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Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy talk driving ‘Cars 2’ overseas

Courtesy of Disney

After zooming through theaters and toy stores in 2006, Pixar Animation Studios is bringing one of its most lucrative franchises back to the big screen this weekend with “Cars 2.”

“Cars 2” features star race car Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) and his best friend Mater (voice of Larry the Cable Guy) as they head overseas for the first-ever World Grand Prix, a race to determine the world’s fastest car. 

When Mater is mistakenly caught up in a case of international espionage, he finds himself torn between helping Lightning McQueen and assisting in a top-secret mission orchestrated by British super spy Finn McMissile (voice of Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (voice of Emily Mortimer). 

Giving the “Cars” international flavor by visiting London, Tokyo and Paris was a nice change for the franchise, Wilson said in a press conference earlier this month.

“It felt like with this movie that it was sort of just this exciting new adventure that they’re kind of going with … the World Grand Prix and that the friendship between them became sort of a funny story element and has a sweetness to it,” he said. “But then also just kind of the hilarity of seeing Mater, such a kind of fish out of water in this sort of spy, intrigue and stuff, I think is very appealing.”

The film primarily focuses on Mater, Lightning McQueen’s trusty, rusty tow truck friend.

Being the focus of “Cars 2” was a surprise for the man behind the character’s voice, Larry the Cable Guy, whose real name is Daniel Lawrence Whitney.

“There’s a lot of stuff on Mater in there, so I never really thought that when the movie was going to come out that it was basically, boom: a big, long tall tale,” Whitney said. “This is a Mater deal.”  

When Mater realizes in the film that others perceive him as simple and dumb, he questions whether he really is. However, it’s Mater’s amicable nature that makes the character likable, Whitney said.

“The cool thing I like about Mater is Mater’s Mater,” he said. “He likes people for what they are. He doesn’t judge anybody by how they look or anything like that. He’s just – he’s an easygoing guy and he’s a friendly guy and he just wants to be friends with everybody and so that’s why I like Mater.”

Also lending his voice to “Cars 2” is acclaimed British actor Michael Caine, who has appeared in Christopher Nolan’s two Batman films as well as other British spy films.

Despite playing spies before, Caine said he’s never played one quite like this — a shiny blue Aston Martin.

“I have honestly never played a car before,” he said. “I drove some cars in ‘The Italian Job,’ which was a thing about mini cars, but I’ve never been a car. This is a brand new experience to me, and one of the reasons I did it (is) because I (have) been in the business a long time and it’s very difficult to get a brand new experience.”

Still, Caine said voice work was not totally unexplored territory for him and his iconic voice.

“I’ve done radio plays for BBC when I was young,” he said. “So I was absolutely used to that style of work and working with the voice and I have a very distinctive voice and so, it’s always great for me.”

Recently, “Cars 2” has taken heat from conservative groups for the film’s portrayal of big oil companies. The conservative blog The Lonely Conservative said in a June 20 post that “movie directors and producers are coming out and admitting” that “the Hollywood industry is trying to indoctrinate our children with left wing propaganda.”

Director John Lasseter, who is also chief creative officer at both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, said the film isn’t trying to be political.

“It’s not really like a political view, it’s more like who is a good bad guy, a big bad guy in the car world, and we thought it was this interesting thing that’s been going on of like alternative fuels and big oil and all that kind of back and forth that’s going on,” he said. “I’m just trying to make an entertaining film. I’m not trying to say anything political.”

Regardless of its political detractors and even its critical detractors — “Cars 2” has a 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes as of Wednesday evening, far and away the lowest score for any Pixar flick to date — the film is poised to be a financial success.

The first “Cars” film made more than $490 million in worldwide box office, according to boxofficemojo.com. Merchandise based on the film has also raked in an estimated $5 billion, according to a 2009 report in The New York Times.

However, Wilson said kids still don’t recognize him as Lightning McQueen.

“I have parents that (say), ‘This is Lightning McQueen,’ and the kid just sort of stares there at me blankly,” he said.

“Cars 2” hits theaters Friday.

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