At an idea factory like Pixar, clever concepts often land on the cutting room floor. In the case of "Cars," the animation studio's love letter to gear heads, one of those discarded notions has helped inspire the sequel.
In John Lasseter and Joe Ranft's 2006 film, rookie race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) got a lesson in slowing down and enjoying the scenery from an unexpected detour in the sleepy town of Radiator Springs. In a sequence that never made it beyond the storyboarding stage, Lightning and his love interest, Sally Carrera, visited a drive-in theater where a James Bond-esque flick about a superspy car named Finn McMissile was playing.
Fast-forward to 2011 and "Cars 2," the studio's first non- "Toy Story" sequel, set to open June 24, is a spy movie with Finn McMissile as a major character.
"Finn is our action hero," says Shawn Krause, a supervising animator on the film.
Directed again by Lasseter, as well as "Ratatouille" producer Brad Lewis, "Cars 2" features Finn as a charming, old-school British secret agent voiced by Michael Caine. Like any good spy, Finn's body is gadget-laden, with grappling hooks, a missile launcher and deployable explosives.
Whereas most of the original film centered on Radiator Springs and its motley, motorized population, in the sequel Lightning ventures to Europe and Japan to compete in the first World Grand Prix. On the road, his yokelish tow-truck pal Mater ( Larry the Cable Guy) is mistaken for an undercover American agent with a particularly inventive disguise.
"Mater has never been out of Radiator Springs," says Krause. "We thought of him like Woody from 'Cheers.' He's not stupid, he's simple, sincere and childlike."
Speeding out of Radiator Springs and into the world of international espionage opened up the vehicular possibilities for Pixar's animators, who designed boats, spy jets, helicopters and quirky European pickup trucks for the film.
Another new character is Holley Shiftwell ( Emily Mortimer), a Tokyo-based spy-in-training whose design is based on Japanese robots, with hidden cameras, concealed weapons and a holographic pop-up display. The villain, Professor Zundapp, is modeled on a bizarre car in which passengers can sit facing forward or backward and is voiced by German actor Thomas Kretschmann.
Paul Newman, who voiced crusty retired racer Doc Hudson in the original, died in 2008. Doc's character will not return with another actor voicing the role, according to Krause.
But many of the first film's other elements are intact, including the notion that heart is more crucial than speed for Lightning and Mater.
"It's a spy film, but we wanted to hold onto the idea that their friendship is the most important thing," says Krause.