Movie for movie, Pixar is commercially the single most successful studio ever in this industry, and each of their six initial feature films were widely considered to be classics the instant 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, Ratatouille, 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 bicker about how it stacks up against the rest of Pixar's filmography, it's tough to imagine much of anyone coming away 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 cocky to keep a steady pit crew on the payroll, and he's desperate 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 stuck 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. These days, it's the kind of place you'd call "backwater" if it weren't smack-dab in the middle of the desert, and those rare occasions when someone accidentally passes through are treated like some sort of epochal event. Without any way of contacting the press or his sponsors, Lightning's stranded 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. Cars has a real heart to it, 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 rattle off 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 that more than buoys 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 repeat viewings 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 features some of their most spectacular 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 offers 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 these days. 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. Especially considering the beefed-up treatment Cars has been lavished with on Blu-ray, it'd be a worthy addition to the collection of any animation fan.
The first time I gave Cars a spin was on DVD, and even though I'd been knee-deep in high-def movies on cable for several years and had torn through stacks and stacks of HD DVDs, I was still floored with the tremendous effort Pixar had invested into that standard definition release. Cars still stands out as one of the most deeply impressive DVDs of the untold tens of thousands of titles floating around right now, and this Blu-ray disc trumps it at every turn.
Cars' 2.39:1 visuals are encoded in AVC at Disney's usual stratospheric bitrate, and the result is astonishing. Depth, dimensionality, and fine detail outclass anything I've seen on either high definition format, animated or otherwise. Cars strikes this fantastic balance where the cars themselves have the expressiveness of a cartoon, yet the rich textures and meticulous attention to detail make the exaggerated characters seem grounded in their own reality, and they're surrounded by a world that teeters on the brink of photorealism. The reflections in the shiny paint jobs and polished chrome in particular show off an incalculable amount of talent and digital wizardry that only Pixar can pull off. Cars's candy-colored palette looked gorgeous on DVD, but the Blu-ray disc takes it a step further. Much of the second act is deliberately dusty and sunbaked, but its vivid colors leap off the screen throughout the rest of Cars, from the striking hues of the racecars' paint jobs to the flourescent neon when the switches are flipped at Radiator Springs. Cars is riddled with challenging visuals, particularly fine clouds of dust and the blur of race cars as they careen across the screen at nearly 200 miles an hour, but the high-bitrate AVC encoding handles everything that's thrown at it with ease. Nothing close to a flaw could be spotted throughout. Cars is easily a reference quality disc and essential viewing for Blu-ray fanatics who want to show off just how great the format can look.
I gave the audio on Cars' DVD release a perfect 5 stars last year, and as phenomenal as that comparatively measly 448Kbps Dolby Digital 5.1 track sounded, the 24-bit, uncompressed PCM track on the Blu-ray disc blows it clean out of the water. I've heard very few soundtracks that are this unrelentingly active. The mix is at its most aggressive, of course, in the high-speed races that bookend the film, from the din of a hundred thousand rabid fans in the stands to the throaty roar of eight hojillion horses under the hood. As sleepy a town as Radiator Springs may be by comparison, the sound design still keeps every channel constantly chattering with activity and ambiance. Pixar's immensely talent design teams and shading groups may have made Radiator Springs look realistic, but the subtleties in the mix are what really bring it roaring to life. Even with the punishing bass, healthy dynamic range, and innumerable pans and discrete effects, Cars' dialogue is unwaveringly well-balanced and never seems the slightest bit overwhelmed. This is a truly exceptional effort and every bit as showcase-worthy as its cinematic visuals.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track from the original DVD is on here too, along with an English subtitle stream for the deaf and hard of hearing. Unlike virtually every other Blu-ray disc out there, though, there aren't any dubs or subtitles in any other language.
Sure, maybe a decked-out special edition wasn't always available on day one, but every Pixar release up until Cars had been lavished with the two-disc treatment at one time or another. It was kind of a drag that Cars' 45 minutes of bells and whistles were by far the leanest set of extras of any Pixar DVD up to that point. This Blu-ray disc gets it right the first time out, though -- it includes all of the extras from the DVD and a heckuva lot of stuff that was held back, and the presentation screams "next-gen!" the way very, very few HD DVDs and Blu-ray discs have.
Both of the shorts from the DVD have gotten an upgrade to high definition for this Blu-ray release. The Academy Award-nominated One Man Band is a dialogue-free battle of the (one-man) bands for a little girl's shiny gold coin, boasting the bouncy music, brilliant sense of comedic timing, and visual flair of classic animation from the '30s and '40s, polished by Pixar for the twenty aughts. Spinning off of an offhand reference in the movie itself, the seven minute short Mater and the Ghostlight 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 skulks the darkened roads of 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.
Also carried over from the DVD and getting a high-def spit-'n-polish is the epilogue, presented here without the end credits attached. A nice nod to Pixar's short Boundin', this time tossing a couple of the characters from Cars in place of the springing sheep, is included here as well in standard definition, more readily accessible than the Easter Egg on the earlier DVD.
The DVD sported a set of four deleted scenes, presented in a lightly animated, sketched storyboard style. This additional footage 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. These 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. Exclusive to the Blu-ray is a fifth deleted scene, stretching out the length of the reel to 14 minutes in total. "Traffic School" follows Lightning for three and a half minutes as he trudges his way through...yup! traffic school, floundering as he tries to parallel park and grumbling about the fact that a race car doesn't need to be street legal. These additional scenes are presented in standard definition and can be viewed individually or played all at once.
