Even the animated world of Lightning McQueen and Mater the tow truck is testing new energy sources to replace fossil fuels.
Pixar Animation mastermind John Lasseter says the company has no environmental agenda, but with "Cars 2," the blockbuster outfit does tap into today's eco-mindedness with a plot driven by oil vs. a cleaner alternative.
Debuting in U.S. theaters Friday, "Cars 2" sends race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) on a World Grand Prix circuit whose organizer fuels the vehicles with a green alternative called Allinol, prompting the bad guys to try to discredit the new power supply that threatens traditional gasoline.
That lands Lightning's goofy, lovable pal Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) in the middle of a spy caper as two British secret agent cars (Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer) seek to uncover who's behind the plot.
For director Lasseter, the idea developed the same way as other aspects of the film franchise that began with 2006's "Cars," as he and his Pixar pit crew looked for ways to "car-ify" our world into one inhabited by talking automobiles.
In a universe of cars, "What would a bad guy do?" Lasseter wondered.
"With 'An Inconvenient Truth' and alternative fuels and all the things going on, I kept thinking, well, in their world, it could be neat to have sort of big oil vs. alternative fuel," Lasseter said. "It makes logical sense for a world where cars are alive."
Based in environmentally conscious Northern California, Disney-owned Pixar has flirted with energy and ecological themes before.
The 2008 sci-fi smash "WALL-E" was a wildly inventive cosmic romance between two adorable robots. Yet it also was a cautionary tale about pollution as plucky but rickety WALL-E, the last robot on Earth, toils to clean up the mess we've made of the planet after humans have fled to the stars.
The 2001 buddy comedy "Monsters, Inc." had a realm of scary beasts mired in an energy crisis until they switch to a more benign fuel source — the laughter of children, rather than the screams of terror they once used to power their world.
Even last year's "Toy Story 3" carried a nice salvage theme. After the toys have a terrifying brush with a waste-dump incinerator once their owner outgrows them, they end up recycled into a new home with a new kid.
Such angles are byproducts of Pixar's story process, though, not a green crusade.
"We don't make message movies," Lasseter said. "We weave things in that are going on, that you're familiar with in the world, and kind of bring it into our stories."
"It really is all about, OK, how can we go about telling the most interesting story possible?" said "Cars 2" producer Denise Ream. "But hey, if people come away with the sense of we need to treat the Earth better, I think that's great, because I'm all for it."
Along with returning stars Wilson and Larry the Cable Guy, the "Cars 2" vocal cast includes John Turturro, Vanessa Redgrave, Tony Shalhoub and Bonnie Hunt.
Eddie Izzard also joins the cast, providing the voice of ex-oil baron Miles Axelrod, once a gas-guzzler who has converted himself into an electric vehicle and now pushes the clean-fuel alternative lifestyle.
Wilson agreed that the main thrust was to tell a fun story. But he said it doesn't hurt if some environmental consciousness-raising comes along for the ride.
"I remember in the '70s, the gas lines. We're still dealing with a lot of those problems, so anything that can sort of get the message out in an entertaining way, that we need to be looking for some solutions to some of these problems, I think is good," Wilson said. "Because the way we're doing it now obviously isn't working, which is why you see Detroit and all these big companies shifting focus now to more efficient cars."
Larry the Cable Guy said it probably was inevitable that Lasseter and his story team would weave an energy theme into "Cars 2."
"He looks for who would be the villain in a world of cars, and I think that's just how he picks that. Obviously, it would be a battle of the fuels, because everybody needs that to go," he said. "I don't think John makes these movies to be political."