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I'm always surprised at the vitriol aimed at the 'Cars' franchise. Friends and colleagues say these films are nothing more than a cynical, cheap, corporate merchandising cash grabs. And hey, you're entitled to that opinion if you feel that way. But whether or not you like these films, if you ever get a chance to see to director John Lasseter speak about 'Cars' or 'Cars 2,' you hear the gleeful words and see the excited eyes of a man who loves cars in his very soul. A man who played in a sandbox with toy cars and made up stories about them -- something he's still doing decades later. Hearing Mr. Lasseter and the whole Pixar team describe in detail the amount of effort that goes into making any of their films, including the 'Cars' movies, I don't get a whiff of cynicism. Sure, there are some very happy Disney bean counters, but personally, all I see on display here is passion.
But, does passion translate into a good movie?
'Cars 2' takes a cue from successful sequels like 'Aliens' by changing genres. Gone is the ode to Small Town Americana, and in its place we have a spy thriller parody set against an exotic international racing tournament sponsored by an alternate energy fuel. Beside genre, the big shift from 'Cars' to 'Cars 2' is the lead character. While NASCAR racer Lightning McQueen is still here, tow truck sidekick, Mater, takes center stage when his fish out of water antics get him mistaken for a spy. Afterword, Mater must (unwittingly) uncover a villainous conspiracy lead by a band of rogue Lemon cars are trying to seek revenge for years left on the scrap heap.
Mater is a divisive character. As voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, he is simple, clueless, distinctly American, and naïve. I see why some get tired with his clumsy shtick; to be honest, the movie plays out the mistaken identity gag for too long, which makes the real spies seem as dumb as Mater. But that structural issue aside, I generally like Mater. I've always been a fan of silly, clueless characters like Maxwell Smart, Mr. Magoo, and Mr. Bean. Sure, they're dumb and rude, but what makes these characters loveable is that they're really nice. Their naïve worldview is earnest and welcoming. There isn't a mean bone in Mater's body, and so he's a loveable goof. Bottom (or dividing) line, if you enjoy Mater, you'll enjoy 'Cars 2'. If not, then you'll probably find the experience tedious.
Mater aside, 'Cars 2' is also a terrific homage to spy films. All the genre pieces fit nicely, and the villains are unique to this car world. The action set pieces are as thrilling as any modern blockbuster, all while remaining visually creative and geographically coherent (something NOT seen in many modern blockbusters). On the big screen, and now on the small, the Cars universe is beautifully detailed. The cars look right, sound right, and all the buildings and landscapes ooze car culture and design in every frame. My hat's off to the hordes of artisans who broke their backs researching and animating all the minutia. There's a lot I like about 'Cars 2', especially for car nuts like myself (I could talk octane and displacement for hours -- much to my wife's chagrin).
The trouble, I suppose, for any Pixar film is the incredible work they've already done. Does 'Cars 2' compare to an 'Up' or 'Monsters, Inc.' or whatever your favorite Pixar film happens to be? Not in my humblest opinion. From the commentaries and documentaries, it's clear how much Pixar loves Mater and all the characters in this story, but I'm not sure they give the audience fresh reasons to fall in love with them again. The film simply assumes you already do. And while I’m predisposed to love talking cars, I don't necessarily love this movie. It's entertaining, beautiful, exciting, and very good, but Pixar has made so many AMAZING films that very good tends to, as the cliché dictates, pale in comparison. Visually though, Pixar continues to excel, besting all of its computer animation competitors.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Cars 2' is presented on one dual-layer 50GB Blu-ray disc, playable in Regions A, B, and C. This 2D two-disc set also includes a DVD copy of the film. Skippable trailers and Sneak Peaks include: Disney Studios All Acess Pass, 'Brave', 'Lady and the Tramp', 'Planes', 'The Muppets', 'Cars 2: The Videogame', 'Naughty vs. Nice', and 'Secret of the Wings'. There is also a 5-disc edition, which includes everything found in this review, plus a 3D Blu-ray, a Bonus Features Blu-ray (2D), and a Digital Copy.
Pixar films are always spectacular on Blu-ray, and 'Cars 2' continues this trend with its direct digital transfer (1080p/AVC MPEG-4, 2.35:1 aspect ratio).
