We're in a car with John Lasseter, and the filmmaker is in a professorial mood. During an hourlong commute from his home in Glen Ellen, Calif., to Pixar's campus in Emeryville, we learn at least a little about the first years of the studio, Formula One racing, the Graf Zeppelin dirigible, Brad Bird's genius and the history of computer animation.
But every few minutes, an old Lotus, Corvette or another classic race car whizzes by, and he swivels his head. Peering out his window in the backseat, he looks for a few moments like a little kid.
"There is something going on at Infineon Raceway with awesome old cars," Lasseter says, cutting off one of his own stories. "I've seen four or five beautiful old sports cars with numbers on them heading that way."
"Cars 2" (rated G) comes out Friday, and it continues the studio's tradition of technologically advanced filmmaking, coupled with a philosophy that encourages a state of arrested development. Shortly before the first "Cars" came out in 2006, Lasseter became the chief creative officer at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. He's also the creative adviser to Disney Imagineering, which oversees the company's theme parks.
But he still decided to direct "Cars 2," which remains a passion project. Lasseter was inspired for the first "Cars" after a road trip with his wife, Nancy, and five sons. He did extensive research for the film, which is a love letter to Route 66.
The premise for "Cars 2" -- a tale of international intrigue that riffs off the spy-movie genre -- came from the proverbial cutting-room floor of the first film.
Lasseter says race-car protagonist Lightning McQueen's first date with his Porsche girlfriend, Sally, was going to be at a drive-in theater, where a James Bond-style film would be on the big screen. (The couple ended up cruising instead.) Lasseter says the story team had a little bit too much fun coming up with ideas, which included the concept of Finn McMissile, a superspy in a sleek gadget-filled car who is voiced by Michael Caine in "Cars 2."
"I believe frankly it was an excuse not to do our work," Lasseter says. "We had more fun developing the movie within the movie than actually fixing the scene, because it was having story problems. It's like not doing your homework and doing something else. Reading the comic book, you know."
Lasseter says the concept was fleshed out even more during the worldwide publicity tour for "Cars," where he kept thinking about bumpkin tow truck Mater as a fish out of water in the glitzy high-tech, high-culture cities in Asia and Europe.
"I would be in Tokyo or London or Paris or Italy, and I kept looking out the window and laughing, 'What would Mater do in these situations?' " Lasseter says. "Like driving on the wrong side of the road, or the giant roundabout (surrounding) the Arc de Triomphe. Mater would end up there for weeks and never get out."
Lasseter is a regular at NASCAR races, which provided inspiration for "Cars," but he hadn't seen an open-wheeled race live. A visit to a Formula One race in Barcelona, Spain, helped to complete the story. "Cars 2" features Lightning McQueen competing in a rally-style World Grand Prix of the planet's fastest automobiles. There are spy-movie nods around every turn, but the emotional heart of the story focuses on Lightning McQueen and Mater, whose close friendship is tested outside of Radiator Springs.
The daily commute to Pixar's growing campus is a definite comfort zone for Lasseter, who carries multiple iPads in the car, with a special custom-built program that lets him record messages and other feedback to scenes from forthcoming films, ready for his co-workers when he arrives.
Lasseter often drives himself to work and finds an hour behind the wheel to be a pleasure. (During a phone interview for a different story last year, Lasseter could be heard pumping his own gas, never breaking stride as he lectured about the Pixar culture.) During the crunch time of movie deadlines, he's chauffeured, sitting in the front passenger seat and leaving work messages on his iPads, often with the same driver.
"This guy, Tim, has heard everything about 'Cars 2,' " Lasseter says of his current driver. "Every sequence. Everything."
The daily commute includes a pass by Infineon Raceway. Lasseter has to correct himself twice after calling the raceway by its old name, Sears Point -- an unintentional gaffe that proves his San Francisco Bay Area racing credibility. (It's likely that Jeff Gordon still thinks of it as Sears Point, too.) And every inch of roadway is memorized. As much as any Pixar news, Lasseter seems interested in the new four-way stop that's been installed in the front of the campus.
It may not be a typical day for the director -- the morning included a tour of the 374 Hawaiian shirts in his closet -- but he still arrives at Pixar before 9:30 a.m. At least five co-workers are waiting by the roadside. Four of them have immediate business, and three get a hug. (Goodbyes and hellos are a big deal for the gregarious Lasseter, whose Dachshund, Frank, gets a long see-you-later before Lasseter climbs into the car.)
If his commute seems like it has a lot of emotion, it matches the philosophy behind Pixar's movies. "Story is king" is one of the director's favorite phrases. There's a floor-to-ceiling monument to the credo with storyboard art collage and a little crown near the central building's main atrium. "Cars" was a huge financial success -- even more so after years of merchandising -- but the director insists that there wouldn't have been a "Cars 2" without a good story.
During the drive, Lasseter is most serious when he talks about the heart behind Pixar films. Lightning McQueen, voiced by Owen Wilson, is a red sports car with eyes and a mouth, and Mater is an animated tow truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy. But he discusses the characters as if there are real feelings at stake.
"When you get into the early stages of developing a film at Pixar, genre discussions are always really early -- is it a buddy-picture story, fish-out-of-water story, boy-and-a-dog story?" Lasseter says. "You always look for the emotional arc of the main character."
In "Cars 2," the message is to be yourself. Friendship is tested when Mater acts like his non-cosmopolitan self during the world racing tour, which is embarrassing for McQueen. And once again the animated talking cars are a metaphor for something bigger.
"It's like a foundation on a building," Lasseter says, glancing out the window again. "You have to have a strong foundation in order to build the building, and the same thing goes for the story. Where is the heart of the film going to come from? The heart is going to come from the growth of the main character."
To see a trailer, go to disney.go.com/cars.