Disney // 2006 // 116 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Chief Justice Michael Stailey // November 30th, 2006
The journey in life is the reward.
Pixar grows up, with a message picture that's more impressive than many of today's live-action films.
Rookie racing sensation Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) has taken the Piston Cup circuit by storm and the rapid accumulation of fame and fortune has gone to his head gasket. However, on the road to what could be his greatest achievement to date, an unexpected detour opens his eyes to the power and beauty of life in the slow lane.
"I create feelings in others that they themselves don't understand." -- Lightning McQueen
Following the premiere of Toy Story 2, the wife of director and Pixar chief John Lasseter gave him one piece of advice -- if you don't slow down, you're going to wake up and your children will be grown and gone. This wakeup call inspired him to spend the summer touring the back roads of America in an RV with his entire family, bringing them closer than ever before, and inspiring John to craft a powerful message for the rest of us -- the most important things in life happen in those moments between here and there, when we care about something other than ourselves.
Expectations are the deadliest enemy to artistic endeavors, which is why Cars opened to mixed critical reaction. Many felt it was the weakest entry in Pixar's feature stable. Others felt it lacked the comedy and heart of its predecessors. And still more felt they overshot their target audience of 8-14 year olds. What most critics and audiences failed to realize is that they were looking for one thing and missing the real point.
Lightning has everything going for him: he's young, talented, and confident. Unfortunately, he's also impetuous, callous, and oblivious to the impact his choices have on those around him. Pushing his driver, Mack (John Ratzenberger), beyond acceptable limits, McQueen winds up off-road, completely lost, and incapable of getting where he wants to go. What he doesn't realize is that he ends up where he needs to be. We all have lessons that must be learned in order to move forward, and they're often unpredictable, painful, and way outside of our comfort zone. By the time we get where we think we're supposed to be, we find out it's not at all what we expected or what we wanted to begin with.
It's very easy to get wrapped up in our day-to-day existence. We're constantly busy -- career, family, friends, school, sports, and any number of commitments. The hours, days, and weeks evaporate in a heartbeat. By the time we stop to take a breath, the world around us has changed. In the best cases, we've taken our loved ones along for the ride and we've all grown together. In the worst cases, we find ourselves alone, with friends and family having moved on, tired of waiting for us to carve out even the smallest amount of time to spend with them. What better metaphor to relay this wake-up call than the world of racing, where the only goal is to be the first to cross the finish line, no matter what the cost.
We all want to be successful, but we can't accomplish any of it on our own. While the driver might receive all the glory, it's the racing team who make it possible -- the coaching of the crew chief, the attentiveness of the pit crew, the support of the sponsors and fans. The minute we think we don't need help, the minute the adrenaline rush becomes more important than the reason, we cease to live. We're simply going through the motions.
Pixar exemplifies this philosophy. Its commitment to teamwork continually inspires their artists to new levels of greatness. At the beginning of this project, Lasseter took his team out on the road with author Michael Wallis to experience the magic and majesty of historic Route 66. He also brought in the legends of NASCAR, such as drivers Richard Petty, Darrell Waltrip, Jerry Nadeu, track managers Steve Page and Humpy Wheeler, and Fox Sports director Artie Kempner. The results are mesmerizing. From wayward Goodyear marbles to the camera moves on the track -- from the astonishing Arizona landscape to the cracks in the cement of Radiator Springs, every frame of this film feels authentic. In fact, there are moments when you will honestly forget you're watching an animated film. It's that impressive.
But for a film to succeed, it needs more than visuals. It needs purpose and heart. The performances of Owen Wilson (Lightning), Bonnie Hunt (Sally), Paul Newman (Doc), and Larry the Cable Guy (Mater) are the heart and soul of this picture. And that's not meant to discount or diminish the wonderful contributions of Tony Shaloub (Luigi), George Carlin (Fillmore), Cheech Marin (Ramone), Jennifer Lewis (Flo), Paul Dooley (Sarge), and Michael Keaton (Chick). It's just to say that those four actors infuse their respective characters with enough personality and life to make us laugh, tear up, and think about the choices we've made. And, more importantly, their characters show us how little effort it takes to make a difference in the lives of those around us. In terms of purpose, the story is simple and straightforward with very little unnecessary meandering. It accomplishes what it sets out to do, and does so quite effectively.
