The Tokyo party sequence was inspired by an experience Lasseter had in Italy while researching the "Cars" sequel with his co-director, Brad Lewis. The filmmakers were following Red Bull's Formula 1 racing team, observing their pit crew, noting the design of their cars, and, one night, attending a glamorous party the team threw. Lasseter donned his own take on formal wear -- a blazer over one of his trademark Hawaiian shirts -- and strode into the event at a modern art museum in Milan.
"It was unbelievable how beautiful the people were," he said. "Models. Everybody dressed in Armani. I just felt totally out of place. This beautiful museum, the lighting, the music, the glitz, I felt like a little animation geek."
The bathroom scene came from Lasseter's travels with his wife and five sons. "I love Japan. I love the collision of the modern and ancient worlds coming together in that place," Lasseter said. "It's so high-tech and cool. But everybody who has been to Tokyo will have had the experience of sitting on a Japanese toilet for the first time and being brave enough to push one of those buttons. They're all in Japanese and then it's just like, yeow! We took our five boys and we squirted water all over that bathroom."
The Pixar team "car-ified" the film's international settings -- Paris' Notre Dame cathedral is adorned with "cargoyles" and London's "Big Bentley" is built out of sparkplug towers and hood ornaments from the British luxury car. An early story called for the race to travel through eight countries, but the scope was pared to save time and money. Pixar won't say what the budget for "Cars 2" was, but its settings are so rich in detail that the film required three times as much computer processing power to complete as the company's previous film, "Toy Story 3."
More than $10-billion worth of toys and goods connected with the first "Cars" have been sold, and with the sequel the franchise is poised to become the licensing industry's largest merchandise program ever. More than 300 new "Cars"-related products are arriving in stores -- everything from die-cast Finn McMissiles to Mater-shaped cake pans. A lavish, 12-acre Cars Land attraction is scheduled to open at Disney's California Adventure park in summer 2012, and a direct-to-DVD spinoff called "Planes" is due in 2013.
The massive product push has raised questions about whether Pixar's creative culture has been co-opted by the commercialism of its corporate parent. But according to Ed Catmull, president of Disney and Pixar animation studios, it is Pixar's biggest kid who is obsessing over the merchandise.
"John wants to tell a story that has an impact on culture," Catmull said. "He's trying to create a world. When children want to play with the characters from the world, he takes a lot of pride in that. For him, this isn't about the money, 'cause he doesn't get that money. It's about the fact that he's made this world, and he sees little kids there, and they're wearing shoes made like cars. And when they hold these toys they're their personal projections. He loves that."
Lasseter's Disney roots run deep -- he studied in the first character animation class in 1975 at the Walt Disney-founded California Institute of the Arts and spent summers working at Disneyland as a skipper on the Jungle Cruise attraction. Though he landed his dream job as an animator at the studio straight out of college, it proved disappointing -- Disney animation was in a creative funk in the late 1970s and early '80s, and Lasseter's eagerness was considered a character flaw by some senior animators.
Lasseter left Disney in 1984 and found a more comfortable home at a special-effects group Catmull was running for George Lucas in Northern California. At that company, which would eventually become Pixar under new owner Steve Jobs, Lasseter directed short films that were made essentially to demonstrate technology. Two of them -- "Luxo Jr." in 1986 and "Tiny Toy" in 1988 -- were nominated for Oscars. In 1995 Disney distributed "Toy Story," Pixar's first feature-length film. By the time of the 2006 merger, Pixar's computer-driven style of animation was the dominant format in the genre, and Lasseter, in his new roles at the companies, was the unofficial guardian of the art form.
Lasseter's stewardship has worked out well for both studios -- last year Pixar's "Toy Story 3" became the highest-grossing animated film of all time, and Disney Animation's "Tangled" was both a critical and commercial hit. And at $38 a share, Disney stock is trading about $13 higher than it was the year the company acquired Pixar.
"No one ever thought he was gonna be a director again," producer Ream said of Lasseter. "He's a big deal. He's a pioneer. And people here (at Pixar) are thinking, 'I can't believe I'm showing my shots to John Lasseter."'
After "Cars 2," Lasseter said he will be busy overseeing -- but not directing -- the forthcoming Pixar films "Brave," a Scotland-set adventure tale about a little-girl archer, and "Monsters University," a prequel to 2001's "Monsters Inc.," plus the Disney Animation comedy "Wreck-It Ralph" as well as others in development. He'll be putting the finishing touches on Cars Land and a Toy Story amusement park in Hong Kong. "I will direct again, but it'll take a few years for me to get going," he said.
The character of Mater, Lasseter acknowledged, is a proxy for himself in "Cars 2" -- earnest, well intentioned, but sometimes out of his element.
"'Cars 2' is about a character learning to be himself," Lasseter said. "There's times in our lives where people always say, 'Well, you've gotta act differently. You should always be yourself.' That's the emotional core of the story. Mater is Mater no matter where he is. Mater is not the one who should be changing. We should be changing to accept him."