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By Aaron Wallace
As the old saying goes, when it rains, it pours. And, as the Hollywood natives at the world premiere of Disney/Pixar's Cars found out, in North Carolina, when it pours, it floods. In an unprecedented marketing move, the Mouse House and its newly-acquired Pixar subsidiary chose the Lowe's Motor Speedway in the city of Charlotte for its grand gala. That's right, not the El Capitan in Los Angeles -- a NASCAR speedway. The decision left many curious and a few skeptical as to the suitability of a racing establishment for a movie premiere, but days of thunder didn't prove to be a problem; an evening of rain dampened the event instead.
Despite months of wishing for sunshine on the part of everyone from Bob Iger down to the parking staff, the southern skies gave way to unholy downpour just as the press and guests of honor began to arrive. Unaccustomed to the weather (it was the first rainstorm of a Disney premiere on either coast, according to one cast member), Disney's imported-from-LA premiere staff did their best to organize the masses fleeing from the elements in the midst of an unfamiliar location. Still, even the plastic covering couldn't prevent the steady stream of water from soaking the red carpet and one question was on everyone's mind: what are they going to do?
The answer: delay. Everyone was kept under cover while the rain did its worst, but by 7pm the stars were ready to make their way outside and thankfully, the weather deferred. Indeed, no more than a light drizzle was felt once the first famous footstep hit the red carpet and the rest of the night went off without a hitch (well, for the most part, but more on the lone exception later). Best of all, there was still plenty of daylight to enjoy for the grand arrivals.
Following the dispatch of a few Carolina Panthers football stars to sign autographs for the small group of fans assembled on the other side of the path, the stars of NASCAR made their way out. I first spoke with "the King" himself, the legendary Richard Petty. Both Richard and his wife Lynda provided supporting voices in Cars, as did a few other NASCAR notables with whom I talked. I asked Petty which gave him the bigger thrill, the big screen or the speedway, and he of course replied with the latter. Recording for Cars was a lot of fun, Petty said, but it's an "after [racing] deal" that he doesn't plan to return to anytime soon.
Television legend Katherine Helmond ("Soap", "Who's The Boss") was a pleasure. She hadn't yet seen the movie, but she was excited by Pixar's custom filmmaking process. When I asked her who made for the tougher boss, Tony Danza or Cars director John Lasseter, she thought for a moment and concluded that Danza lives up to his role. Her testimony of the creative freedom encouraged at Pixar matched that of many celebrities working with the studio, including Blue Collar comedian Larry the Cable Guy. He told me that working from a script wasn't so different from his improvisation on stage. Extremely cordial, Larry said, "John Lasseter told me...'Hey, this is your character, man, make it your own'... He told me to make it me and I made it me." Before leaving, he added his trademark slogan, "Git-R-Done!"
Other celebrities on hand included sports announcer Bob Costas and actors Paul Dooley (Insomnia), Tony Shalhoub ("Wings", "Monk"), Dave Foley ("NewsRadio", A Bug's Life), and Edie McClurg (Ferris Bueller's Day Off). Jenifer Lewis did an impression of her character in Jackie's Back for me and Cheech Marin (yes, Cheech as in "and Chong"), who has spent years working with Disney in order to clean up his image, mused over the lack of alcohol inside a racing arena.
Things really sped up when the film's top-billed stars made their entrance. I got a wave from country music superstar Brad Paisley and his beautiful wife, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley (Father of the Bride, The 10th Kingdom), but Cars star Owen Wilson hurried down the carpet, showing little interest for those outside of network television. Screen legend Paul Newman unfortunately made an early exit from the carpet (rumors suggested the still-standing water made it too slippery for the actor, now in his early 80s, though his age didn't keep him from apparently heading straight to the racetrack to complete a lap). Bonnie Hunt (Cheaper by the Dozen, The Green Mile), however, did stop by to talk about the unusual nature of the world premiere, which she referred to as "one giant tailgate party," before being startled by an unexpected and very loud jet plane military salute overhead.
With the stars out of the way (and a parade of NASCAR models and children's charity representatives), all that's left to cover is the appearance of Disney/Pixar brass. John Ratzenberger, who approached me with a compliment on our camera equipment, was first. When asked what a Pixar film would be without his involvement -- he's lent his voice to each of their features -- he replied, "Well it would still be a Pixar movie, it just wouldn't have me in it." He went on to acknowledge his role in bringing Pixar characters to life but credited Pixar's own innovation for their success. Scott Clark and Doug Sweetland, supervising animators for Cars, talked a bit about the Pixar working environment and the level of research required to animate automobiles with anthropomorphic qualities.