So where's the disconnect? Why so many dissatisfied audiences and critics? I think it goes back to expectations. Cars is not Finding Nemo, or Monsters Inc., or Toy Story. And the minute you begin to draw comparisons between them, you do this film a great disservice. Had Cars not been branded a Disney/Pixar film, I think it would have been lauded as a tremendous achievement. Instead, it's saddled with reactions like "it's okay, but it's not as good as The Incredibles." Would you make the same comparison between Superman Returns and The Lake House? Both films were made by Warner Brothers but one is a big budget blockbuster and the other a small thought provoking drama. Pixar is now 20 years old and a powerful asset of the Disney company. It's time we cut these guys some slack and let them experiment with the ability to tell great stories, be they comedies, dramas, thrillers, adventures, or musicals for kids, adults, or both. They've earned it.
Presented in 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen, the transfer looks flawless on an HDTV with a 1080p resolution upgrade. There's not a hint of digital tampering and the colors pop from the screen, most especially Radiator Springs' nighttime neon signs and the astonishing detailed landscapes. Do yourself a favor and freeze-frame a few of the race scenes and overhead driving shots. I challenge you to detail the difference between CGI and real life. The audio is presented in Dolby 5.1 EX surround and 2.0 stereo with THX optimization. It sounds fantastic on the surround system, but playing it on a standard definition DVD player and shown through an SDTV with built-in stereo speakers, the lower harmonics of the ambient sound and score seem to overwhelm the dialogue. Whether that's an issue with this particular TV set or a more pervasive 2.0 flaw, it may prove challenging to those with a more basic setup. It doesn't prevent the enjoyment of the film, but it is distracting.
Speaking of the score, Randy Newman has once again proven he's worth his weight in gold. The thematic shift between the frenzy of the race circuit and the unencumbered life in Radiator Springs is perfect, and some of these riffs will stay with you long after the credits roll -- an unusual occurrence for film scores these days. The soundtrack is fleshed out by an incredible lineup of talent -- Sheryl Crow, John Mayer, Chuck Berry, James Taylor, Rascal Flatts -- whose work is custom fit for Cars. Pay particular attention to the cuts by Brad Paisley. They truly enhance the story and the film.
The one gripe I have about this release is the lack of bonus features. Yes, there are a handful of deleted animatics, which show how far the story has developed from its origins. Yes, there is a wonderful 16-minute featurette on John Lasseter and the inspirations for the film. And yes there are two Pixar short films: One Man Band which played in front of the theatrical release (not all that impressive, I might add); and Mater and the Ghost Light a hilarious new story featuring everyone's favorite tow truck. However, for a Disney/Pixar release, this is bare bones. Where are the commentaries? Where are the development featurettes and production galleries? As a filmmaker and a Disney/Pixar junkie, I felt instantaneous pangs of unfulfillment when exploring this single disc release. We can only hope a special edition is in the works.
One tremendously sad footnote to Cars is the death of co-director and voice actor Joe Ranft. Joe passed away as a passenger in a single car accident on California's Pacific Coast Highway last year. The loss of any great artist and storyteller is a tragedy, but this one in particular leaves a tremendous void in Hollywood and the Disney/Pixar family.
Set your expectations of Disney and Pixar aside and see Cars with an open heart and mind. You'll be amazed at the beauty you find and the lessons you learn.
John Lasseter and company are hereby cleared of any and all charges leveled against Cars. You're now free to move about the real world unrestricted and draw inspiration for many more imagined worlds to come. Case dismissed.
Review content copyright © 2006 Michael Stailey; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2006 Nominee
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Animated Short: One Man Band
* Animated Short: Mater and the Ghost Light
* Featurette: Inspiration for Cars
* Deleted Scenes (Animatics)
* Official Site