An expansion of Pixar’s Cars universe was almost inevitable with Disney’s current world-building mindset for most of their narratives, but it was certainly surprising to see it would come to life as a collection of animated shorts titled Cars On The Road instead of an actual fourth movie in the series. After all, 2017’s Cars 3 was an improvement on its predecessor, and the movie seemed eager to keep developing these characters.
The third Cars movie led Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) to be mostly dedicated to training Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) while his own racing career took a backseat. That was the main dynamic established if Pixar ever decided to go forward with its sentient automobile world. Instead, this story is about McQueen going on a road trip across the country with Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) to attend a wedding.
Through nine shorts that become joyless homages to great movies, McQueen and Mater live very unexpected adventures, such as seeing ghosts and debunking a Bigfoot-inspired conspiracy. But that is as deep as the entertainment value goes. The show only wants you to recognize the references, instead of doing something creative with the shorts’ settings.
While the humor and action employed are what the franchise is known for, there is none of the movies’ spark to be found in this collection. The jokes fall flat and the characters’ charisma barely makes this story watchable. It is an uninspired attempt to revitalize a franchise with very little confidence.
The concept of Cars On The Road is a lot like last year’s Dug Days, where Pixar similarly tried to continue the story of Up without doing a full-fledged sequel. But coming back to these universes through shorts when they’re clearly designed for more structured and defined storytelling brings up the question of: “Why bother?”. It isn’t a matter of going big or going home, but a remark on how exhausting it feels to go on this animated roadside attraction tour as if it were an elongated business trip instead of a vacation.
Cars On The Road contains an overarching narrative within its shorts, with the protagonistic duo learning life lessons in a circus or a roadside dinosaur attraction. McQueen and Mater reflecting on why their friendship works while trying to get to the tow truck’s sister’s wedding certainly fits the criteria for a movie outline, but the show is severely damaged by providing story beats in spoofs that last around five minutes apiece.
This release strategy doesn’t allow for the characters’ arcs to feel organic because the episodes last five minutes, instead of the traditional twenty-two. There is no room to breathe and to feel the story unravel, there’s only getting from one parody set piece to the next, putting viewers in a position which is something more like watching a YouTube compilation than a TV spinoff of a flagship Pixar franchise.
However, not everything in these shorts provokes dismay. Owen Wilson and Larry the Cable Guy keep their friendship fun and rewarding after more than fifteen years. Their banter could’ve used a better script this time around, but they’re able to reflect a friendship that has clearly been around for years, providing a natural sense of familiarity and trust between the characters. And, what is perhaps most impressive, they leave room for the characters to keep growing together without the dynamic feeling repetitive, and succeed.
The interesting possibilities brought to the table by this collection of shorts are things that are only casually mentioned and not explored, even if just for humor. Car ghosts, car bigfoot and the car Hollywood industry are concepts which could be really fun to see brought to life. But going back to Radiator Springs without the intention of doing something new or flashy was absolutely not the best way to get back on track.
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