Disney, Pixar Revving Up for 'Cars'

Ladies and gentlemen … start your engines. With today's announcement of deal between Disney and Pixar, expectations couldn't be higher for "Cars," the forthcoming film in what has been one of the most successful collaborations in Hollywood history.

Disney and Pixar's first major collaboration, 1995's "Toy Story," earned $192 million, just at the U.S. box office, and led to a sequel that earned nearly a quarter of a billion dollars.

"A Bug's Life," "Monsters, Inc.," "Finding Nemo" and "The Incredibles" combined brought in an additional billion -- with "Nemo" second only to "The Lion King" as the all-time box office champ among animated features.

But even those numbers are dwarfed if you add in DVD sales, product merchandising, and the international box office.

It's no wonder that when movie theater owners gathered last month at the UBS Global Media Conference, "Cars" was singled out as one of the top films that could help rescue Hollywood from another dreary year of ticket sales.

"Something dramatic has to happen for next year to be weaker than this year," said Martin Durant, preaching cautious optimism for movie exhibitors. Durant is CEO of Carmike Cinemas, which operates 307 theaters.

He mentioned five films that could have an impact, including "Cars," "The Da Vinci Code," "Ice Age 2," "Superman Returns" and "Mission Impossible 3."

While it might not have special significance, Hollywood trade papers noted that Durant mentioned "Cars" first.

Likewise, the animated feature was one of the most sought-after products last summer at Licensing 2005 International in New York, a clear sign that hoards of T-shirts, backpacks, refrigerator magnets, and other branded items would be in stores soon.

'Wedding Crasher' Wilson on a Roll

Clearly, there are opportunities for sponsored products. "Cars" features "Wedding Crashers" star Owen Wilson as Lightning McQueen, a cocky race car on a cross-country adventure on Route 66 as he heads to the Piston Cup Championship in California.

Along the way, McQueen meets Sally (a classy Porsche voiced by Bonnie Hunt), Doc Hudson (a vintage 1951 Hudson Hornet in the guise of Paul Newman), and a rusty tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy).

Other freewheeling performances come from NASCAR legend Richard Petty and Cheech Marin, among other fuel-injected stars, including Bob Costas as Bob Cutlass.

John Lasseter, who shared in an Academy Award as a co-writer of "Toy Story," is helming the new movie, after serving as director, screenwriter and executive producer on several Disney/Pixar projects. Under the deal announced today, Lasseter will become chief creative officer of the animation studios and principal creative adviser at Walt Disney Imagineering, which designs and builds the company's theme parks.

"Cars" was supposed to hit theaters last November. But the release was held at a time when Disney and Pixar seemed to be severing ties. In its place, Disney released "Chicken Little," its first computer-animated feature film without its partner.

"Chicken Little" brought in $132 million at the U.S. box office, and seemed to signal that Disney was preparing to go it alone. Pixar, meanwhile, began preproduction on its next feature, "Ratatouille," the story of a rat living in an upmarket Parisian restaurant run by an eccentric chef.