I have to admit that I had always kind of avoided the original "Cars." It had seemed like the most nakedly "market tested" Pixar film to me. I saw it as a movie that popped up right at the height of the NASCAR craze replete with hundreds of cute toy-ready cars just begging to be merchandized. The design of the characters, with their extra big adorable eyes leant the whole thing a syrupy air that had kept me away.

Of course when I sat down and actually watched the movie I was taken in by heart of the thing. It has a solid story of cocky little red race car who is forced to slow down and appreciate small town values and the beauty of the countryside. Still not my favorite Pixar film, but a solid effort and I'd recommend it.

So my cynicism had melted a bit as I rode the bus across the Bay Bridge to visit the Pixar campus back in March to get a sneak peek at "Cars 2" and meet the folks behind the film. We had been bused out the night before to have a tour of their newly built office building, attend a Pixar 25th anniversary mixer and screen the "Toy Story" Short "Hawaiian Vacation," which will be released theatrically in front of "Cars 2." I don't have a lot to say about the night before, however, as I can't talk about the the short, and the mixer was pleasant but not much to write about.

More after the jump.

I was a little puzzled as to why they'd show us their new building, but I guess to a certain degree, when you are creating works of art that are 100% generated from people's thoughts, where those people think can become a factor in the work. Suffice it to say the building was gorgeous inside and out and sported some very cool themed conference rooms, a wet bar on every floor and the biggest 3D television I've ever seen. Whoever gets to work there is stoked.

We sat down in the theater and donned our 3D glasses and watched about 26 minutes of footage from Cars 2, and although we were discouraged from talking about what we saw at the time, a lot of it has been subsequently released as clips, and I've posted them below.

 

As you can see the stuff is pretty gorgeous, they've made leaps and bounds in animation technology since the last "Cars" and everything feels richer and more complex than the last film, if slightly cooler and slicker. It's immediately apparent that "Cars 2" will be a different beast from the original. Not only does it take place far from Radiator Springs in exotic locations around the world, but there's a James Bond espionage theme, with action to match.


The footage opened with an extended version of the Finn McMissile sequence above and I think that most people in the room were struck by how intense the action was, and even that certain cars actually appeared to die by being thrown off the platform or blown up in the explosions. To me the death of any character in animation is striking. I remember in the old GI Joe cartoons where no matter what kind of mayhem was occurring, you never saw a character die. Pilots of crashed planes would always parachute out in time. Watching a one of these cute little toys perish in a watery grave or go up in a fireball was a bit unnerving. The first "Cars," could be considered a "hard G" with it's sweet tone and slower pace, and what we were watching seemed to easily edge into PG territory.

It was interesting to see how universally perceived this change was among the journalists yet how unprepared for the car death question the folks at Pixar appeared to be. Producer Denise Ream, who presented the footage, was asked about the subject and could only manage a pause and then "Pixar films are for everybody."

After the screening, we broke into groups and talked to various technicians and creatives about the film including returning director John Lasseter, who had a similar response to the question of the sequel's heightened intensity:

"We don’t really think about that as we make the films. We try to focus on telling a great story. These films are family films. That’s what we make, you know?" Said Lasseter, who has directed almost half of Pixar's feature output. "And there’s different kinds of scariness in each of our films. We don’t really shy away from that but we’re really respective of the families. I don’t think there’s anything too scary in this one any more than 'The Incredibles' or any of the other films we’ve made." ("The Incredibles" was rated PG.)

Someone on the team who had thought about the issue was supervising animator Shawn Krause. According to him the animators tried to mitigate some of the intensity by switching the camera perspective on the cars away from their faces.

"If you wanted to emote you would have [the car] pointing at camera, so you’d see the eyes and mouth as a human face. But if you want to do something violent, you’d pull it off to the side so it looks more like a car." Said Krause, "We really used that staging a lot in animation. If there’s a violent scene like having [cars] hitting each other; they’d hit each other from the side and you read 'car crash,' but when you want to see all those emotions up front and you shoot that from the front so you can see his expression."

When asked specifically about car death, Krause took a similar route: "When anything was excessively violent or dangerous, we tried to treat the cars more as vehicles and not as personalities. If we’re blowing up other people then you really relate to that and have a much more empathetic visceral feeling towards that. But if it’s a car rattling and shaking and going off the side of an oil derrick then you don’t feel so connected to it, you know? So that’s how we walked that line."

Character Designer Jay Shuster had a more comical take on business of anthropomorphizing such common inanimate objects thing into living, breathing creatures: "There are many questions we just don't ask in the 'Cars' universe, such as 'where do baby cars come from?' or 'if you rolled down the window would the brains fall out?'"

I don't mean to alarm anyone with all this talk of violence in "Cars 2." It's important to point out that we're talking about intensity compared the original 'Cars,' one of the mellower children's films ever. Director John Lasseter did not want to make the same film over again and making a spy movie has it's consequences. Also, maybe a little scary is OK?

"In some sense all of my films are really inspired by the films of Walt Disney," continued Lasseter. "And when you look back to 'Bambi' with Bambi’s mother being shot and 'Dumbo' and all those things. I mean there was some really frightening stuff in those films. I grew up with those films and there was something kind of cool about that. Choosing the genre of the spy movie, we knew there was going to be action.That’s part of it, you know?"

The MPAA has given "Cars 2" a G rating and it's very possible that they have toned down or edited some of the footage that we saw in order to get that rating. I have not yet seen the finished film.

If --for whatever reason-- your young one expresses concern about the fate of the unfortunate cars who meet their demise in "Cars 2," you can tell them what Lasseter told us: "The way I look at it is cars can always be fixed, right?"

"Cars 2" Opens everywhere in 3D and 2D on June 24th, 2011

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