In a world populated only by cars, rookie racer Lightning McQueen is tipped as the next big thing. On route to an important race the results of which will literally make or break his career, he finds himself waylaid in Radiator Springs, an old, run-down town on the old Route 66, populated by an array of colourful personalities. Here, the hot-headed and superficial McQueen finds himself questioning his values, as he comes to learn that there's more to life than the finishing line.
Ever since Pixar Animation Studios struck gold with Toy Story back in 1995, viewers and critics alike have been waiting for them to screw up. As soon as a new Pixar film is announced, speculation begins as to whether or not this will be their first screw-up. It happened with Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, all of which continued the studio's tradition of delivering triple-A hits. Then, along came Cars, and the rumblings began again. Yes, it was the same old tune: "Their track record won't stay perfect for ever", "The trailers don't have the usual Pixar flourish", "This might be the first time they misfire", and so on. Some people, knowing full well that these debates arise every time the studio announces a new film, were content to sit back and trust Pixar to deliver to their usual high standard, but for many, several factors seemed to suggest that the naysayers might be right. The notion of talking cars felt gimmicky, the plot (such as was known prior to the film's release) sounded generic, and, when the film was delayed from its original Thanksgiving 2005 release date till Summer 2006, it began to seem like things might not be altogether rosy in Emeryville.
I'm happy to report, therefore, that the rumours were unfounded. Yes, it's true that, with an average score of 77%, Cars is the lowest-rated Pixar film on the Rotten Tomatoes review round-up site. It's also true that, when compared to The Incredibles and the original Toy Story, Cars is clearly a rung or two down the creative ladder. When all said and done, though, the film is no slouch, and is easily as good as either Toy Story 2 or Monsters, Inc. It's also considerably better than any other CGI animated feature released this year, proving once again that Pixar is in a completely different league from their competitors at DreamWorks, Sony and the like.
Pixar's films always have a clear, accessible theme that will resonate with everyone in the audience. If Toy Story explored the meaning of friendship, and The Incredibles made the remarkably mature and pragmatic assertion that not everyone can be the best of the best, Cars' message is that the journey is more important than the destination. This works first in a purely literal sense, with McQueen learning that there are more important things in life than winning the big race, but also on a metaphorical level. The tragedy of Radiator Springs is that a new motorway was built to bypass it so that travellers could shave a mere 10 minutes off their journey (which, in the seemingly endless Arizona desert, is virtually meaningless), destroying the livelihood of the town's inhabitants in order to cater to people's impatience. "Slow down and appreciate the view," the film tells us - and some view it is too.
It's ultimately a feel-good message, and it is in this respect that Cars is most different from its immediate predecessor, The Incredibles. While Brad Bird's film made the decidedly adult judgement that, as nice as it would be, not everyone can be the best, Cars is far more idealistic in its aspirations. This is in keeping with writer/director John Lasseter's previous films, Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and A Bug's Life, all of which featured an romanticised portrayal of rural Americana, with the two Toy Story films especially celebrating a perhaps imaginary age gone by, when intentions were purer and the world was less complicated. As such, one is left with a nagging feeling that none of what we're seeing is authentic, and that Lasseter is looking through rose-tinted spectacles (after all, it's fairly telling that all of the various personalities McQueen encounters are good-natured eccentrics, when one would imagine that, in real life, he would have also met his fair share of bigoted, gun-toting rednecks!).
Still, Cars is fairly upfront in its intentions, and, cynical as I am, I find it impossible not to be won over by its good-natured blend of oddball comedy, vibrant characterisations and infectious optimism. As I said in my review of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's A Very Long Engagement, manipulation is not a problem provided the viewer doesn't mind being manipulated. As such, Cars may not be particularly appealing if you approach it with a hostile attitude, but it should be most pleasing to those who simply want to have a good time and be transported into a world where things are simpler than they are in real life, and the good guys always triumph. It's a Pixar film through and through, and it certainly doesn't blot their spotless record. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to head off and join the debate as to whether or not Ratatouille will be their first screw-up.
Note: the transfer review for this disc was written by DVD Times hardware reviewer David Mackenzie.
