When Cars was released in 2006, expectations were understandably high. Disney/Pixar was seemingly incapable of putting out a movie that was anything less than both critically acclaimed and bona-fide box office gold. When this one hit theaters ,however, it got mixed reviews and a lot of die-hard Pixar and Disney fans alike were left wanting. Reappraising the film a few years after its debut, yes, the movie does deviate from the Pixar norm a bit - there isn't a kid front and center in the picture as seems to be their favorite strategy - but it's still a really good movie, even if it's not their best.
The movie follows an up and coming racecar named Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) who is on the way to a career high as he hopes to win the prestigious Piston Cup. Lightning's got a bit of an ego, however, and his pit crew decides to leave him just as he heads out to his next big race and wouldn't you know it, he gets lost along the way and winds up stuck in a small town right off of Route 66 called Radiator Springs. Adding insult to injury, Lightning winds up locked in an impound lot. When he's released, he makes the acquaintance of Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), an older car but one considerably wiser than brash young Lightning, and one with a whole lot of experience under his belt.
As Lightning tries to figure out how to get out of this Podunk town, he becomes more and more familiar with its inhabitants: a redneck tow-truck named Mater (Larry The Cable Guy), a VW Van named Fillmore (George Carlin), a Jeep named Sarge (Paul Dooley) and a cute coupe named Sally (Bonnie Hunt) in particular. After spending a bit of time there, he learns a thing or two about others and about himself, all of which leads up to an inevitable big race.
A lot of fans complained that Cars didn't have the 'heart' of films like Toy Story and that's likely because cars are harder to relate to than kids are, but even if this is Pixar-light in a lot of ways, the picture is still a good bit of fun, particularly if you're a car buff. The animation is on par with the best the studio has to offer and if nothing else the film is visually a stunner. But there is more to it than just the gloss and shine associated with Pixar's animation. The heart of the story may not be as big or as obvious as it is in some of the studio's more celebrated affairs but it is here, even if you have to look a bit harder to find it. Throughout the story there's an innate sense of sadness, a sense that director John Lasseter and company regret some of the changes that have occurred in the country over the last fifty years and that maybe a return to a simpler way of life wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. This is essentially what Lightning McQueen is unwittingly forced to deal with as he finds himself trapped in Radiator Springs, there as a victim of his own arrogance. The character development isn't as strong or as pronounced as maybe some might want it to be, but the story still works as a nostalgic love letter to simple, small town life.
If that doesn't work for you and doesn't give you the soul that you want out of the film, fair enough, the film can still definitely be enjoyed as a masterpiece of modern animation. The race sequences in particular are exciting and beautiful and chaotic and incredible all at the same time, and the cars' appearance somehow seems to completely fight the voice acting. Not all of the humor is great as some jokes are just a bit too goofy to work and a few more are just too obvious to be funny, but you can't help but get sucked in by the almost photorealistic backgrounds, amusing character designs and keen attention to detail that's on display throughout the entire film.
There's no discernable difference in content or quality between the standard definition DVD and the Blu-ray disc included in this set when compared to the previous releases from Disney/Pixar.
Cars arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 2.40.1 anamorphic widescreen 1080p high definition transfer that looks fantastic - perfect even. There's a remarkable amount of clarity and texture evident from start to finish here and the visuals are just absolutely gorgeous in every way. Colors pop off the screen but never seem oversaturated or artificially pumped up while black levels are strong and inky, never once breaking up or pixelating at all. The racing sequences look brilliant and dazzling while the later sequences have this nice, rustic, earthy look to them that works well. There are no problems at all with any compression artifacts or edge enhancement issues and the whole thing feels almost three dimensional at times. The cars themselves have a great, fun, cartoonish look to them which contrasts nicely against the more realistic backgrounds used throughout much of the film and the whole package is authored perfectly resulting in one of the finest high definition transfers out on the market so far in the Blu-ray format's history.
The standard definition DVD (widescreen version) included in the set looks excellent as well and it makes the most of the format, but really, there's no comparing it to the Blu-ray in terms of detail, definition and overall image quality. It's a well authored disc and a nice transfer of some great looking source material to be sure, but the Blu-ray release flat out mops the floor with it.
The English language 24-bit 6.9MBps uncompressed PCM 5.1 is just as impressive as the transfer. There's plenty of surround activity and rear channel usage throughout the feature and this is a very active mix. Dialogue is always crystal clear even when the sound effects are really punchy and the low end is rumbling full tilt. The levels are nicely balanced and there are no problems at all with any trace of hiss or distortion. The racing scenes are obviously going to be the stand out moments in the movie, with the engines revving and the tires screeching all over the track, but even the quieter moments have a lot of little details worked into them with some neat ambient noise creeping into the mix and keeping things interesting. Again, the difference in quality between this mix and what's supplied on the already impressive standard definition DVD is pretty striking, with the Blu-ray trumping the SD release in pretty much every way imaginable.
