Cars Blu-ray Review (updated with D-BOX)

Cars is one of a trio of Pixar titles, including Ratatouille and The Pixar Shorts Collection, Volume 1, marking the simultaneous debut for the fabled animation studio on Blu-ray Disc. Like its counterparts, Cars showcases awe inspiring visuals and audio ” perhaps the best of the bunch given the subject matter full of revving engines and shiny new coats of paint. Unlike the others, Cars offers the most impressive uses of interactive special features to land on a Blu-ray title yet.

After cruising through one stellar blockbuster animated film after another, Pixar’s golden boy John Lasseter teased us with the first underwhelming footage to ever surface from the animation studio; a talking arrogant sports car and annoying redneck pickup truck. It reeked of mediocrity and, at the time, signaled what appeared to be the first blemish in Pixar’s perfect track record.

Disney and Pixar's Cars on Blu-ray Disc

I found it easy to forget that even though the Cars teaser trailer was poorly received, this is Pixar, after all. John Lasseter and his overly talented cohorts have proven time and time again they can do no wrong, even as the company’s relationship with Disney hit rough waters. If anyone could turn the trash imagery of two talking cars into a worthwhile film, the company spawned from Industrial Light and could” and they did.

Lasseter explains in one of the extra features that Cars is the ultimate personal film he’s always wanted to make. The story of a flashy sports car living in the fast lane suddenly stranded in a sluggish old Route 66 town time has forgotten combines his childhood love of cars with his heavy workload and struggle to balance it with quality family downtime. This message will hit home with a lot of viewers whether they pick up on it during the film or while thumbing through the featurettes. Hearing it come from Lasseter’s mouth offers a new level of appreciation for what he and his team have pulled off.

Lasseter doesn’t attempt to rebuild the storytelling wheel in Cars or walk blindly into the unknown as Brad Bird did with Ratatouille. Instead, he borrows heavily from the pacing and characters found in past films to make these talking cars simply “work” on-screen. Like Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story before it, the outcome is obvious from the get-go and clichés and life lessons lurk behind every corner. But this type of storytelling is what Pixar does best, and in that respect, Cars fits in perfectly with its predecessors whether you’re a fan of automobiles or not.

Never was there any question Cars” high-def video presentation would be even a hair less than superb after the previously released DVDs exceptional 480p picture. From the rusty, washed out Route 66 to the shiny glamour of the race circuit complete with asphalt nuggets kicking around the track, the benefit of full 1080p brings us Cars not unlike how Pixar must view the master in their private screening room. I dare anyone to argue Cars is not one of, if not the best looking Blu-ray Disc title released to date.

Disney and Pixar's Cars on Blu-ray Disc

On the audio front, a PCM 5.1 48 kHz/24 bit mix is just what the world of Cars needed to round out the high definition experience. Engines roar and tires squeal with pure authenticity as if sitting front row at a NASCAR race. The rear surrounds are given an exhausting workout, most notably during the opening race where cars whiz past the camera at insane speeds. Pixar has never been one to shy away from impacting aural mixes, and Cars is certainly no exception to that welcome unwritten rule.

A large field of cars racing around a track must have looked like a giant pot of gold to D-BOX’s Motion Code designers. Movement, speed, engines revving, collisions; all the ingredients to choreograph a memorable D-BOX sequence are right there in the film’s opening act. After taking in Cars with D-BOX from start to finish, that scene will be queued up many times over for an encore performance.

The Cars D-BOX crowning achievement starts in the opening race when Lightning McQueen is bumped off the track and side-skids to a stop in the grass. D-BOX replicates this sensation to perfection by slowing applying a rumbling sensation that builds in intensity as McQueen heads towards the camera. When McQueen snaps to a halt with a split-second rebound towards the direction he came from, the D-BOX Motion Code performs the exact same movement with the chair.