Disney CEO Bob Iger wasn't giving interviews, but did stop by our station for just a moment when kindly heckled by an employee of ABC Radio, which Disney is in the process of unloading from its list of corporate assets. John Lasseter, Cars' director and Chief Creative Officer for both Walt Disney and Pixar Animation as well as Principal Creative Advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering, stayed on the red carpet longer than anyone and had quite a bit more to say. Dressed in a Cars-flavored suit, he was accompanied on the red carpet by his wife, Nancy, who also chimed in on his interviews from time to time. He revealed that he is a NASCAR fan himself and discussed what he called the "drive-on" parts of famous racers. He told me that early plans are in the works for a major Cars attraction inside the Disney theme parks. While nothing has been confirmed, he said that he's both hopeful and excited for what he sees as a lot of potential for Walt Disney Imagineering. Of course, I couldn't let him go without welcoming him on board to his new roles at Disney on behalf of the studio's fans.
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Once the red carpet proceedings wrapped up, it was time to head upstairs to the outdoor screening. The Lowe's Motor Speedway is a massive structure, housing an entire campground inside just one half of the race track's circumference. Four giant screens (103' x 75' each -- that's almost as tall as Splash Mountain) were erected in front of the race track with a few smaller (though still huge) screens set up between them. In the middle was a giant stage, decorated with an enormous Cars logo. Now, Hollywood theaters are big and their premiere events also draw big crowds, but the sold-out Cars premiere welcomed an audience of 30,000 people. Add to that the crowds already present for the weekend's racing festivities and other events in Charlotte, and the throngs were enough to overwhelm even the stars.
After a warm-up of pop standards from a group called Party on the Moon, Larry the Cable Guy took the stage as the evening's emcee. After a very funny comedy routine ("All the cars in Cars drive themselves," he said, "which is why we sent two of them to the Kennedy family"), he introduced Disney/Pixar brass to present a one million dollar donation to children's charities. Brad Paisley took the stage with a brief set list that included "Mud on the Tires" and a surprise performance of his hilarious hit, "Me Neither." Another surprise was in store when rock 'n roll legend Chuck Berry came out on stage to perform a couple of songs. Unfortunately, an audio glitch embarrassingly left him inaudible for a while but by the time he got to "Route 66," a song that Berry helped to make famous and that features prominently in the film, things had been at least mostly fixed. Larry returned with a roll call of the attending cast and crew, a recognition of charity attendees and the families of soldiers serving overseas, and the introduction of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norm Mineta. With all that out of the way, the film's world debut finally arrived.
Unfortunately, Cars disappointed overall (see my full review here). The good news is that its presentation was incredible. The screens, together the size of 38 standard theater screens, made up the largest square footage delivery of a film in history and Pixar's dazzling animation lifted right off the screen. The audio resonated throughout the speedway and despite the fact that the audience was perched high up in the sky, the bass still shook the seats. There was a brief bout of drizzle but the pleasant breeze and nighttime sky otherwise made for a perfect viewing experience. Something about watching cars speed around a race track inside an actual race track felt right too.
The movie ended to thunderous applause from an audience (largely comprised of racing fans) that seemed to enjoy it. Mere seconds later, the sky erupted in a dazzling fireworks display. These weren't your hometown fireworks, either, but rather the kind of show that only Disney can put on.
The Cars cars that toured the US in promotion of the film (see UltimateDisney.com's report from that tour here) awaited moviegoers at the end of the red carpet as they made their exit. In addition to observing the full-sized versions of Lightning McQueen and Sally Carrera that are making appearances nationwide through July, attendees of the world premiere were privvy to viewing custom-built autos of Doc Hudson, the 1951 Hudson Hornet voiced by Paul Newman, and Mater, the rusty tow truck performed by Larry the Cable Guy. The departure process was of course a long one and traffic jams are never welcome, but for a movie called Cars, it almost felt appropriate.
Photographs by Adam Lutterloh
Click here to view a 2-minute video from the premiere
|Other Cars Tie-ins:
Power Wheels Lightning McQueen car
Lightning McQueen's Fast Tracks CD
Cars: Radiator Springs Adventures CD-ROM
Shake 'n Go Mater toy
Radio-Controlled Super Tow Mater
Cars "Dirt" Racetrack Set
|The Art of Cars
160 pages, hardcover
|Cars: The Essential Guide
48 pages, hardcover
score by Randy Newman;
songs by Rascal Flatts,
John Mayer, Sheryl Crow,
Chuck Berry, Brad Paisley,
The Chords and James Taylor
|Fast Talkin' McQueen
large-scale talking car toy
15 stunts/tricks and >30 phrases
14" x 7.7" x 7.5"
|More Cars Books:
Cars: The Junior Novelization
Cars: Ultimate Sticker Book
Learn to Draw Cars
Cars: Read-Aloud Storybook
Cars: Little Golden Book
Cars: Join the Pit Crew
Related Links: UD Reports and Reviews
A guide to the coolest Cars tie-ins, from the soundtrack to the books and toys
Full review of Cars by Aaron Wallace
Capsule reviews of two Cars CDs and other new Disney albums in our Summer CD Roundup
Preview of Cars and other upcoming Disney movies
Pluto Region1's report from the High School Musical DVD Launch Red Carpet and After Party
Report from Cars Road Trip '06 nationwide tour
Toy Story: 10th Anniversary Edition DVD Review
Toy Story 2: 2-Disc Special Edition DVD Review
The Incredibles DVD Review
Report posted May 29, 2006.