All of the extras that were on the previous Blu-ray release are carried over to this one as well, kicking off with the Cinexplore viewing mode which starts off with John Lasseter's introduction and explanation. When enabled, this mode will allow you to flip between two commentary tracks, a wealth of deleted scenes, and a massive array of production art, photos and more as the movie plays out. It's handled in a scene specific manner, meaning what you get through the Cinexplore functionality makes sense and compliments what's happening on the screen at any given time and it works really well.
So who pops up in the two commentary tracks? The first one features John Lesseter doing the solo thing and he proves to be a pretty good speaker as he talks about the inspiration for the film, how it differs from other projects that he's been involved with and how it was all put together. He spends a fair bit of time rightfully praising the movie's design team and expressing his admiration for the work that they've done on the picture and he also gives us some insight into his creative process, how it works alongside a massive team like the one wrangled up for this film, and how he felt it was very important for the different personalities to really shine through in the finished movie. The second commentary is a very technical track that includes input from 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 Sophie Vincellette. There's a lot of emphasis here put on the design work that went into creating the animated cars in the feature, everything from the importance of picking the right color schemes to anticipating how they'll look against various backgrounds and more. They also discuss the story structure, ideas for the film that eventually got cut from the script, and what it was like just working on this project for so long. Things get technical and very animation oriented here and with this many participants taking part in the discussion, it's not surprising to hear that the information comes very quickly and rapidly throughout.
From there we get to check out a few animated shorts films starting with Mater And The Ghostlight, a seven minute piece that finds Mater alone out on the open road with an eerie ghostlight that roams the highway. Also included is a four minute piece called One Man Band in which the one man band of the title does his best to earn a coin from a young female spectator. The
one minute Boundin' Cars and the four minute Epilogue pieces are also included here, all of them (except for Boundin') in high definition and looking excellent.
A sixteen minute featurette entitled The inspiration for Cars which joins John Lasseter and a few other Pixar types as they go location scouting up and down Route 66, checking out race tracks and small town ambience along the way. Lasseter talks about taking a road trip with his family, which was ultimately what inspired him to make this picture and this feature fits in nicely alongside a few other short bits on the making of the film, starting with Radiator Springs which explains how Lasseter's explorations helped flesh out the town that we see in the movie. The Character Design section is just that, a look at what went into creating the characters seen in the film, giving us a peek at some interesting design work. Animation And Acting is a bit which explores a part of animation that most people probably don't think too much about, that being the physical side of bringing animated creatures to life, making sure they bend and move properly in order to deliver a convincing performance. Real World Racing is another interesting segment that shows how the design team worked hard to get as many of the small details right as possible for this film, with a fair bit of emphasis put on to the sound design that was done for the film. Graphics explores how the decals and fake sponsorship logos and advertisements seen in the film were created, while a piece on the former NASCAR go to car, the Hudson Hornet, rounds things out nicely. All of this material is presented in standard definition, unfortunately.
Also worth mentioning is the small assortment of Deleted Scenes that are included on this release - five scenes in total. Check this material out for a look at how Lightning wound up getting lost, Lightning trudging through some community service work, how Ramone and Flo fell in love, and how Lightning did while enrolled in traffic school. This material is all in standard definition and it's pretty much all unfinished, though very interesting to see regardless.
Rounding out the extras is an interactive Car Finder Game that integrates nicely into the actual movie and rewards attentive viewers by giving them a trip to a particular cars' showroom, trailers for a few other Disney/Pixar releases, animated motion menus and chapter selection.
What makes this collection more than just a simple repackaging of the previously released DVD and Blu-ray editions is the inclusion of Lightning McQueen and Rescue Squad Mater die-cast cars. The Blu-ray and DVD discs are housed inside a cardboard box with the cars set in plastic and showing through on the right hand side.
If you don't already own Cars on Blu-ray and have a need for the standard definition DVD as well, this release makes sense. Otherwise, the only thing that differentiates this release from the past release is the inclusion of the die-cast cars, making this release on that's geared primarily towards Disney/Pixar collector types. That said, judged solely on its own merits, this is a wonderful package overall. The audio and video are pretty much reference quality and this disc is loaded with extras that are entertaining and interesting. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.