So I’ve recently been thinking of why the Cars movies feel so “off” to me in relation to other Pixar movies. It’s not just that they’re easily the lamest movies Pixar has made. It’s more that every other Pixar production takes place alongside the human world, either because the characters are human themselves or because they’re small enough or have limited enough interactions with humans that they can have their own stories that are somewhat independent of ours. However, Cars 1 & 2 don’t work that way, since logistically speaking, a lot of the stuff they do (auto races, for example) would never escape our notice.
So what’s the deal? One possibility is that the cars are actually Matchbox/Hot Wheels toys being manipulated by people, which would explain (a) why the cars aren’t cognizant of the humans’ presence, and (b) why the cars’ world feels like a sanitized kiddie version of our own. And hell, imagine how well that sets up a “gotcha” twist at the end of the inevitable CARS 3.
But I’m more intrigued by the idea that the Cars saga actually takes place in a distant future, long after some Terminator-esque takeover by the machines. With no more people- or animals, it seems- in the world, the cars would have the world to themselves. But since their entire history has been spent as slaves to humans, they have very little of their own culture on which to build. Therefore, they have to fall back on human institutions to create their own world, since it’s all they know. They build human-like towns, find human-like forms of entertainment, live and work and dress themselves in ways reminiscent of the way it was back when humans ran the show. Hell, they even set up human-like systems of government and business. In a way, it’s kind of like Lars Von Trier’s Manderlay. Sure, the cars are living in the past and have re-created a system designed to keep them subservient, but it’s the evil they know. And after generations of living this way, no one- not even Doc Hudson, who's the closest the Cars universe has to a Danny Glover figure- knows any better.
Of course, this theory doesn’t explain how the cars are able to talk by manipulating their bumpers- or for that matter, how the insects are tiny cars themselves. But still, thinking about these movies like this lends them a little bit more of an edge, even if it doesn’t necessarily make them better.