Cars3DcoverGrade:  B+
Entire family: Yes
2006, 117 min., Color
Rated G
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1
Includes: 3D Blu-ray, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital Copy
Bonus features: A-

Cars begins in a surprisingly generic way, with a big race (the stuff of Saturday morning cartoons) ending in a three-way tie between two veterans and a cocky rookie named Lightning McQueen—the winner to be determined by a tiebreaker that will be held in California a week later.

McQueen is totally self-absorbed, so it’s no shock that he pushes his personal big rig, Mack, to get him there overnight . . . and it’s no surprise that the audience is instantly delighted that he gets an early come-uppance when Mack (John Ratzenberger) falls asleep and, startled by a bunch of highway hotwheels, accidentally dumps his dozing cargo in the middle of nowhere.

Make that the one-road town that time forgot: Radiator Springs. There, McQueen is towed off by a buck-toothed tow-truck named Mater (Tow Mater, get it?) and appears in court. Though the judge, Doc Hudson (Paul Newman), is willing to let bygones be bygones, the local attorney wants restitution, and McQueen is sentenced to repave the road. Hard labor, yes, but Radiator Springs is also his salvation. 

This detour plays out like an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, when a fast-lane, big-city businessman’s car breaks down and he’s “stuck” in Mayberry for the weekend. Though his attitude is one of superiority and disdain, it’s there that he learns to appreciate the little things in life—to slow down and smell those clichéd roses. It’s there, too, that he learns a lesson in humility and discovers that city folk are not superior to country folk after all.

Cars3DscreenWith that familiar human-interest story pushing the narrative and with Pixar animators finding a way to bring the voice talent’s personalities to the visual look of the vehicles, Cars begins to take on a life of its own, and you get drawn in. You find yourself wondering, for example, why Doc, who’s revealed to have a secret racing past, decided to put that part of his life behind him, or suddenly wishing that McQueen and Sally (Bonnie Hunt) would get together, or hoping that Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) is rewarded for his unconditional friendship.

Without the Radiator Springs detour and all of the opportunities for character interaction and development that it presents, Cars is just another contest or race movie—something we’ve seen a gazillion times over. But by the time McQueen actually gets to that racetrack in California, it becomes a test not just of speed, but a challenge to see if he’s learned anything at all back in Radiator Springs. It’s the story of his own journey from jerk to something approximating a nice guy.

Cars is also a nod to the popularity of NASCAR and an homage to America’s highway, Route 66—with numerous roadside attractions alluded to. It’s fabulous to look at, with dazzling animation and backgrounds, and with art design and set decoration that make each frame a kind of impromptu game of “I Spy.” There’s always something new to see, no matter how many times you watch Cars. The 3D isn’t as impressive as Monster’s University, but the added depth still makes for an improvement over the standard Blu-ray.