In the Pixar pantheon of animated films remarkable for their appeal to both adults and children, "Cars" is the most purely kiddie affair.
While critics prefer the heartfelt resonance of "Up" or the mortality ruminations of "Toy Story 3," toddlers have been far more amped by "Cars."
Since premiering in 2006, "Cars" has been a high-octane sensation among those whose feet still don't reach the gas pedal, and the "Cars 2" sequel opening Friday is already driving a similar response.
Take David W. Wright, a 40-year-old Floridian and the father of a 4-year-old "Cars" fanatic. Wright estimates he and his son have seen "Cars" "easily a couple hundred times."
"There was a little while after maybe the first 40 times where I was like, 'Ah, I can't watch this again,'" said Wright, who blogs about parenthood at BloggerDad.com. "But eventually it comes full circle. I like it."
His son is rewarded for good behavior at pre-school with a new "Cars" toy car. That goes along with his "Cars" shoes, blankets and books.
The Wright family's experience is far from uncommon. "Cars" has attached itself to kid culture more than any other Pixar film or even most children's movies. While the Pixar connoisseur can trumpet the artistry of "Ratatouille" or the galactic romance of "WALL-E," it's nothing compared to the kiddie-clamor for "Cars."
The film has already earned Walt Disney Co., which owns Pixar, more than $8 billion in retail sales. Disney estimates that merchandising for "Cars 2," which began rolling in May, will this year surpass the $2.4 billion "Toy Story 3" made from retail sales last year.
"It's a phenomenon," said Tony Lisanti, editor-in-chief for License! Global magazine. "It could very well be one of the biggest brand licensing and merchandising programs ever."
Consider that young "Cars" fans can wake up to their "Cars" clock radio, start the day with a "Cars" bubble bath, brush their teeth with a "Cars" toothbrush, spray themselves with some "Cars" cologne for kids, pop a few "Cars" vitamins, toss their "Cars" pajamas into a "Cars" clothes hamper, and snack on "Cars" cereal from a "Cars" ceramic bowl atop a "Cars" placemat.
Then, when "Cars" fans go off to school, they can pack their "Cars" backpack with a "Cars" thermos and "Cars" study kit, watch a "Cars" DVD on a "Cars" portable DVD player on their bus ride, lunch on "Cars" SpaghettiOs and "Cars" Utz pretzels kept fresh in "Cars" sandwich bags, and play "Cars" bingo "on their return bus ride.
Back at home, our "Cars" fans can gaze at their "Cars" patio set through a window of "Cars" valances and drapes, and finally turn out their "Cars" lamp, switch on a "Cars" night-light, and snuggle into their "Cars" bed.
And if misfortune strikes, rest assured, there are "Cars" Band-Aids and get-well baskets available, too.
"I have some friends from Argentina, and their little boy is maybe 3 years old, and every single thing he has is 'Cars,' right down to the sheets," says Owen Wilson, who voices the main character of "Cars," Lightening McQueen. "He won't sleep unless he has his 'Cars' sheets."
The rollout for "Cars 2" products is already well under way after Disney debuted a line of some 300 related toys at New York's Toy Fair earlier this year. Mattel Inc. is now selling more than 150 different "Cars 2" toys and there are numerous tie-in deals, including with Williams-Sonoma, Nestle Ltd, Goodyear and Kimberly-Clark Corp. Of course, there's also "Cars 2: The Videogame."
A 12-acre "Cars Land" is planned for the Disney California Adventure theme park, adjacent to Disneyland.
"'Cars' has been really unlike any movie in history, not just at Pixar, that has grown dramatically in popularity after the movie has run its course in the theaters," says John Lasseter, the chief creative officer at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, as well as the director of "Cars 2."
"The DVD just continues to sell, and it just seems like there's new fans everywhere," says Lasseter. "Even in foreign countries where the film did OK at the box office, it's become so much more popular over time. You count the box office and all the products sold, it's well over $10 billion from one movie."
But Pixar's films have long had an environmentalist streak and one wonders if the same movie studio that created "WALL-E," where humans have abandoned an Earth covered in junk, can be at ease having created so much of it.
"There's nothing done with (merchandising) in mind," says producer Denise Ream. "It's obviously a great added benefit, but I think we go to pretty great lengths to ensure that everything is done in support of the story."
Still, in all the products, some might see the long arm of Disney, which acquired Pixar Animation Studios in 2006, as interfering with Pixar's emphasis on storytelling.
"In other hands, yes, I would be worried about that," says Lasseter. "In our hands, no, I'm not worried about it, because we are focused at Pixar on the story and the characters, and to me, it's like quality is the best business plan."
Much of the appeal of "Cars" and its merchandise, surely, is in the simple truth that most young boys love toy cars. Unlike your basic Hot Wheels, though, the cars of "Cars" stand in for humans, too. Mater, the loveably rusted tow truck voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, isn't just a truck, but a personality.
Disney plans to mine similar territory in a straight-to-DVD animated movie "Planes."
A lifelong toy collector, Lasseter understands the connection kids have to their toys.
"If people like the characters so much, they just want to be with those characters outside the boundary of the film," says Lasseter. "They don't just want to watch the movie over and over again, they want to be with those characters, and that's where the products come in. ... I just tap into the kind of collector gene in me."