Bursting on the scene with 'Toy Story' in 1996, Pixar has enjoyed an unparalleled run of unstoppable hit movies. 'A Bug's Life,' 'Monsters, Inc.,' 'Toy Story 2,' 'Finding Nemo,' 'The Incredibles' -- all mega-hits, all critically acclaimed, all bestowed with too many awards to count (among them a bucketload of Oscars). Indeed, with such a strong track record, it would seem that the studio just can't step wrong.
With the arrival of its 2006 film 'Cars,' however, comparatively speaking the studio seemed to hit their first speed bump. Make no mistake -- the film was still a blockbuster, but this time around, the critics were a little less fervent in their praise, the box office wasn't quite as good, and simply put, 'Cars' failed to capture the public's imagination the way every Pixar movie had before, leaving some to speculate that perhaps Pixar wasn't so invincible after all.
But while 'Cars' may not be a 'Toy Story' or a 'Finding Nemo,' compared to 99 percent of the dreck that passes for animated fare these days, it's fantastic -- a clever, witty, beautifully conceived and executed charmer filled with plenty of heartfelt emotion and genuine excitement. It's also another multi-layered Pixar story that has a timely and important theme.
The film itself imagines an alternate reality that's just like ours, only populated by cars, not people. Into this magical world comes hotshot roadster Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), who is living life in the fast lane as a big-time celebrity on the racing circuit. He's rather arrogant, actually -- unscrupulous in the rules of the sport, demoralizing towards his crew, and forever lusting after the almighty dollar of corporate sponsorship. Still, like all great Pixar heroes, Lightning may have his considerable flaws, but he is fundamentally a decent guy (er, automobile)... especially when the pedal gets pushed to the metal.
Which is exactly what happens when an unexpected detour leaves Lightning stranded in Radiator Springs, a long-forgotten ghost town hiding along Route 66. Lightning will get himself into plenty of trouble as he tries to find his way out, eventually landing in the impound lot with plenty of damage. Only the town's cast of colorful characters can help him: there's the ornery town doctor and judge, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman); the Ferrari-fixated owners of a local tire shop, Luigi (Tony Shaloub) and Guido (Guido Quaroni); the aging hippie VW bus Fillmore (George Carlin), and of course the inevitable love interest, the rather well-rounded (ahem) Porsche, Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt). For the first time, Lightning is forced to slow down and enjoy the ride, not the destination -- but will he leave Radiator Springs a changed car, or still hungry only for the selfish pursuits of fame and fortune?
Much criticism has been leveled at 'Cars.' Lightning McQueen isn't likable enough. The characters are too one-note. The story is too preachy. And, most consistently, the film is too long (unusual for an animated film, 'Cars' clocks in at nearly two hours). Fair enough, but none of these things really bothered me. So what if Lightning is a bit of a jerk at the beginning? All the better to make his eventual redemption genuinely moving. Same goes for the more heavy-handed aspects of the story -- yes, the theme of stopping-to-smell-the-roses is not as sublime as other Pixar films, but it's also far less mawkish than even some of Disney's most revered classics. As for the pacing, the film is admittedly overlong, but I still admire Pixar for valuing story above all else -- if it wasn't for the film's leisurely second act in Radiator Springs, Lightning's choices during the climax would have had zero resonance. As it is, the end of the big race may be a foregone conclusion, but we've become so invested in these cars that by the time it's all over, it packs a far great punch than you might expect.
Story aside, 'Cars' is unquestionably another visual tour de force from Pixar. The attention to detail, the photo-realistic surfaces, the fanciful touches of visual whimsy -- every frame is simply a joy to behold. Pixar is also expert at etching out memorable characters through small asides, from the way Lightning's tongue droops ever so slightly out of his mouth like a dog, to the wonderfully-rendered intricacies of the various denizens in Radiator Springs. The voice talent is also superb, with Wilson, Hunt, Shaloub and particularly Newman (in what the actor has indicated is likely to be his final film role) creating truly unique, three-dimensional characters. It's this sense of a complete vision that really sets Pixar miles ahead of its competitors, and proves without a doubt that, if made with heart, CGI filmmaking can be anything but cold.
Compared to such undisputed classics like 'Toy Story' and 'Finding Nemo,' 'Cars' will likely always be viewed as something of a lesser effort in the Pixar canon. But if only every "lesser" movie was so filled with imagination, passion, heart and sheer humanity. Faults aside, 'Cars' is fun, clever and highly entertaining ride, and one that's well worth taking despite the naysayers. Don't let it pass you by on Blu-ray.
Pixar's track record on standard DVD is practically flawless: 'Toy Story,' 'Bug's Life,' 'Finding Nemo,' 'The Incredibles' -- it's been one demo disc after another. When 'Cars' was originally released on DVD last year, it too received excellent reviews, but there were some complaints of edge enhancement at the time, causing some to speculate that perhaps this Blu-ray might suffer a similar fate.
