The problem with Cars and its sequel (the imaginatively named Cars II) is really in the premise itself - talking cars (no, I'm not talking about Night Ranger, or the much earlier My Mother The Car) that behave and have all the emotions of humans - in fact it's a cars world and there ARE no humans. Truly, it's very difficult to emote from behind a car grill, and this, above all else, is why this Pixar franchise is wanting.
John Lassiter, the head Pixar guru, must have drooled over making a Cars version of the James Bond spy films - and he pulls no punches here, including an Austin Martin spy mobile voiced by Michael Caine (truly the best sequences of the film, as is the case with just about any film with Michael). The beginning sequence of spyness, showing all the cool things the Austin Martin can do is imaginative and fun - but then we return to our regularly scheduled broadcast involving the triumphant return of Lightning McQueen to Radiator Springs (although there is a bit of fun as Mater disguises himself as a snooty waiter at the classy restaurant).
After this bit the film becomes a road film with McQueen and Mater traveling to exotic locations as McQueen competes in the first ever World Cup. Of course, being a spy film there is an evil genius who has a laser type weapon (shades of Goldfinger and Golden Eye) that Michael Caine is trying to thwart and in an amusing sequence, somehow Mater gets involved.
As is the case with almost all animated features, one has to look at the film with an eye towards both types of audience; the children and the parents who perforce have to accompany the viewing. The thin line is trying to dumb down the messages and have silly things for the kiddies to adore, while having enough eye candy and adult puns and such to keep the parents from going comatose. The great films walk this tightrope with panache - here, the message is way too obvious and while, for the most part I enjoyed the name puns, the inclusion of all the lemon cars, and the offtimes stunning artwork (once they get out of Tokyo and all the insane neon lights) - yet still, the film seemed to lack that spark or soul that makes the best Pixar efforts really shine.
So, what's the final analysis? For children, I'm sure the story line and racing sequences and totally G rated emotional content were satisfying enough, but while I appreciated the spy angle it's hard to get behind the Cars as people concept, and in spite of some laughable sequences and fun puns (Brent Mustangburger - oh yeah!), there just isn't enough genius on display here (although if you look closely you can see the classic Alpha Romeo grill on the façade of an Italian church). I'm reminded somehow of Transformers - fun to look at, but somehow not something you can get emotionally attached to in any way (unlike say Toy Story).