Movie for movie, Pixar is commercially the single most successful studio ever in this industry, and their initial six feature films were widely considered to be classics from the moment their first digitally-rendered frames splashed across theater screens. Let's go ahead and get this out of the way first: yes, Cars probably is the weakest of their releases so far, but griping that Cars is Pixar's least impressive movie is kind of like complaining that you missed a number on a lottery ticket and only won a couple hundred thousand bucks. When a studio has a list of movies like Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles under its belt, merely being "very good" kinda pales by comparison. Still, if you're willing to appreciate Cars for what it is rather than debate how it stacks up against the rest of Pixar's filmography, it's hard to imagine anyone feeling disappointed.
This may be hotshot Lightning McQueen's first year in the racing circuit, but he's already favored to be the first rookie in history to ever take home the Piston Cup. Lightning's good, and he knows it; he's too insufferably cocky to keep a steady pit crew on the payroll, and he's eager to shrug off Rust-eze Bumper Ointment, the low-rent sponsor who took a chance on him, in favor of a fossil fueled corporate behemoth. His arrogance nearly costs him the 'Cup, and on his way to a second race to break an unprecedented three-way tie, Lightning finds himself stranded in the sleepy little town of Radiator Springs. It used to be one of the highlights on Route 66, but as travelers gravitated towards the newly constructed interstate, Radiator Springs literally dropped off the map. Anymore, it's the kind of place you'd call "backwater" if it weren't smack-dab in the middle of the desert, and that rare occasion when someone passes through is treated like some sort of epochal event. Without any way of contacting the press or his sponsors, Lightning's stuck there until the law's satisifed that he's finished repaving the road he trashed. As he gets to know townsfolk (towncars?) like the sleek big-city-lawyer-turned-not-so-big-city-hotelier Sally and rusty, dimwitted tow truck Mater, it starts to strike Lightning that maybe there's more to life than the fast lane after all.
Okay, the Doc Hollywood-meets-Days of Thunder analogy that every movie reviewer is contractually obligated to toss out about Cars isn't exactly unfounded. The skeleton of this fish-out-of-water tale is overly familiar and doesn't really take any unexpected detours until its very final moments. At 116 minutes, it's (just barely) Pixar's longest movie to date, and with its first act lacking a strong hook, Cars probably would've been a much smoother ride if the road to Radiator Springs weren't quite so long. Just a little of the humor also aims lower than I'd expect from Pixar, and some of the double-underlined moral lessons and oversentimentality can be really heavy-handed, but...once the movie settled in, very little of this actually bothered me. Its characters may be Detroit steel, but there's more under the hood than just crankshafts and carburetors. There's a real heart to the movie, and by the time its first hour had ended, I was completely hooked.
Cars sports another in a long line of strong ensemble casts for Pixar, this time featuring the voices of Bonnie Hunt, Owen Wilson, Cheech Marin, Tony Shaloub, Paul Newman, George Carlin, and Michael Keaton, to name a few, along with a slew of racing personalities and a few other sly in-jokes. The writing may not be Pixar's sharpest, but there's still a wealth of wit and warmth behind it to more than buoy the fairly conventional plot. The fact that Cars made me like Larry the Cable Guy, if only for the space of a couple of hours, shows just how immeasurably talented Pixar's staff is. Like all of the studio's movies, Cars rewards fans with an onslaught of background gags and subtleties that are easily missed the first or second time through. Pixar's other great strength is, of course, its visuals, and Cars includes some of their best work yet. It does a remarkable job capturing the breakneck speed of the races that bookend the movie, and even though Cars isn't a live-action film, it still features some of the most kinetic, most skillfully shot racing photography I've seen on-screen. Its stunning desert vistas teeter on the verge of photorealism, and the scene with Sally showing Lightning the quiet pleasures of a leisurely drive made me want to mash the pause button, hop in my Volvo, and head out west. Maybe I'm exaggerating on that last point a little, but...yeah. The cars themselves also look amazing. Even though they're based on something so rigid and inflexible in the real world, these characters are overflowing with personality, and the animators let their metal frames bend and contort so that they're as expressive and lively as the actors that are voicing them.
You know how it goes: a weak movie by [insert your favorite actor, director, or writer here] is still better than everything else Hollywood is churning out. In the case of Pixar, though, that's not just a stale cliché. The only way in which Cars can really be considered a disappointment is that it's less perfect than the six movies that came before it. It may not be in quite the same league as instant classics like Toy Story 2 or The Incredibles, but even in a year teeming with animation, Cars still stands out as perhaps the best of the class of 2006 and would be a worthy addition to the collection of any Pixar fan.
I've immersed myself so much in HD DVDs over the past few months that I'd almost forgotten how spectacular standard definition DVDs can still look. This 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is proof positive that there's plenty of life left in the format, and short of the fact that I can't buy Cars in high-definition at the moment, there's not a single complaint I can think to make. Its palette is beautifully saturated, devoid of any bleeding or inconsistencies. Despite the clouds of fine dust particles and the blur of race cars as they nearly top 200 miles an hour, there's not a trace of artifacting or assorted digital noise. Razor sharp and immaculately detailed, this DVD looks better on my HDTV than quite a few high-definition movies I've watched on cable.
