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Lasseter says he’s ecstatic to be back in director’s chair for ‘Cars 2’

“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 on the outskirts of Oakland, Calif., 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.

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.

“Cars 2,” which arrives 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,” he said. “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.

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 raceway near his home.

“I have motor oil running through my veins,” he 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 bathroom scene came from Lasseter’s travels with his wife and five sons.

“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,” he said. “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.

“John wants to tell a story that has an impact on culture,” said Ed Catmull, president of Disney and Pixar animation studios. “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.”

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.”