McQueen’s unfortunate set-back is just an appetizer as the main course is just around the corner. A massive accident sends cars skidding and flying in every direction imaginable that begins a two-to-three minute intense and beautifully coded D-BOX experience. The sensation of being in the cars as they struggle to stay straight, weave through the pileup’s smoke and get blindsided by other cars is amazingly realistic and true to the action on-screen. This all culminates in McQueen catapulting himself off the tires of an overturned car to escape the wreck, an airborne feat D-BOX handles by making the chair feel as if it’s magically floating off the ground.

While this action sequence is coded aggressively by the designers some of the second act material doesn’t quite receive an equal amount of motion love. A where Mater and McQueen sneak up on tractors to “tip them” is almost devoid of motion except for the sputtering of the tractors exhaust as they topple. D-BOX should have been utilized here to simulate crawling through the grass towards the tractors.

Another scene with McQueen and Sally driving through the country, along with the final race, utilize a lot of wide-angle shots where the chair remains motionless. This creative decision is deliberate by the designers as motion is reserved for action closer to the camera. My personal preference is for the chair to remain moving during an action sequence regardless of distance, even if the movements are barely noticeable on long lens shots.

Despite these gripes, the opening race tips the scale in Cars” favor and makes it a D-BOX experience worth checking out.

Extra Features
I was fairly critical of the lackluster attention paid towards special features on the standard DVD release. Cars was blessed with roughly half the material previous Pixar efforts have garnered. Perhaps Disney and Pixar were saving the best for Blu-ray Disc, as what they’ve included in the Radiator Springs and Pixar Animation Studio Tour areas of this release are a glimpse at the future of interactive home video.

A pit stop in Radiator Springs reveals the BD-J authored Car Finder Game which runs the entire length of the feature film. In short, the game forces viewers to click on one of five cars shown at the bottom portion of the screen while the car is shown in the film, pick out select cars in order from a crowd shot, or pick out the correct version of a car when mixed with two incorrect subtle variations. What sounds like a kid-focused game is challenging for adults, even savable at any point for future tries at the high score. Watch out, though; accompanying the game is an encyclopedia of all the film’s cars sure to force any father to pick up the metal toy versions for their kids. Additional goodies in Radiator Springs include 1080p versions of Boundin” With Cars, Mater & the Ghostlight, One Man Band, and full-screen versions of the film’s Epilogue.

The Pixar Animation Studios area is almost what a second disc could have brought to the standard DVD. Only with the benefit of BD-J, Disney has been able to incorporate the most clever in-movie dashboard developed yet with Cine-Explore while other studios toil with picture-in-picture functionality. Cine-Explore is a glorified car dashboard that sits on the bottom portion of the screen while the movie plays. On the left panel are buttons offering the ability to switch between the Director Commentary and Production Commentary, complete with window boxes that appear to show you who is talking early on and what they look like. In the middle are Documentary Shorts and Deleted Sceenes that can be jumped to at select points in the film. And on the right is an Art option that, when activated, shows the film’s artwork relevant to scenes playing at that time. Polishing this great interactive film watching experience is a choice between auto-mode, which activates all of these features, or manual-mode, allowing the viewer complete control to turn on and off any feature at any time during the film.

Disney and Pixar's Cars on Blu-ray Disc

Remaining special features include quick links to four Movie Showcase scenes for demo purposes, Inspiration For Cars (16:02), an insightful documentary exploring John Lasseter’s fascination with cars and how the film is a reflection of that, and five Deleted Scenes (14:00) in animatic form. One deleted animatic scene, Traffic School, was not available on the standard DVD.

That DVD is long forgotten after experiencing Cars in high definition audio and video on Blu-ray Disc. I wouldn’t have complained had there been no extras given the presentation quality, so the creative and fun uses of BD-J for fun time wasting games and easier access to information is another checker on the flag. Cars has set an extremely high bar for all upcoming high profile Blu-ray Disc releases, Disney and Pixar’s own included.

– Dan Bradley

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