“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 advisor 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. 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.
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.”