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For John Lasseter, Pixar's boyish visionary, 'Cars 2' is a gearhead's dream

June 21, 2011|Rebecca Keegan | Los Angeles Times

EMERYVILLE, Calif. —

"Honnnnnk! Honnnnnk!" John Lasseter had explicit instructions about how the Galloping Goose, an antique steam train character in "Cars 2," should look and sound, and he was delivering them with brio. It was January and the animation czar was making the hourlong commute from his home in Sonoma County to his Pixar office here on the outskirts of Oakland in the passenger seat of a town car. On his lap, he balanced an iPad loaded with shots to review while he recorded voice memos for the movie's crew: "Like a diesel horn. I wanna have air horns on his roof," he told them, voicing the nasal sound he wanted. "He is just unbelievably cute, you guys."

In 2006, the Walt Disney Co. paid $7.4 billion for the privilege of hearing Lasseter's voice loud and clear when it bought Pixar, the computer animation company he helped found. Pixar's 11 feature films have grossed $6.5 billion worldwide and earned 40 Oscar nominations, becoming a rare Hollywood model of consistent success commercially and artistically. With the merger, he was made chief creative officer of both Disney's and Pixar's animation studios and a key adviser on Disney's theme parks and its direct-to-DVD animated films.

Lasseter's return to the studio 22 years after he'd left it as a frustrated young artist was regarded by animators as the best thing to happen in their field since someone gave Walt Disney a pencil. Since Disney's death in 1966, no one figure had seemed to possess the producer's potent mix of showmanship and innovation that had helped turn cartoons from a novelty genre into a cultural force. Lasseter, many hoped, would fill the Walt void.

"Cars 2," which will arrive in theaters Friday, is the first movie Lasseter, 54, has directed since he assumed those giant corporate and symbolic responsibilities. If the ardor of his goose-honk is any indication, he is jubilant to be back in the director's chair.

"I was so busy working on all those other things," Lasseter said last week from Pixar's headquarters about two weeks after wrapping "Cars 2." "I felt a little like I was losing touch with the artists who actually create all the films, and that's something I cherished."

Lasseter directed the first all-CG feature film in history, 1995's "Toy Story," as well as 1998's "A Bug's Life," 1999's "Toy Story 2" and the original "Cars" movie in 2006. The boyish executive has changed little, longtime Pixar colleagues say, since taking on the key leadership role at Disney. He still wears one of his collection of 358 Hawaiian shirts to work each day, festoons his office with toys and bearhugs his employees.

He is based at Pixar but flies to Disney's Burbank lot several times a month. Thanks to an iPad app designed by a Pixar staffer, he does much of his work while in transit, on one of a half-dozen iPads he totes along in his bag, one each for various departments at the two companies. "Cars 2" producer Denise Ream has saved all of Lasseter's messages from the production and played some of them to illustrate the director's communication style.

"He loves telling stories, that's when he's happiest," said Sharon Calahan, who began working at Pixar on the first "Toy Story" feature film in 1994 and served as director of photography-lighting on "Cars 2." "The corporate stuff he's incredibly good at, but it's not fun for him. He's a big kid, and his playbox is Pixar. The 'Cars' characters in particular are his babies."

Automobiles are part of Lasseter's origin story: His father, Paul, who died in May at age 87, managed a Chevy parts dealership in Whittier, Calif. As a teenager, Lasseter worked for his dad as a stock boy and truck driver, hauling auto parts around Southern California in the waning years of the muscle-car era. Today, Lasseter collects classic cars -- a favorite is his black 1952 Jaguar XK 120 -- and attends auto races at the Infineon Raceway near his home. "I have motor oil running through my veins," Lasseter said. "I love the car world in great part because of my father."

The first "Cars" movie rode on the small-town simplicity of Radiator Springs, where country bumpkin tow-truck Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) and his anthropomorphized automotive friends showed swaggering star racecar Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) how to slow down and enjoy the scenery. "Cars 2" picks up the pace of the original and expands its scope to an international espionage thriller.

Lightning McQueen is competing in the first ever World Grand Prix, bringing Mater and Co. along as his pit crew for a race that will wind through Tokyo, Paris, London and a fictional Italian coastal city called Porto Corsa. Mater is so Jethro Clampett-like at a sleek pre-race party in Tokyo -- misusing the electronic toilets, confusing wasabi for ice cream -- that British superspy Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine) and rookie field agent Holley Shiftwell (voiced by Emily Mortimer) mistake him for an American operative in deep cover.

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