Pixar has not lost. It doesn't matter how you measure cinematic success – story, critical acclaim, box office, cultural impact, longevity – they've won every match. You'll occasionally hear someone railing against one of their films as "their weakest effort" and "[x] doesn't hold up," but this is generally one exaggerated opinion. Everyone is allowed a few of those.
But if we can all come to one tentative consensus of the one Pixar film that really is rather weak, it would be Cars. I almost hesitate to say it because it does have its passionate defenders (I'm sure we'll hear from them in the comments), but whenever you have a conversation about Pixar winners, the majority tend to single out Cars as the runt.
I think the explanation is a simple one: Cars fails at world building. It works beautifully if you're still in the single digits of your life. This is a time when you're only just beginning to discover logic, and the boundaries it places on the known world. So, it seems perfectly natural for anthropomorphic cars to live in a town, run hotels, and sit in stadiums to watch races. If you're six, you're probably not wondering how cars (who lack opposable digits of any kind) were able to construct something like the Cozy Cone Motel or the Wheel Well Motel. The latter is constructed in a canyon wall! How did a car do that? And why? Why would their world value natural surfaces like rock, grass, or wood when everything about a car screams chrome, steel, plastic, rubber and vinyl?
And let's get into the construction of a car. There are no people in the world of Cars. None. They have no real reason to exist, but they do. So who builds the cars? The cars themselves, obviously, but do they start out full-sized or are they babies? Why are there genders if they can't reproduce, and why do they feel love and attraction? If they're all made on an assembly line, where do the flying "bugs" come from and why would they construct such a thing?
If you're young enough, this doesn't bother you. The cars talk, Mater is funny, the races are exciting, Lightning isn't a jerk by the end, and that's all they really think about. Anyone past the age of 10 or so (I don't know what the cut off would be) immediately begins pulling at the threads of this world. Cars can't suspend older audience belief as neatly as they can with Ratatouille, which simply asks us to believe a rat can read, talk and cook. Many of us have wished for a magical talking animal; few of us have contemplated a world of man-made objects living independent of those who created them.
Someone is reading this and shaking their head, telling me I should be able to suspend disbelief and go along for the ride. (And Cars is a beautifully scenic ride.) But the problem is that the story clashes with simple viewing. Cars has a little morality tale, sure, and I imagine that's where kids are hooked and amused. But the adult frame of it is contemplative, asking audiences to sympathize with the vanishing world of Route 66, and the economic fallout of an interstate. I regret the passing of America's car trip heydey and all those cute little motels and shops that thrived in the midcentury. I would happily watch that lament. I don't even have a problem with the cars themselves telling me that story, as it seems fitting for them to be sentimental about long and scenic journeys. But I'm not sure it's effective when you're childishly insisting they built places like Radiator Springs, but without possessing hands.
I also wonder if this story is really too far removed from our heartstrings to have much of a lasting impact. The most beloved Pixar films – the Toy Story trilogy, The Incredibles, Up, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille – really hit our most vulnerable spots. They talk about the deep connections we have to our loved ones, and how much it hurts to lose them. They speak to our insecurities and our wildest dreams. Even A Bug's Life – probably close to Cars in lukewarm popularity -- tugs on those strings. Cars asks us to lament a period of Americana few experienced or deeply lament. And how does that play to an international audience, those who aren't invested in a place like Radiator Springs? In fact, they're built on centuries of pre-modern Radiator Springs. They're more pragmatic about a village vanishing than we might be.
I know I'm not alone in feeling this way about the film, just as I know many people were able to let go of those contradictions and enjoy Cars for what it was. (And I don't hate it. I think a lot of it is really cute and creative.) But it is the one film that isn't entirely embraced and raved about in the way Up is, and I think its internal dissonance is a big reason why. Cars is heartfelt, but it feels more like a film a Pixar competitor might have made.