Disney+’s list of original animated programs is immense, which isn’t a surprise considering the number of IPs that they own. But quantity doesn’t always ensure quality. For example, out of eight of its animated series released in 2021, only one managed to do something substantial in terms of pushing the boundaries of the medium (yes, animation is a medium and not a genre). I am talking about “Star Wars: Visions.” The verdict is still out on their 2022 scorecard. “Ice Age: Scrat Tales” and “I Am Groot” seemed way too flimsy and inconsequential to make a mark. “The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder” and “Baymax!” made significant strides in terms of representation and telling stories that felt relevant. And it’s all up to “Cars on the Road” to tip the scales in the streaming platform’s favor.
The miniseries is written and co-directed by Steve Purcell, along with directors Brian Fee and Bobby Podesta. It takes place after the events of “Cars 3”, in which Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) saw himself going out of fashion and undertook a rookie under his fender, Cruz (Cristela Alonzo), in order to revive his passion for racing. At the end of that movie, we saw McQueen settling back in Radiator Springs and going for a race with Cruz. In “Cars on the Road,” we find out, as do the rest of the residents there, that McQueen’s best friend Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) has a sister named Mato (Dana Powell). And she’s getting married! So, Mater has to attend it, and McQueen decides to come with. But instead of taking a plane or traveling via Mack (John Ratzenberger), the duo settles on driving the distance.
The “Cars” franchise has covered a lot of genres. The first film was a slow-paced drama set in a small town where McQueen learned the importance of friendship and humility. The second film was a straight-up spy flick, and it just didn’t strike the right balance between McQueen and Mater. The third film, as mentioned before, was about McQueen finding a way to gracefully move past the fact that he has aged. However, it is truly wild that this franchise hadn’t exploited the one genre that it’s pretty much tailor-made for, i.e., road trips. Or maybe the people over at Pixar and Disney always wanted to do it but were waiting for McQueen and Mater’s friendship to blossom over the course of these three movies. Anyway, with “Cars on the Road,” it’s safe to say that the franchise has ticked off that box and, too, in splendid fashion.
Despite being set in the road-trip genre, Purcell, Fee, and Podesta spice it up with elements of history (set within the “Cars” universe, of course), comedy, horror, music, mystery, action, existentialism, and, believe it or not, meta-commentary about filmmaking. And it’s all in favor of furthering McQueen and Mater’s friendship while also showcasing their uniqueness. As is customary in all road trip movies and shows, the duo often gets into a fight over their differences of opinion. But whenever they are faced with something that is bigger than the two of them or are about to put their lives in danger, they always prioritize each other and get themselves out of that pickle. In a day and age when we are constantly opting for reactionary responses, it’s nice to see such a chill and wholesome depiction of friendship that highlights the importance of honest communication.
On a technical level, “Cars in the Road” is fantastic. Despite being an OTT release, the animation, the sound design, the music by Jake Monaco, the virtual cinematography, the editing, literally everything in the miniseries is on par with the three “Cars” films. Additionally, each episode (which focuses on a self-contained story) is so interestingly detailed. In the first episode, Mater and McQueen enter a Dino-car museum. The “historical” footage of these Dino-cars that Mater notices feature stop-motion animation that’s probably shot on a hand-cranked camera. So, when he dreams about it, he and McQueen move smoothly (at the standard 30 to 48 frames per second), whereas the Dino-car has a comparatively jerky and janky motion. The episode in which the duo stays in a car version of the Overlook hotel is a big homage to “The Shining.” But it’s the musical episode that takes the cake and will likely give the ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ scene from “Dumbo” a run for its money.
From a voice-acting perspective, it’s an out-and-out Owen Wilson and Larry the Cable Guy show. The supporting cast is undoubtedly great. But it’s Wilson and Larry who are constantly in the spotlight. To be honest, the focus is more on Larry than Wilson. I’ll tell you why. As McQueen, Wilson has nothing to prove. Time and again, he has shown that his laidback, cool, and deadpan line deliveries just work. In addition to that, the writing around him has been consistently good, with “Cars 3” giving both him and his character a legendary status. But “Cars 2” and “Mater’s Tall Tales” turned Mater from a friendly and important sidekick to someone who is overstaying his welcome. So, it was necessary to show the folks that Mater can be done tastefully, and Larry’s vocal prowess can be used in a fun, slapstick way. And that’s exactly what Purcell, Fee, and Podesta successfully have done here in “Cars on the Road.”
In conclusion, “Cars on the Road” is an incredibly fun, spooky, and action-packed little miniseries that’s brimming with beautiful animation, foot-tapping numbers, and timely messages about friendship, family, and self-acceptance. Every episode can be a feature-length movie on its own, especially the supernatural ones, as they bring up so many questions about the universe of “Cars.” Since Pixar has a habit of crossing over with other IPs, it can be interesting to see the “Cars” version of “Coco” or “Soul.” Owen Wilson’s voice is like a balm to one’s agitated soul. So, it’s always pleasing to hear him, well, do anything. But hearing him as Lightning McQueen will always be special. And it’s nice to see Mater get a fresh coat of paint. Of course, the painting is metaphorical. Because, as Lightning says, you can’t mess with perfection.