"If you ever plan to motor west
Travel my way, take the highway that is best,
Get your kicks on Route 66."
I really had my doubts about this movie. When I first heard about it and again after I'd seen the trailers, I thought Disney-Pixar had missed the bus, so to speak. If the filmmakers were going to make every character in the movie a car, how could they possibly get them to have any self expression? How could they manage to create multiple personalities among faceless machines? How could they get armless, legless contraptions to do anything but putt around? I mean, this wasn't like "Robots," where at least the mechanical devices had humanlike faces, bodies, and limbs. But I couldn't have been more wrong. I found Disney-Pixar's CGI "Cars" one of the better movies of 2006 and certainly the best animated film of the year.
I'm sure that Disney-Pixar found much inspiration for "Cars" in Disney's own 1952 animated short, "Susie the Little Blue Coupe." There, the Disney storytellers had successfully turned an automobile into a convivial, humanlike character, an anthropomorphic pile of rubber and metal that made us care and feel for its plight. Disney-Pixar have done the same thing in "Cars," but in larger measure and to even more warmhearted ends.
The reader may have noticed that I started the first two paragraphs with a personal pronoun, and if I use a whole lot more "I's" before I'm through with this review, it's because just as "Cars" was very personal to its director, John Lasseter, it is also very personal to me. For one thing, it is exceedingly sweet and addresses my better nature. For another, I like automobiles, especially small, racy ones like the main characters here. In my lifetime I've owned MGs, Fiats, Alfa-Romeos, Sciroccos, Porsches, and Z's. So the movie's characters appeal to me. And for yet another reason, I can relate to the dilemma of many of the cars in the story. Let me explain.
"Cars" is not just about one little NASCAR-type racer that gets lost and stranded in the desert, and it's not just about a big-city hotshot who learns down-home values. It's about all the vanishing little towns in America that modern Interstate thoroughfares have bypassed and left for dead. In the accompanying featurette, the film's co-writer and co-director, John Lasseter ("Toy Story 1 and 2," "A Bug's Life") explains that the virtual abandonment of the America's celebrated Route 66 got him thinking about the story idea (so much so, apparently, that he originally wanted to title his movie "Route 66"). When I grew up in the late forties and early fifties in the Western United States, there were no freeways. There were only two-lane roads connecting a thousand big cities and tiny towns. Traveling the modest fifty miles from my hometown to San Francisco to visit relatives meant going through at least five other towns, and I mean literally going through them, right down the main streets. The trip took well over an hour, while today a single six-lane freeway takes one to the City in a third that time. Likewise, a trip to the Redwoods in Northern California took my family and me through a hundred small towns and villages that today one can see only as signposts along Highway 101. It's a wonder that many of the old attractions still survive, things like "The Drive-Thru Tree," "The One-Log House," "Confusion Hill," "The Trees of Mystery," and "The Avenue of the Giants." Anyway, the movie describes not only what happens to a little, lost racing car, but what happens to the towns and places that suddenly disappear from view, as well.
Now, you have to understand that everyone in "Cars" is a motor vehicle. There are no humans in this alternate universe. Yet the animators manage to give distinctive personalities to all the automobiles in the movie by using eyes in their windshields and mouths in their grilles, and then by utilizing a multitude of fine voice talents. Trust me. It works.
The story centers around an arrogant rookie race car named Lightning McQueen, voiced by Owen Wilson, whose vocal inflections are well suited for this egotistical little speedster who must learn his life lessons the hard way. I understand the filmmakers named the car after the late Pixar animator Glenn McQueen, but obviously most viewers will associate the character name with the late actor Steve McQueen, who was so fond of driving.
McQueen (the car, not the late actor) is a conceited dunce who thinks he can win races all by himself, without a pit crew or a manager. On his way to California for the biggest race of his life, he gets lost in the desert and winds up in the tiny community of Radiator Springs, a burg in the middle of nowhere, a village bypassed by an Interstate and forgotten by the world. McQueen unwittingly mangles the town's main street, for which he is locked up and brought before the cantankerous local traffic-court judge, Doc Hudson (voiced brilliantly by Paul Newman, another actor celebrated for his real-life racing career). The doc is also a doctor of internal combustion, cute, and his body is that of a 1951 Hudson Hornet. Doc sentences McQueen to repave the road, and there follows a sequence reminiscent of the one in "Cool Hand Luke," where Newman's character has to repave a length of roadway on a chain gang. You'll have to watch the film several times to catch all the references.