Not to worry. Presented in 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 (at the film's original 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio), 'Cars' looks absolutely fantastic on Blu-ray. I have not a single nitpick -- every last pixel appears to be perfectly in place, and every aspect of the presentation is exemplary. A pure digital-to-digital transfer, there is no print to speak of, so don't even bother looking for any blemishes. Pixar also went for an extremely slick and shiny veneer for 'Cars,' so no intentional degradation (artificial film grain, etc.) has been added to the mix. The level of detail and sharpness to the image is extraordinary -- if you can find a single shot throughout 'Cars' that looks anything but fully three-dimensional, email me and we'll duke it out.
Colors are also gorgeous. Pixar films are always a sight to behold, and whatever narrative qualms I may have about 'Cars,' I can't deny that it's one of the studio's best-looking efforts ever. I loved the deep primaries that identify the various cars, and neat uses of lighting in the nighttime scenes -- this transfer radiates like neon. Hues are utterly stable, with no noise, smearing or fuzziness. Best of all, the AVC encode is easily up the film's challenges. Even with the bright exteriors, intense colors and fast racing action, there is no apparent banding or macroblocking. Finally, edge enhancement is never a problem -- whatever issues folks saw on the DVD, I didn't experience them here -- this image is simply flawless. Five stars all the way.
'Cars' sounds smashing, too. Disney presents the film in uncompressed PCM 5.1 Surround (48kHz/24-bit/6.9mbps), and the film cruises along thanks to wonderfully immersive sound design. If only all next-gen releases sounded this good.
The highly aggressive surrounds really make things crackle. There is never a dull moment, with discrete effects consistent and often striking. The pedal really reaches the metal during the race scenes -- the crowd noises, car sounds and other effects all combine to create a full 360-degree effect. Directionality, accuracy of placement and transparency of imaging are all first-rate. Atmosphere and score bleed are also fun and lively, so even when the film gets quieter, it still sounds engaging and fresh.
Tech specs are also top drawer. The rev of the engines delivers a constant roar of low bass, and I can't remember the last time I heard a mix that so consistently utilizes the subwoofer. Seeing as 'Cars' has been completely constructed in the studio, every element of the track sounds crystal clear. Recorded dialogue is also superb, with every voice balanced just right. I had no volume problems at all -- instead, I just sat back and enjoyed the ride. 'Cars' is a demo-worthy soundtrack through and through.
(Note: The 'Cars' Blu-ray has some funky labeling on its packaging. The outer slipcase indicates that the disc includes only English SDH subtitles. The actual inner Blu keepcase, however, lists English SDH, French and Spanish subtitle options. The disc, in fact, only contains English SDH subtitles.)
The DVD release of 'Cars' was something of an oddity from Pixar. Thrifty with the extras, it felt like a mere warm-up for a genuine special edition to come, and certainly couldn't compare to what the company had done before with such fully-stocked discs like 'Toy Story' and 'The Incredibles.' But what was bad news for DVD fans is good news for Blu-ray fans, as it looks like Pixar was waiting for high-def to really deliver the goods with 'Cars.' Though we get all the same extras as the earlier DVD (nicely upgraded to 1080p video), the real headline here is the copious amount of exclusives added to the Blu-ray. First, though, let's take a look at the DVD goodies that make a return appearance here.
Things kick off with the 16-minute "Inspiration for 'Cars'" featurette, which is a nice little road trip with Pixar's John Lasseter, who is seen tooling down Route 66, visiting various towns and racetracks for inspiration. This one's all about the story, and how Lasseter's own experiences with his family were the real inspiration for 'Cars.'
Next up are four Deleted Scenes, running ten minutes total, and all presented in rough form (largely sketches, with no final renderings). As many felt that the middle section of 'Cars' lagged, I can see why these sequences were dropped. A narrative detour with Lightning into community service is cute but unnecessary, and ditto a romantic backstory for Ramone. Fans of the film will still want to check these out, though...
The only other extras from the DVD are two Pixar shorts, "Mater and the Ghostlight" (7 minutes) and the Academy Award-nominated "One Man Band" (8 minutes). Both will be of great interest to Pixar fans as the animation style marked something of a departure for the company, harkening back more to classics of the '30s than anything modern. "One Man Band" is also exciting as it is entirely dialogue-free -- Pixar continues to prove it is a master of storytelling entirely with visual images. Both of these shorts are well worth watching.
Sadly, there are no theatrical trailers for 'Cars,' but there are previews for other Disney Blu-ray titles including 'Meet the Robinsons,' the upcoming theatrical feature 'Enchanted' and Pixar's 'Ratatouille.'
'Cars' may not reach the same emotional heights as as a 'Finding Nemo' or a 'Toy Story,' but it's still an utterly charming and beautifully animated film that's sure to delight kids and adults alike. This Blu-ray release -- one of Pixar's first-ever on the format -- is fantastic, too. The video and audio are both first-rate, and Disney really has gone all-out to ensure that this Blu-ray breaks the mold when it comes to exclusive content and interactivity. My only complaint is the disc's frustrating menu design, but nevermind that -- if you haven't already picked up this demo-worthy disc, I strongly recommend you do so now.