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"Cars" on DVD: Built for Comfort, Not for Speed

Cars DVD BoxPixar has a lot to live up to. This would be true if their only contributions to film were technological, considering the many breakthroughs they made in the field of computer animation. However, when one considers an unbroken streak of critical and box-office successes, a series of disappointing CGI-animated movies from other studios, and the perception as the true inheritors of Walt Disney’s animated legacy, it should come as no surprise that Cars had a lot riding on it. It’s the kind of burden that not many films could ever manage to live up to, and to be honest Cars doesn’t quite measure up to the best Pixar has managed to produce. However, it is still an extremely warm and charming movie, ending up being the cinematic equivalent of really high-quality comfort food.

One of the biggest problems facing Cars is that knowing nearly anything about the movie telegraphs exactly where it’s going to end up. Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is a young hotshot racecar whose skills on the track are only exceeded by his monumental ego. On the way cross-country to a decisive three-way race that will decide his future (and lucrative endorsement deals), McQueen is sidetracked into the sleepy town of Radiator Springs and its quirky band of inhabitants, including Sally (Bonnie Hunt), a sassy Porche who traded in her city girl ways for life in the country; Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), a rusting redneck tow truck with a heart of gold; and Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), the town’s weathered doctor and town elder who has a secret or two hidden away in his garage.

Since no arrogant athletic character stays that way throughout movies like this and quirky towns like Radiator Springs exist primarily to show city folk what they’re missing out on, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion where Cars is headed, and that’s exactly where it ends up (with one surprising but heartwarming twist at the end). This is not necessarily a criticism of the movie. There are “where are we going?” movies and “how are we getting there?” movies, and Cars is definitely among the latter. Like the romantic comedy, Cars will live and die on how much we like the characters on screen and how enjoyable the ride is.

Luckily, the cast and crew of Cars make the ride thoroughly enjoyable. Cars carries on Pixar’s demonstrated track record of giving tremendous character to inanimate objects, derived largely by the endearing and varied visual design of the denizens of Radiator Springs but also by little things like sound design that distinguishes the high-class purr of Sally’s engine from the ostentatious roar of Lightning’s. A rousing rock-driven soundtrack is a change of pace from Pixar, but a welcome one in a world of roads and high-speed race tracks. As one would expect, the graphics in the movie are a cut above most or all of Pixar’s competition, but the greatest achievement of Cars‘ CGI is that it is largely invisible. Unlike many earlier Pixar films, there is no time to gawk at what new visual magic was wrestled out of the computers. The movie kicks straight into the first of several gripping, heart-pounding race sequences that would be impressive feats of filmmaking in any medium. We marvel at the beautiful backdrops of the American Southwest simply because they are beautiful, not because they are computer generated. I’m sure that the animators at Pixar had to solve their usual array of impossible technical problems to make this movie, but the animation of Cars proves Pixar’s artistic chops now that the novelty of CGI animation has worn off.

So, wanna go cruising, pretty car?The movie is also aided by pitch-perfect voice casting. Owen Wilson’s easygoing surfer twang is a perfect match for Lightning, balancing the character’s inherent arrogance with an underlying sweetness. Larry the Cable Guy’s lovably dim-witted performance stands in sharp contrast to Wilson’s cynical attitude, making the two a winning on-screen odd couple. Paul Newman lends the appropriate gravity as Doc Hudson, with his gravely growl of a voice communicating the weight of age and experience beautifully. However, top honors have to go to Bonnie Hunt as Sally, who delivers sass, strength, and wistful vulnerability at exactly the right times and in exactly the right amounts. It’s worth pointing out that her career with Pixar plays out the usual actress’ career arc in reverse, beginning as the schoolmarm den mother Rosie in A Bug’s Life and then to a bit part as a harried working woman in Monsters, Inc., before progressing to playing a romantic lead that’s as sexy as Disney can get away with in Cars. It’s also worth noting that the romance between Hunt and Wilson is sweet and entirely believable despite the gap between the actors’ ages – a neat trick that animation can do far better than live-action, where a similar age gap would be central to the romantic arc.

The only real flaw in the movie is small, but hard to ignore, especially in light of previous Pixar films. The population of Radiator Springs is largely two-dimensional, with each car being defined by one broadly played characteristic. George Carlin feels drastically underused as the hippie VW Bus Fillmore, and it is slightly troublesome to see Jenifer Lewis, Cheech Marin, and Tony Shaloub and Pixar animator Guido Quaroni as little more than mere black, Latino, and Italian ethnic stereotypes. While they are all entertaining, the supporting cast of Cars comes up lacking in comparison to the ensemble casts of Pixar’s other works, like the wonderfully defined toys in Andy’s room in Toy Story or the assorted superheroes in The Incredibles.

Indeed, much of the disappointment surrounding Cars around its initial release may have come from the fact that it was released after The Incredibles, which truly raised the bar for all animated films. Cars is a fine film in its own right, and while it may not be the creative stumble that many consider it to be, it also falls short of the expectations set by its predecessor. This may not be fair, especially considering that the only element shared between the two films is the computer-generated animation, but it’s also hard to ignore. Cars is a wonderfully enjoyable film that manages to embody its own theme that a good journey is often more important than the destination.

AAAAHHHH! THE GHOSTLIGHT!!!!Disney’s DVD of Cars contains a single disc. There are no complaints about the presentation of the movie – the anamorphic widescreen image is sharp and clear throughout. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack packs a real punch during the racing sequences, but also takes full advantage of the surround speakers for ambient noise and directional sound. The DVD comes with two of Pixar’s short films (three if you count an Easter Egg worth waiting for in the opening DVD menu). The first is “One Man Band,” a uproariously funny game of one-upmanship between two one-man bands over a little girl’s gold coin that shares the same anarchic and subversive humor of the finest musically-driven Looney Tunes cartoons. The other short is the new “Mater and the Ghostlight,” which answers the question of what frightens a car in a highly comedic fashion.

The special features are rounded out by a 16-minute featurette on the making of the movie and a set of deleted scenes, presented in animatic format. There is no commentary soundtrack, which is a little surprising. Then again, given how recently the film was released and the speed at which it came to DVD, a commentary track would have probably been of the hastily assembled and unimpressive variety. Still, the relative lack of special features or a second disc suggest that there is another edition somewhere down the road. This single-disc release isn’t bad by any means, and will definitely suffice for the average family that just wants to watch the movie repeatedly, but Pixar buffs and hardcore movie fans will probably want to wait for the inevitable re-release.

All images in this review are ¬© 2006 Disney/Pixar; don’t forget to check out Alex Weitzman’s review of the DVD as well.

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