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Disney’s smash-hit ‘Cars’ races to winning DVD

Sean Sweany | Thursday, February 8, 2007

Pixar has done it again. The digital animation studio that has turned out such hits as “Toy Story” and “Finding Nemo” has once again made a movie that is funny, entertaining, engaging and thought-provoking at the same time with its 2006 hit “Cars.”

The John Lasseter (“Toy Story”) directed film was the seventh produced in the partnership between Pixar and Disney (and the last before Disney bought Pixar outright), which dates back to 1995’s “Toy Story.” “Cars” clocked in as the second-highest grossing domestic film in 2006 (behind “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest”) and was recently released on DVD.

The story centers around a hot-shot, rookie race car named Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) who wants to make it big in the racing world. In his quest to win a racing title, he comes into a tie with the old guard race car, The King (Richard Petty), and his rival, Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton).

A tie-breaker race is set, but on his way there, McQueen gets lost in Radiator Springs, a town set on the historic Route 66 that has been passed by in the era of the interstate highway. McQueen’s stay in Radiator Springs lasts longer than expected and through his interactions with the town’s few residents, who include the Porsche Carrera Sallie (Bonnie Hunt) and a 1951 Hudson Hornet “Doc” (Paul Newman), he learns that there is more to life than winning races and sponsorship money.

There is no doubt that “Cars” is different than any of the Pixar films that preceded it. There are no talking animals here, nor immediately endearing and recognizable characters and many critics cited these among the reasons why the film was not the smash success that the other Pixar films were. Film success must be viewed in relative terms, and while “Cars” was not a grand slam by Pixar’s standards, it still hit a home run by containing a stronger message than in any other Pixar film, being entertaining and by taking computer animation to a new level.

Indeed, computer animation has become Pixar’s forte, and the work done here does not disappoint. Turning cars into animate, living objects would seem a difficult task, yet every character in this film has as many distinct mannerisms and personality traits that one could expect from live actors. Everything is in the details, from the expressions of the characters’ eyes – placed on cars’ windshields – to how they use their tires as hands to subtle contortions of car structures to indicate both movement and emotion.

These animations are aided by excellent voice performances, especially by Wilson and Newman, with entertaining supporting roles voiced by celebrities including George Carlin, Larry the Cable Guy and even Bob Costas.

Aside from the characters, the Southwestern desert setting of the film is the most realistic yet for Pixar and the extended driving scenes capture perfectly images familiar to anyone who has taken a road trip.

Hanging over all of this is the film’s message – that in the frenetic whirlwind that is life, taking time to enjoy the simple things can bring great joy. Lasseter constantly weaves this theme in and out of the narrative without it become overly apparent. He also manages to tell a compelling story at the same time – a true sign of excellent filmmaking.

The DVD is light on special features, especially when compared to other Pixar releases. Several deleted scenes and one short featurette are all that give viewers insight into the making of the film, and one must wonder if the DVD was rushed into production without a full slate of extras.

In spite of this, “Cars” is still a delightfully entertaining and meaningful film worthy of purchase on DVD. It is clear that Pixar still has the magic when it comes to computer animation.