In town, McQueen meets a variety of affable individuals, all of whom make the movie enjoyable. There's Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt), an attorney, a romantic interest, and a late-model Porsche 911 Carrera. There's Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), "Like Tow-Mater, but without the Tow," a dim-witted but totally lovable 1950s' Chevy truck. There are Guido (Guido Quaroni) and Luigi (Tony Shalhoub), owners of the town's tire store and the both of them dedicated Ferrari lovers. There are Sarge (Paul Dooley), a gung-ho, military type four-wheeler and war-surplus salesman, and his neighbor Fillmore (George Carlin), an retired VW hippie van. And there are Ramone (Cheech Marin), a custom car painter and low-rider, and the Sheriff (Michael Wallis), an old Merc who runs McQueen in.
The list goes on with colorful characters and familiar voices like those of Jeremy Piven, Michael Keaton, John Ratzenberger, and actual broadcasters and race drivers Bob Costas, Jay Leno, Darrel Waltrip, Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Michael Schumacher, and Mario Andretti.
I'll admit the movie starts out rather noisily, sometimes even frenetically, but it gets better as it goes along, thanks in large measure to Newman and Larry the Cable Guy. They are real charmers. I'll also admit that the movie doesn't work quite so well as "Monsters Inc." or the "Toy Story" films because the main character here is for too long an unsympathetic figure. Even with Owen Wilson's casual, laid-back vocal mannerisms, McQueen comes off as grating and irritating for most of the movie, a condition necessary for his reformation as time passes. Still, "Cars" wins us over in the second half with its beloved townsfolk and its warm, gentle message.
"There's a whole lot more to racing than just winning," says one character. And the movie reminds us that it's not the destination that counts, it's the journey. In this case, it's not just the humor or excitement of "Cars" but the heart that makes it a winner.
As with most CGI-animated cartoons these days, "Cars" is handsome all the way around, with unsurpassed 3D character rendering amid almost photorealistic background settings. Needless to say, it requires some pretty good transfer work to capture the film's beauty, and the Disney-Pixar video team deliver a high-bit-rate, anamorphic widescreen reproduction (very nearly capturing its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio) that is well-nigh perfect. Detailing is sharp, colors are bright (but not too bright to be flashy), black levels are intense, and grain is almost nonexistent.
Everything you can find good to say about a modern soundtrack you'll find in this Dolby Digital 5.1 product. There are strong dynamics, a deep bass, a clear, natural midrange, an effective use of the surrounds, and an extended frequency response. The movie is not only a joy to look at, it's a pleasure to listen to as well.
Oddly for a film that earned almost a quarter of a billion dollars at the box office, the powers that be at Buena Vista accorded it only a single-disc edition, available separately in either standard or widescreen. Perhaps they're thinking of issuing a two-disc deluxe edition later on, I don't know. In any event, the bonuses here include a seven-minute animated short, "Mater and the Ghostlight," featuring the amiable character from the movie in a very cute bit, a four-minute animated short, "One Man Band," that accompanied "Cars" in theaters, and a sixteen-minute featurette, "Inspiration for Cars," in which director John Lasseter explains how his childhood, his present family, his love of automobiles, and Route 66 prompted him to make the picture. In addition, there are four deleted scenes, a total of about ten minutes in sketchy, rough-draft form, and a version of the movie's Epilogue in complete widescreen (in the movie you see it truncated next to the closing credits), which you should not miss.
Finally, there are thirty-two scene selections, a DVD Guide, and a chapter list a THX Optimizer of audiovisual calibration tests Sneak Peeks at various other Disney releases, including a Blu-ray promo that says "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," "The Lion King," and other titles are on their way, English as the only spoken language, and English subtitles. The keep case comes enclosed in a handsomely embossed, metal-foil slipcover.
I should never have doubted Disney-Pixar. They have a perfect track record of hits going all the way back to the first "Toy Story," and even when some of their movies had a weak plot line, as in "Finding Nemo," they had gorgeous graphics to make up for it. In "Cars" Pixar has come up with a strong story, beautiful images, intriguing themes, and endearing characters. I enjoyed every minute of it.