I feel kinda dirty even mentioning it, but there's a separate full-frame edition of Cars floating around too.
Pixar's movies consistently offer some of the most impressive sound design work of any studio: live-action, animated, or otherwise. This Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track, encoded at a bitrate of 448Kbps, follows in that proud tradition. The mix is expectedly aggressive in the bookending races, bolstered by the din of the crowd and the throaty roar of eight quadraseptazillion horses under the hood. Cars makes equally effective use of all of the channels it has on-hand during the quieter sequences in Radiator Springs as well. Each speaker is constantly chattering with activity and ambiance, fleshing out this wheeled world as something organic and real, not just a bunch of 1s and 0s banged out by a render farm in Emeryville. Even with the thundering bass, healthy dynamic range, and innumerable pans and discrete effects, Cars' dialogue is unwaveringly well-balanced and never seems the slightest bit overwhelmed. Truly exceptional.
There aren't any soundtracks or subtitles in other languages, although there is an English 2.0 surround mix, and English subs and closed captions have also been included.
Sure, maybe a decked-out special edition wasn't always available on day one, but every Pixar release up to this point has been lavished with the two-disc treatment at one time or another, and it's been the standard since Monsters, Inc. first hit DVD in 2002. With the runtime of its extras disappointingly clocking in under 45 minutes in total, Cars is Pixar's sparsest release in quite a few years. What's included is good, but mounds of material are clearly being held back for a special edition re-release down the road.
There are two shorts on this DVD, and fans who caught Cars theatrically ought to recognize the Academy Award-nominated One Man Band. This dialogue-free battle of the (one man) bands for a young girl's shiny gold coin boasts the bouncy music, brilliant sense of comic timing, and visual flair of classic animation from the '30s and 40's updated by Pixar for the twenty aughts. Exclusive to this DVD is Mater and the Ghostlight, a seven minute short that reassembles many of Cars' key voice actors for another jaunt through Radiator Springs. After a night of spirited practical jokes, Mater finds himself stranded alone with the Ghostlight, an eerie blue orb that Sheriff sez skulks Route 66. Mater and the Ghostlight builds off of characters and settings we already know and (hopefully!) love, and with that foundation already in place, it's free to just lob out laugh after laugh.
A four minute epilogue plays over Cars' end credits, highlighting the voice work of John Ratzenberger, Pixar's good luck charm, while vehicularly re-envisioning snippets from several of the studio's instant classics. This footage previously had to share the screen with the names of the many, many people who contributed their talents to the movie, playing in a small window that took up just a fraction of Cars' 2.39:1 frame. The DVD's extras enlarge the epilogue to full 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen, and it also packs on Dolby Digital 5.1 audio, optional subtitles, and even closed captions.
Instead of the usual onslaught of featurettes that delve into different stages of animation, sound design, storyboarding, and voicework, there's just one 'making of' clip: "Inspiration for Cars". This sixteen minute featurette follows John Lasseter and some of the Pixar crew as they tour sleepy towns along Route 66 and hang around race tracks. Along with introducing viewers to Mater's real-life namesake and some of the experts who lent Pixar a hand, Lasseter also discusses the road trip he took with his family after several years of non-stop work and how that unforgettable experience inspired him to make Cars. "Inspiration..." does focus purely on the story, so those hoping for a peek at the inner machinations of Pixar or the nuts-'n-bolts of production will have to keep twiddling their thumbs. It's a great featurette, though, and I'd like to see the inevitable re-release build on this as part of a larger documentary.
Last up is a set of four deleted scenes that can be viewed individually or played all at once. Presented in a lightly animated, sketched storyboard style, this additional footage (around ten and a half minutes' worth) includes a different spin on how Lightning got lost, a trippier sequence with Lightning suffering through community service, and Ramone flashing back to how he and Flo fell for each other. The first three scenes show just how far a story can evolve from concept to completion, although the changes that were eventually made were undoubtedly for the best. The Ramone/Flo bit made it far enough through production to actually feature Cheech Marin's voice, although it's ultimately inessential.
Cars sports a set of themed, nicely animated widescreen menus, and if you wait around the main menu long enough, you'll spot a link to an Easter Egg with a nice nod to Boundin'. The disc comes packaged in a keepcase with a shiny, embossed slipcover, and the usual promotional stuff and a DVD guide listing the movie's 32 chapter stops are lovingly tucked inside.
There are so few extras on Cars that a special edition is undoubtedly waiting around the next bend, and some fans may want to hold out for a more definitive release. Sticklers will be quick to point out that neither the movie nor its release on DVD rank with the best of Pixar's efforts to date, and admittedly, a beefier special edition would've snagged a more enthusiastic rating. Still, this initial DVD release of Cars comes Recommended anyway.