The NTSC version of Cars is in the "good but not perfect" league. That's mostly understandable when you consider that the film is not only fairly lengthy, but features its fair share of fireworks, confetti and sparks, all of which are hard to compress using the aged MPEG-2 scheme without showing visible blocking. As such, it probably wouldn't be possible to compress the entire two-hour film without filtering some of the fine details out. I'd have preferred if this had been done on a scene-by-scene basis, however, so that the most difficult material could be treated without compromising the level of detail during the rest of the film. The video is slightly softened throughout, and to be fair it's probably out of necessity to fit the sometimes challenging material on the disc, but never does it become hard to watch (unlike Fox's re-make of The Hills Have Eyes!). The filtering manifests itself as a very slight ringing around high-contrast areas, especially visible where the active picture area meets the black letterbox bars at the top and bottom.
As an all-digital transfer, there are obviously no filmic visual features to be found here, so the video is free of any grain, dirt or wobble (if any of those annoy you). In addition, the visuals in the film are detailed enough so as not to show any colour banding, which is a problem that manifests itself in some all-digital video transfers such as the DVD releases of Futurama, where large areas of flat colours are particularly prone to banding artefacts.
That said, if you're a real video nut and can stand the slight PAL audio speedup, my advice would be to buy the Australian version, because it truly does use the extra resolution to great effect (and doesn't feature an overdubbed character voice like the British release will). One of the audio tracks on the Australian PAL disc is pitch-corrected, which means that unless you're incredibly sensitive to a slight increase in tempo, the faster audio shouldn't annoy too much. The Ratatouille trailer and One Man Band short on the PAL version of Cars are some of the most amazing examples of video quality I've seen from a standard definition DVD. The film itself on the PAL disc is slightly less impressive, presumably for the same reasons mentioned earlier regarding the NTSC counterpart (running time and visual effects) but is still of a very high standard.
The bottom line is that, although the American NTSC and Australian PAL discs are both high quality products, the PAL version uses the extra resolution of the 576-line format well and does show slight visual improvement - and even slight visual improvement is more than welcome for DVD, which is now a fairly low resolution format.
In terms of audio, I was somewhat surprised by the lack of a DTS track, which Pixar provided for their recent re-releases of the two Toy Story films. Cars comes in Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and Dolby Surround 2.0 flavours, and somewhat annoyingly defaults to the latter. The 5.1 EX track is a solid affair, showcasing Tom Myers' aggressive audio design. The various race scenes are a real treat, with tyres squealing from every channel, while the more naturalistic setting of Radiator Springs is well catered for with its rich ambient effects. It lacks the added clarity that a DTS track would have offered, but I doubt that anyone will be particularly disappointed by this offering.
Optional English subtitles are provided for the film and all of the extras.
Given that Pixar's last three films all debuted with feature-packed 2-disc special editions, you'd be forgiven for being surprised by the distinct lack of material on offer here. Indeed, I suspect that a more stacked edition will be released at a later date, making this the first Pixar film since Toy Story 2 where double dipping is the name of the day.
Still, limited as they are, there are some nice materials on offer. Two shorts are included, one of which, One Man Band, ran prior to Cars when it was released theatrically. The other is Mater and the Ghostlight, a 7-minute short set in the Cars world. Directed by John Lasseter, this is a competent but not exactly riveting little tale, with a plot that has more in common with some of Disney's direct to video sequels than to Pixar's films. I'm sure people will enjoy it to some extent, but is feels considerably more child-oriented than the main feature.
Of the rest of the bonus materials, the most substantial is Inspiration for Cars, a 16-minute featurette in which John Lasseter and various members discuss, appropriately enough, their various inspirations for the film. It also includes some interesting behind the scenes footage from the creative team's research trip and interviews with a number of the locals they met along the way. Four deleted scenes are also included, each with brief voice-over introductions by Lasseter, and the ubiquitous Disney "sneak peeks", including the aforementioned Ratatouille. "Epilogue", meanwhile, allows you to watch the bloopers and extra scenes that play alongside the end credits at full size.
Cars once again confirms Pixar's status as the premier creator of theatrical animation in North America, and, while this disc is decidedly lacking in terms of extras, the transfer and audio are of a high standard. No doubt this film will see a more impressive release at a later date, perhaps when Ratatouille arrives in Summer 2007. Until then, however, this release should tide eager viewers over.