The Pixar movie Cars was a huge hit when it was released in 2006 although critics thought it was not one of the studios best works. The inevitable sequel (toy sales for the original were extremely high) arrived this summer and the film was universally hailed as Pixar’s worst film yet but still managed to succeed at the box office. Having small kids, I watched Cars quite a few times and quite enjoyed it. The sequel does not live up to the magic of the original but is one of the best looking and sounding Blu-rays I have seen from Pixar to date.
Set after the events of the original film Cars 2 picks up with Radiator Springs booming thanks to the notoriety of Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson). He lives part time in Radiator Springs and has won four Piston Cups, now named the Hudson Hornet Piston Cup as a nod to the departed character, in effect honoring the departed Paul Newman who voiced him. Through a random series of events Lightning McQueen is invited to participate in a World Racing event hosted by alternative fuel magnate Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard). But this movie is not truly about Lightning McQueen and his races against Italian Indy car rival Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), instead it is about his rust tow truck friend Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). See through a very clichéd sequence of mistaken identities Mater gets involved in a tale of espionage and intrigue (seriously).
Cars 2 quickly introduces us to a couple of spies: The dashing, debonair and very capable British superspy Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and his assistant Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). They are tracking the nefarious Professor Zündapp (Thomas Kretschmann) and his shadowy (and secret) leader as the evil group tries to sabotage the World Grand Prix. Seems the group owns a huge expanse of oil platforms and if the alternative biofuel called Alinol is successfully used at the World Grand Prix then the need for oil could diminish.
Over the course of the film we are taken from Radiator Springs to exotic locals like Japan, Italy and England as the World Grand Prix progresses and Mater is pulled from one crazy situation to the next. Much of the previous cast returns as McQueen’s pit crew but are given very little screen time. For good or ill this is Mater’s movie as he shows that he is more than just an idiotic rusted out tow truck. The movie is bigger, explores the world made up of a culture of vehicles and ultimately falls flat.
The first movie worked, in my opinion, because it was a story that had heart. An arrogant and selfish race car is trapped in a small town and realizes that there is more to life than just winning. In Cars 2 they veered away from this heart, from what worked in the original and made a completely gonzo film that is far too big for its britches. Adding a spy plot that coincides with a race (that I found more interesting then the main plot) and framing Mater as the new hero coupled with mistaken identities and accidental heroics just doesn’t work.
Mater is entertaining as a sidekick, or in small one off segments but his goofy demeanor is not enough to hold together a plot like this one. The jokes are generally stale, the scenarios clichéd, things feel rather forced at times and the conclusion was guessed at by my 10 year old within the first half hour. My litmus test for movies like these are how my kids react, they watched Cars at least 30 times, Cars 2 didn’t last through a second viewing as of yet. It is a true shame because I think the world is intriguing, but the story they tried to shoestring around existing characters just didn’t work as well as it could.
Well, until now Pixar always delivered a great film and knockout visuals, the film itself isn’t great but wow does it look amazing on Blu-ray. I was expecting a lot as Pixar just gets better and better with fine details and imagery that has a really distinct look but Cars 2 blew me away with this stellar 1080p AVC encoded transfer. The color balancing and knockout textures are what really stood out. I know this is all CG so it is easier to get colors right but I don’t think I have seen colors pop this well in any Blu-ray I have watched. The night scenes in Japan in particular where outstanding, bright colors, textures that are touchable and black levels that are just perfect really had me leaning forward as I watched. This transfer, and in fact the movie itself looks absolutely perfect, it wasn’t enough to make the movie great, but it sure helped while watching it.
Like the video the audio in Pixar movies is always top notch and Cars 2 is no exception. This DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack is nothing short of exceptional and while I didn’t like the spy plotline it sure provided plenty of great audio experiences. From start to finish the soundtrack is flawless, the center channel delivers excellent and clear dialog and the surround channels continually deliver sound cues and location based audio flawlessly. Bass is handled very effectively with racing scenes delivering low visceral thrums and explosions pushing the effect into my bones. I watched this the first time with my kids so the audio was at a respectable level. On my second viewing I was alone and the audio just got better as I turned it up to an enveloping level. Small cues I had missed before came alive, pings and chatter all around me were more immersive. All in all this is a truly exceptional soundtrack and everyone involved with it from start to finish should be proud.
There are not very many extras and some of them are only available on the 5 disc 3D combo pack which is a shame. Everyone who gets this on Blu-ray does get a truly great commentary track and some nice animated shorts which I list below.
- Audio Commentary: Directors John Lasseter and Brad Lewis dig very deep into the world of Cars 2 in this incredibly entertaining and verbose commentary track. They discuss the film nearly non-stop and talk about locations, modeling, the voice actors, design choices and many other topics surrounding the film. Pixar and it’s processes are so fascinating that it made me want to like the film more then I did.
- Hawaiian Vacation (HD, 6 minutes): I love this short, in fact we have watched it a good half dozen times already. All the Toy Story actors return to voice their characters as they simulate Hawaii in Bonnie’s room to cheer up Ken.
- Air Mater (HD, 6 minutes): Not nearly as good as the other short but still amusing this has Mater recounting a tall tale that has him joining a stunt plane troop.
- Sneak Peeks (HD, 10 minutes): Trailers and promos abound, mostly forgettable stuff except for Pixar’s next title Brave.
The Final Word
I really liked the original Cars and was hoping the same magic was evident in Cars 2 but unfortunately instead of a personal story we are given a bloated spy adventure that simply does not work. The movie itself looks and sounds amazing but the scenario, jokes and characters just don’t mesh together as well as they did in the original film. This is the rare Pixar movie that does not hit a home run. It is not a terrible movie, but is far from what Pixar has proven they are capable of delivering. At least the package itself is top notch with video and audio transfers that will knock your socks off, for that reason alone the movie is worth a look.