Cars' release on DVD featured 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 skulk around some of the country's largest 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 for Cars" focuses purely on the story, but those hoping for a peek at the inner machinations of Pixar and the nuts-'n-bolts of production are treated to seven featurettes exclusive to this Blu-ray disc, running 36 minutes in total. "Radiator Springs" touches on the town's backstory that didn't quite make it into the movie, with some brief chatter about the lighting that went into bringing Radiator Springs to life, additional peeks at John Lasseter's research tour down Route 66, and the technical hurdles associated with properly aging a fully digital town like this. "Character Design" shows off some of artist Dave Deal's conceptual art for Cars' four-wheeled gaggle of characters along with comments about how to visually differentiate one car from another, how to give each of them an appropriately strong sense of personality, adding texture and wear-'n-tear, and struggling with the reflectivity of all of the shiny paint jobs and polished chrome. "Animation and Acting" follows up on that by delving into the difficulty nailing the weight and physics of these cars, trying to keep them all expressive without looking too cartoony or lightweight. "Real World Racing: Getting Geeky with the Details" is all about the attention paid to authenticity, from a small army of sound engineers recording each and every car to trying to ensure that even the TV broadcasts within the movie are spot-on. All of the many, many fake products plugged on the racers' decals -- and even the names of stores, press passes, the stars on police cars, with the list rambling on for another three or four paragraphs -- are tackled in the "Graphics" featurette. Last up are a quick look at the Fabulous Hudson Hornet that dominated NASCAR once upon a time along with a tour of Darrell Waltrip's extensive collection of racecars. Somewhat disappointingly, these clips -- and "Inspiration for Cars", too -- are all presented in standard definition.
This is where the Blu-ray gets really interesting, tho'. The most compelling of the disc's extras is the "Cinexplore" feature, which John Lasseter briefly introduces in high-definition. It's a lot like the U-Control extras that Universal have incorporated into some of their HD DVDs, only Disney and Pixar have assembled a much cleaner and more intuitive interface. You can toggle between two Blu-ray-exclusive audio commentaries -- one with John Lasseter solo and the other with a set of thirteen techies from Pixar. Supporting artwork specific to each commentary is displayed on-screen when appropriate: storyboards, photos snapped of the voice actors and musicians during their recording sessions, newspaper articles, car ads, personal photos from the research trips down Route 66, and, in the case of the technical commentary, photos of each speaker just to let you know who's talking, exactly. The Cinexplore feature will even branch off to deleted scenes and the featurettes on this disc when appropriate. You can either manually adjust what's displaying on-screen with a press of the 'View' button on your remote, or you can let the Cinexplore feature take control and automatically navigate through everything. It's a phenomenal feature with a near-perfect implementation, and I'd love to see Cinexplore become standard on Disney and Pixar's releases.
Now, though, I'll delve into more detail about those two commentary tracks, both of which were recorded before Cars' theatrical release, clearly held back from the DVD with this eventual Blu-ray disc in mind. The first has director John Lasseter riding solo, although he doesn't have any trouble at all carrying a commentary by his lonesome. The long list of topics include Cars' racers serving as the equivalent to flesh and blood athletes like Michael Jordan in our world, why the opening race was set at night, Click and Clack choosing each others' Dodge personas, Joe Ranft's deft skill at coming up with elaborate storyboards that escaped unscathed from the continually fluid production, and the dozens of dozens monitors in the climax genuinely showing off 44 different views of the race. Lasseter takes particular glee in pointing out all of the many, many different elements of Cars that were nicked from Pixar's research trips down Route 66 and touching on the sheer amount of improv the voice talent delivered.
The long, long list of folks in the technical commentary includes Dan Scanlon, Steve Purcell (!), Bobby Podesta, Jim Murphy, Scott Clark, Doug Sweetland, Bob Pauley, Bill Cone, Tia Kratter, Jean-Claude Kalache, Eben Ostbey, Tim Milliron, and...whew! Sophie Vincellette. If I misspelled any names, I'll go ahead and apologize in advance. With thirteen people in total, it kinda goes without saying that there really isn't any dead air in the commentary, which tackles everything from debates about the color of the cars' tongues, plenty of plot points that were tossed out as production went along, building proper suspension and handling into the models to make the animators' lives a little easier, struggling with cars that appeared to be floating above the blacktop, and deciding exactly what should be reflected in the paint and chrome. Lasseter's commentary is the more accessible of the two, but animation gearheads will definitely want to give this second track a listen as well.
Also exclusive to the Blu-ray disc is a "Car Finder" game. A small array of different cars appears at the bottom of the screen, and whenever that vehicle pops up in the movie, select the right icon and you can unlock that car in the game's showroom. There are well over a hundred cars in total, and tracking down some of these really demands some careful attention. The screen will freeze periodically for a quick lightning round too. Integrating the game into the movie itself is a brilliant idea, and the implementation is first-rate. It'll even let you save your game and pick up where you left off days, weeks, or months down the road. As you trot through the showroom of cars you've unlocked, you can sift through the names, backstories, and in some cases, peek at the trailers or get 360 degree views of the characters, including many that were only in the movie for a few seconds.
The disc opens with high definition trailers for Enchanted, Ratatouille, Wall-E, and Meet the Robinsons. Cars makes extensive use of Java with its interactive menus, but the designers at Pixar went a little too overboard, leaving them kind of cluttered and not all that intuitive for younger viewers. Sometimes simple really isn't all that bad.
This is the definitive release of Cars that Pixar's legions of fans have been waiting for, boasting a reference quality presentation and a tremendous assortment of extras. No, Cars doesn't rank with the best of Pixar's efforts to date, but it still stands strong as one of the best animated movies of the past few years, and it's finally gotten the lavish release it deserves on Blu-ray. Highly Recommended.
The images scattered around this review have been lifted from the DVD and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.