the thing. You know, it never happens.” Don't expect Izzard in Cars 3...
Follow in the footprints of Up and Toy Story 3 , Cars 2 is being presented in 3D. And John Lasseter couldn’t be more excited about it if he tried.
“I love 3D probably more than any other director,” he grins, surely pissing off James Cameron. “I took my wedding pictures in 3D!
“Our short film Knick Knack that we made in 1989 was made in 3D before there were any 3D theatres out there. And I always felt our medium of computer animation is perfectly matched to it.”
So what separates Cars 2 ’s three dimensions from the other, sometimes underwhelming films that have employed the medium?
“It’s really made with 3D in mind,” Lasseter assures us. “And 3D for a Pixar film is not about all the coming-at-you stuff, it’s just about making the world that much more believable and immersive, like a window into that world. You get invested in it.”
Alright, so the 3D sounds amazing, but Cars 2 also marked a special event in the Pixar calendar…
Happy Birthday Pixar
While Pixar busied itself making Cars 2 , the studio completely forgot its 25th anniversary.
“We’re very proud it’s our 25th anniversary,” Lasseter admits, before sheepishly adding: “It’s typical Pixar though, we’re so focused on our movies - finishing Cars 2 , working on Brave and the sequel to Monsters, Inc. , Monsters University - and I remember someone saying, ‘Hey, you realise that this year is Pixar’s 25th anniversary?’
“We were like, ‘IT IS? Oh!’ We didn’t even realise it at the time. We’re so proud of Pixar. With all of our films we work so hard to make them great, for audiences and for the people who work so hard on them.
“Also, no matter what the subject matter of our films is, we want there to be a heart. We want all the films to stay with audiences for a long time.”
“Making Cars 2 has been a blast,” says Lasseter. “ Cars and Cars 2 are extremely personal for me. You know, I always say that I have the greatest job in the world, and directing Cars 2 made it even more fun.”
Cars 2 rolled out Stateside last month. Sadly, its release was met with the same sort of apathy that welcomed its predecessor. Though it’s received mixed reviews, the globe-trotting sequel currently stands at just 34% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.
“It's finally happened. Pixar’s mythical run of great films is over,” denounced The Standard , while Access Hollywood write: “With the love story jettisoned in favour of explosions, a confusing plot and poorly defined characters, Cars 2 goes nowhere fast.”
Still, certain critics were fans (“the sequel is a tire-burning burst of action and fun with a beating heart under its hood” commended Rolling Stone ), and Pixar are already looking ahead to their next movie.
“It’s called Brave ,” says Lasseter. “The main character is a woman. It’s set in medieval Scotland, where there’s animals and people with lots of layers of clothes, and hair and sword-fights and arrows, and mystical magical forests and all this stuff that’s very exciting.
“It’s someplace we’ve never been before. I think that’s gonna present all new challenges for us.”