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 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 a 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.
Vital Disc Stats: the 3-Disc Ultimate Collector's Edition
'Cars - 3D' races onto Blu-ray as part of a 3-Disc Ultimate Collector's Edition. Housed in a flapper case, Disc One is the Blu-ray 3D version of the film. There are no trailers. Disc Two is a Blu-ray, which houses the feature film and bonus materials. Trailers include 'Frozen', 'The Jungle Book' Diamond Edition, and 'Planes'. Both Blu-rays are marked for Regions A, B, and C. Disc Three is a DVD copy of the movie. Finally, there's a code to activate an HD Digital Copy of the film. It doesn't specifically mention iTunes, but recent releases have worked for iTunes, Vudu, Amazon, etc.
3D 4.5/5 Stars
'Cars' makes a stunning, near perfect 3D Blu-ray debut courtesy of an MPEG-4 MVC encode framed in the film's original 2.39:1 aspect ratio.
Like last year's 'Finding Nemo' and 'Up' 3D Blu-rays, there's a lot to love about this new version of 'Cars'. Though this film's rendered textures are no longer state of the art / realistic, details like the car-fin mountains and the tire tracks in the sky pop. Colors are saturated and vivid -- neon accessories, flashing red police car lights, and Piston Cup graphics leap off the screen. Black levels are inky and deep. This is a gorgeous film all around with no sign of encoding errors or blemishes such as aliasing, banding, or macro-blocking.
The 3D effect is more window than pop out (the only real pop out is the the floating Menu). The added depth is nice, helping to sell the 'Cars' universe as a real, lived-in place. Brightness and color accuracy generally match the 2D presentation, save for a few night scenes where minor details seem lost in the darkness. With a tweak or two on your TV, this would disappear. Another minor quibble involves framing and editing. Basically, 'Cars' is a film originally produced for 2D, and works better that way. The racing scenes, or any sequence with rapid-fire editing, in particular don't always make for the most immersive stereo experience. Finally, some of the framing allows for characters or sets to rub the edge of the screen in a way that doesn't quite line up, in terms of depth. An example of this is the grass at the bottom of the screen when Mater and Lightning go tractor tipping. All minor stuff.
Overall, 'Cars - 3D' looks fantastic. Almost as good as its 2D counterpart, and pretty great in 3D, save for a few quibbles that won't matter to most 3D fans. If you love Pixar and 3D, you're going to want to double-dip on this release.
2D 5/5 Stars
The 'Cars' Ultimate Collector's Edition also includes the same stunning 2d Blu-ray transfer many have been admiring since 2006. It's a MPEG-4 AVC encode framed in the film's original 2.39:1 aspect ratio. Here's what Peter said in 2007:
'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.
When it first debuted on Blu-ray, 'Cars' featured' an LPCM 5.1 soundtrack. This has been changed to 5.1 Dolby TrueHD, and it still very much rocks. Everything Peter said in 2007 still applies:
'Cars' sounds smashing, too. 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.
The following Bonus Features, were also on the original DVD:
For some, 'Cars' marked the first bump in the Pixar quality road. For me, I'm a car guy who finds the film's heartwarming story to be fun and nostalgic and, like most Pixar productions, visually gorgeous.
This Ultimate Collector's Edition includes a near-perfect 3D presentation along with the same reference 2D / 5.1 HD soundtrack fans have enjoyed since 2007. You also get the exact same Special Features as the original release, with a less irksome menu design. This set also includes a DVD and an HD Digital Copy that should work with iTunes, Vudu, Amazon, etc.
If you don't own 'Cars' and enjoy 3D Pixar films, definitely pick this one up. If you already own 'Cars' on Blu-ray, then buying this depends on how much you consider yourself a fan and/or completist.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.