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Why is there a sequel to Cars, the 2006 animated movie that's considered among the weakest of the films ever released by Pixar?

On the face of it, the decision by Disney, which now oversees Pixar, to release the film seems odd. Pixar, which Apple co-founder Steve Jobs purchased from George Lucas in 1986 has been the gold standard in Hollywood children's films since the release of its first feature, Toy Story in 1995.

Though Cars wasn't exactly a flop, it wasn't a Pixar-sized success either, earning justunder $462-million (U.S.) worldwide box office, well below the Pixar average of more than $600-million. Critically, the movie did just okay, rating about 74 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes.

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The choice of this movie franchise seems even stranger, considering Pixar could have selected the cream of the catalogue: Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Up and WALL-E were all more popular and critically acclaimed. The only other movie that Pixar has offered in sequel form, was its first-born feature movie, Toy Story.

The answer turns out to be nothing to do with box office, and everything to do with merchandising. Cars was the first movie released after Disney took over Pixar in a $7.4 billion all-stock deal in 2006. Disney, which has been selling children's goodssince Snow White in 1937, merchandised the beans out of it. According to the Los Angeles Times, citing Disney figures, the first Cars is now approaching $10-billion dollars in merchandising revenue, which puts it up there in the ranks of such franchises as Star Wars, Spider-Man and Harry Potter.

To put that in perspective, Pixar's cumulative worldwide box office for its 11 feature films so far is$6.3-billion. The merchandising for Cars alone has earned nearly $10-billion. Lightning McQueen should change his slogan from "ka-chow" to "ka-ching." With the debut of the new Cars 2 movie, there will be more than 300 newtoys released, including planes and trains that have mere cameos in the film. The Cars 2 script is also tailored to appeal to a global audience, with sequences set in Japan, France, England and Italy, as well as the United States.

The Disney's executive in charge of consumer products promised that Cars 2 will have the biggest "consumer products program in industry history, eclipsing the high-water mark set by Toy Story 3."

Toy Story 3 took in an astonishing billion dollars at the box office last year. The movie also worked as a great advertisement for the toys in the movie, helping Disney-Pixar to rake in another $2.8-billion in merchandising.

Not all the products connected to Toy Story and Cars are toys. Cars 2, for example, has tie-ins with such distinctly grown-up companies as State Farm Insurance, Goodyear Tires and Kleenex and Huggies manufacturer, Kimberly-Clark. There's also the Cars Toon, beamed to tens of millions of children on the Disney Channel every week, and a new Cars Land attraction that will open next year as the centrepiece of the revamped theme park, Disney California Adventure in Anaheim.

Some people may wish Pixar would offer something classier - Ratatouille Deux perhaps - but you have to give the company credit for knowing its audience. The merchandising opportunities for films with Proustian allusions to vermin and fine French cooking are limited. In Cars's favour, there's an unlimited numberof people who love to get down on the broadloom with their shiny new toys so they can make "Vroom, vroom" noises.

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OPENING NEXT WEEK

Armadillo Director Janus Metz's Cannes-winning documentary tracks a Danish platoon's six-month tour of duty at the titular Afghanistan base, midst rotating periods of boredom and fear. The film has been praised for the filmmaker's access, including controversial footage of a firefight with the Taliban.

Larry Crowne In this postrecession romantic comedy, Tom Hanks both directs and stars as a store manager who loses his job and enrolls at a local college. In his public speaking class he develops a crush on his teacher (Julia Roberts). Hanks co-wrote with My Big Fat Greek Wedding's Nia Vardalos.

Monte Carlo Pop star and Justin Bieber squeeze Selena Gomez plays an ordinary American girl who becomes mistaken for a look-alike English heiress a family trip to Paris, and ends up living high in Monaco with her best friends (Leighton Meester and Katie Cassidy). Cory Monteith ( Glee's Finn) also makes an appearance.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon The third Transformers movie about the battling Autobots and Decepticons involves a little historical re-imagining of the 1969 NASA moon mission. Shia LaBeouf returns as Sam Witwicky, with Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson and John Turturro, though Megan Fox has been replaced by a new romantic interest, English model Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.

The Trip Freewheeling improvisation and verbal one-upmanship spark director Michael Winterbottom's road comedy, starring Steve Coogan and Rob Bryden as themselves, on a food-reviewing journey through England's Lake District.

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