Color, detail, texture, and depth are nothing short of jaw dropping in every scene. And while one of the previews (Disney Studios All Access Pass) shows off severe banding (and therefore how badly compressed a film like this could be), there are no signs of compression errors anywhere. No banding, macro-blocking, aliasing, nothing. The sets, based on real world locations in the United States, Japan, Italy, France, England, and even the open Pacific Ocean are stunning. What always amazing me in Pixar films is how, despite the fact that it's a cartoon, textures for water, painted metal, paved streets, and various other surfaces all look photo realistic (or damn near close). Tokyo in particular will be a showstopper for home cinema enthusiasts. The bright neon signs contrast nicely with wet surface streets, inky black skies and shadowy alleys. The fictional Porto Corsa is bathed in warm, southern European sunlight, with a sparkling blue bay and rustic architecture. And London, with all the pubs and taxis and busses and the insides of "Big Bentley"…it's all magnificent to behold.
Pixar films are known for their attention to detail, not only in terms of technical achievement, but in filling every pixel with information. Here, it's the Cars Universe versions of mountains, buildings, and culturally specific signage. What a testament for these filmmakers then that, while you might not be able to catch all the details in the first viewing or two, you technically can see everything. Seriously, stop any frame of 'Cars 2', and it's a painterly, artistic, colorful, visual feast filled with as much story as the film itself. As I said above, hats off to you, Pixar, hats off.
The 7.1 DTS-HD MA surround track is pure auditory delight.
While not nearly as aggressive as something like a 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon', this track is filled with bombastic bass, perfect voice work, outstanding panning, and an array of discrete effects that will suck any listener into the world of 'Cars 2'. It's really hard to review perfection, because there are only so many compliments to be dolled out before resorting to clichés. As the second Pixar film to be mixed theatrically for 7.1, I found my ears enchanted by how the soundtrack doesn't bash in your brains, but rather invites you into its delicate world. The comedy and quiet scenes work just as well as the explosive action sequences and edge of your seat races. Every engine purr, tire squeal, metal crunch is expertly laid out along with the Michael Giacchino's spy-movie music score. If you love full 360-degree panning effects (that, you know, let everyone know you have 7.1), check out a moment early in the film where Mater's voice echoes as he warns people that the pistachio ice cream has turned; that's one of many fun moments in what will sure be highlight to any demo presentation.
Additional audio selections include English 5.1 DTS-HD MA ES, English Descriptive Video Service 2.0, English Dolby Digital 2.0, Espanol 7.1 DTS-HD HR, 5.1 Espanol Dolby Digital EX, and 5.1 Epanol Mexicano Dolby Digital EX.
The two-disc edition of 'Cars 2' features only three bonus features, all found on the single BD50. It seems Bonus Content and HD exclusives are for those who shell out for the 5-Disc 3D edition. That being said, what you do have is both informative (for inquisitive fans) and adds a few laughs.
First, there is a fantastic Audio Commentary with directors John Lasseter and Brad Lewis, who talk at length and in depth about making the film and the 'Cars' universe. A must-listen for fans of the film and/or Pixar. Next, there are two short films. 'Hawaiian Vacation' (16x9 AVC MPEG-4 1080p / 6.1 DTS-HD MA, 6 Mins) played before 'Cars 2' theatrically, and is a fun short set in the 'Toy Story' universe (post 'Toy Story 3' in terms of timeline). And lastly, we have 'Air Mater' (16x9 AVC MPEG-4 1080p / 6.1 DTS-HD MA, 6 Mins), another one of Mater's 'Tall Tales'. It's a nice crossover between 'Cars' and the upcoming 'Planes' spinoff.
'Cars 2' is an entertaining spy thriller/comedy with reference quality HD video and 7.1 audio. The film itself is very good, but doesn't quite live up to the other Pixar films in terms of emotional investment. The real question for those deciding to watch the film for the first time is whether or not you like the Mater character. Like him or love him, and 'Cars 2' will be for you. If not, then you'll probably want to avoid this one (though with video and audio like this, it's hard to miss it).
So, who is this release for? First, I would say buying this movie is for fans only. Next, if you don't care about 3D or special features, then this 2D two-disc edition is the one for you. But for my money, the 5-disc edition will cost only a few dollars more, and comes fully loaded. I didn't review that version, but that's the one I would recommend. For those who have not seen 'Cars 2', give it a rent; you're guaranteed a beautiful ride and who knows, you might even enjoy it. It's certainly more competent (plot and staging) than most modern action films. It's just not going to make you cry… Well, unless you despise Mater and your kids make you watch this 100 times. Then I could see some tears.