Cars Cars on Blu-ray Disc

Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl
Reign of Fire
The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause

By Jim Bray

Okay, I'll confess. I'm a car nut (just look at the automotive section of this publication if you don't believe me!) as well as a big time Pixar fan. So for Disney/Pixar to get me to enjoy Cars should be like shooting fish in a four barrel carburetor.  

But when I first watched the movie on DVD, I was disappointed. It seemed to me that Pixar had finally hit a speed bump (I didn't love Finding Nemo as much as their other movies, either, but it was still highly entertaining and I liked it better than Cars after my first viewing). It seemed long, pretentious, preachy and not nearly as much fun as the rest of their outings. It was still better than most of the crap that's out there these days, but Pixar's bar was so high that Cars just didn't seem to quite reach it.

Then I saw the trailer for the Blu-ray version (on a different Disney Blu-ray disc) and it so knocked off my socks that I had to give it a second chance. I'm glad I did.

The second viewing didn't change my opinions completely, but I enjoyed the movie a lot more than I did originally. Why? I don't know; maybe I just wasn't in the right mood the first time - but who hasn't liked a movie later that they found wanting the first time around?

And as if to make the experience even better, the Blu-ray disc is nothing short of outstanding.

Cars tells the story of Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), a NASCAR-type racing car whose rookie season sees him challenging the two top cars on the circuit for the Piston Cup. He's full of "piston vinegar" and full of himself as well, so much so that his crew quits and he doesn't care because he's the hero and can do it all himself.

But on the way to the championship race, he falls off his hauler (voiced by John Ratzenberger, Pixar's "voice in residence") and finds himself fixing Route 66 after a run-in with the law in the small, nearly ghost town of Radiator Springs. It's here that Lightning learns the life lessons of the value of friendship and family, how fleeting fame can be, and what are the really important things in life.

He learns these lessons thanks to the characters in the town, chiefly Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), Sally (Bonnie Hunt), and Doc Hudson (actor/racer/racing team co-owner and living legend Paul Newman), along with a wonderfully-cast supporting gang that includes George Carlin and Cheech Marin, who use this film as a, er, vehicle for their particular personas. There are even some cameos by some of the giants of motor racing.

The movie is full of car stuff, from the landscape to so many car-icatured vehicles and little behind-the-action jokes or homages that it's nearly as easy for a car nut to enjoy looking at the background stuff as much as actually paying attention to the story. And if you watch carefully you'll also see quite a few homages to Pixar's movies, from the Lightyear Blimp to a bunch of honking birds seen for an instant on a power line as the action whizzes by.

It's a world where machines are alive (pit crews are little robots, livestock is farm machinery, etc.) and the cars are the people - and gas never seems to be an issue unless you're trying to escape the long arm of the law. But the rules for cars are the same as for people: love your neighbor, do your best, enjoy the ride as much as the destination, yadda yadda yadda.

Okay, it's still no "Incredibles" but it's pretty good. It just takes too long to make its points and even then they crammed too much into the movie. But it's fun.

Cars stands as yet another visual masterpiece from the folk at Pixar. The attention to detail is loving, the rendering - even if it is caricaturish - is photo-realistic and the movie is a Toy Story for the eyes. Other companies do CG movies, but no one has outdone Pixar yet. The closest competitors are the Shrek films, but Pixar still wins the Piston Cup for their body of work.

Such a movie deserves a spectacular Blu-ray disc, and Disney has come through. Heck, even the menus are wonderful (though slow and, at times, hard to navigate) in their sense of giving us an old fashioned drive-in theater experience at home.

And once again Disney/Pixar has given us a disc you can use to show your friends (or, if you work in a video store, your customers) just how great the home theater can be.

Cars is presented in 1080p of course, at the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, and it looks fantastic. From the opening race to the closing credits, the picture is razor sharp, ultra clean, and vividly colorful. The digital-source-to-digital-destination path is travelled in breathtaking fashion. It looks three dimensional, an extraordinarily beautiful video achievement.

The sound excels, too. Disney gives us an uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround track that immerses us in sound design that makes us almost believe we're there on the track and in Radiator Springs.  

The race scenes are the best, with all the engines howling - and the crowd howling along with them in a 360 degree sound field that's just wonderful, with deep bass, crystal clear dialogue and balance that's just right.   

And the extras! They're a high definition treat for the most part, including an interesting featurette with Pixar's John Lasseter outlining his vision and his road trip research along the real Route 66 for inspiration. It shows just how much his heart was in the production. That may also help to explain why there's so much crammed into the movie.

You also get four deleted scenes, though they aren't rendered completely, and one can see why they were left on the virtual cutting room floor. And there are a few Radiator Springs-related featurettes that, while cute, aren't really a big deal.

Worth seeing are two Pixar shorts, "Mater and the Ghostlight" (the weaker of the two) and the Oscar-nominated "One Man Band," which is very cool - and looks great. It's also free of dialog, something Pixar has been doing well since Knick Knack so many years ago.

And, as has been the case often with Disney DVD's, they've included a game. This one's a "spot the car" feature you have to access before you start the actual film. You're given a plethora of cars to identify as they pop up and are scored on your success. It's interesting and cute, but I got bored with it after about five minutes in (by which time I'd already missed more than I'd caught) and went back to the "straight" movie. Kids may like it, and I could see it being diverting if I'd seen the film a million times.

Many Pixar films have included fake "outtakes" during the credits, but this time they've included vignette takeoffs of earlier Pixar films, as done in the Cars universe. They're pretty funny, and you can watch them full screen on their own via the special features menus.

You can also take advantage of the "Cine-explore" feature, which combines picture-in-picture and branching to call up behind the scenes stuff as the movie unfolds. I always find these distracting, but they're also kind of cool, so to each his own. 

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

Buy the eBook
Ransom for the stars
of Jim Bray's
fantastic Sci-Fi Adventure