Over two decades ago, my mother took me, a curious wide-eyed three year old, to see Toy Story. While I don’t really remember this theater-going experience, I do remember constantly watching (and rewinding) the VHS. I remember growing up with the likes of Buzz and Woody, and later Nemo, Sully, and Mr. Incredible. To say that Pixar influenced my love of film is an understatement. I have spent the better part of my life looking forward to each new release, perhaps longing to relive the wonder experienced in their early work.
What makes Pixar so great? While early Pixar was financed by Disney, they sure weren’t making movies that felt like traditional Disney movies. Gone were the fairy tale retellings, the sing-a-longs, and the kid-oriented approach to storytelling. Instead, Pixar films were more bold and mature, based on the idea that animated films weren’t only for kids and that kids don’t want to be treated as juvenile. Story, character, and emotion were king. Pixar set out to produce stories that children would enjoy, but that spoke to the inner-child of the adults watching as well.
In anticipation of the release of their 19th movie Coco I decided to undergo the momentous task of trying to rank every Pixar movie. None of these movies are bad, but one of them has to be #18 and one of them has to be #1.
18. Cars 3
This past summer, most reviews of Cars 3 praised it for being slightly better than Cars 2, but is that really a point of pride? Cars 3 is obviously a return to the billion dollar cash cow that is the Cars franchise. At least Cars 2 was daring enough to go in a different direction. Cars 3 returns to the monotonous holding pattern of race sequences and heartwarming reminiscing of race cars of yesteryear. In addition, there are only so many movies in which the audience will accept “Lightning McQueen needs to learn to be less of a jerk” as a viable character arc. Even when McQueen learns to accept coaching as a new calling on life, it takes him a frustrating amount of time to realize the immense talent of the young female racer beside him. This is the first Pixar film with a disappointing amount of narrative problems, making it an easy bottom pick.
17. Cars 2
Mater was Cars’ secret weapon, complimenting city-slicker Lightning McQueen with his genuine blue-collar demeanor and occasionally hilarious aside. However, no one was clamoring to see him in a James Bond spoof except those in Disney Consumer Products drooling over the opportunity to sell myriads of new products. In fact, how many times has a movie placing a sidekick or secondary character in the spotlight actually been worth watching? (see #11 on this list for a rebuttal). Pixar should receive some points for the radical departure from the original and attempting a globetrotting action-thriller. But what results is a glorified Mater’s Tall Tales (a series of short direct-to-TV animated films) and a disappointment for a studio following the triple punch of Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up.
16. The Good Dinosaur
Pixar’s lowest-grossing film, The Good Dinosaur was in development hell for years, battling production delays, story problems, and multiple different directors. It may be the only Pixar movie aimed directly at younger audiences, offering little substance for adults. There’s hardly a villain, no real stakes, and Arlo isn’t much of a hero either (in fact, he’s pretty whiny and annoying, not unlike the next protagonist on this list). Beyond that, The Good Dinosaur contains both the most beautiful macOS-background-like settings and the most elementary, cartoonish dinosaur designs. Maybe they wanted to resemble the drawings of the juvenile target audience, but it’s a major step back for a studio usually on the front line of technological advances. Ultimately, the movie’s heart is in the right place, but it’s not really worth recommending as it doesn’t pass the usual high standards.
For years Pixar had been dinged for not creating a film with a female protagonist, and didn’t help to be in the shadow of big brother Disney and their many princesses (although while I’d argue that not many of their female leads are great characters, they are at least represented). The first movie after the merger with Disney, Brave follows Merida, a princess who wants to blaze her own trail instead of being suffocated by the traditions of her kingdom and its…..okay? The entire plot could have been avoided if Merida just said “Hey, I turned my mother into a bear after I angrily asked a witch for a curse, so don’t kill the bear.” Also, the movie is filled with dumb slapstick that undermines any semblance of real stakes and emotion, the type of humor out of a subpar Dreamworks movie. However, Brave is a step in the right direction for Pixar and it’s representation of strong female characters, and the mother-daughter relationship is rarely explored in Disney/Pixar films.
14. A Bug’s Life
The folks at Pixar had no expectation of success with Toy Story, and so their second outing feels like a studio still trying to figure out their formula and as a result, A Bug’s Life feels less inspired than those to follow. It shows in its basic story: a mashup of Seven Samurai and The Ant and the Grasshopper with a classic little kid’s movie theme like “big things come in small packages.” It’s not that this is a bad film, just one that adults will not rewatch.
13. Monsters University
How many of us were clamoring to see how Mike and Sully became friends prior to the events of Monsters, Inc.? The biggest fault with Monsters University is that it’s a prequel that doesn’t need to exist – made worse by the realization that it’s the result of the studio’s agreement with Disney that sees Pixar creating a sequel/prequel for every two original films. The film benefits from the return of two of the studio’s most beloved characters, a brand new setting for a Pixar (or Disney) movie, and the result is quite charming and funny. The film’s message is also quite radical: “Sometimes, you can’t be whatever you dream to be, but there is always somewhere you fit in and will find joy.” It does lack an emotional pull, and perhaps that’s why it doesn’t quite leave the same mark on audiences as the original.
Cars is essentially Doc Hollywood meets NASCAR. In all seriousness, this is the Pixar movie that everyone seems to hate, but it is actually decent. Set in a world of living automobiles, the film relies on a classic trope: by placing ultra-competitive, self-absorbed Lightning McQueen in an slow town filled with ordinary folks like good ol boy Mater, he will learn to appreciate life so that he can become an even faster racer. The scenery is gorgeous, Mater’s constant jokes are pretty funny, and the montage that explores the loss of America’s working class is among the most adult of Pixar’s themes.
11. Finding Dory
Coming thirteen years after its predecessor, Finding Dory is a deserving follow-up. Director Andrew Stanton returns to similar themes of family and loss, this time from the perspective of Dory. The new setting and new characters are welcome, but don’t surpass the original. Where the film shines is in telling a story about living a life with a disability. By introducing us to these new characters with a variety of developmental disorders, Finding Dory leans into showing us that while disabilities may hinder some aspects of someone’s life, their differences are to be celebrated as well. The ending, which sees aquatic animals engage in a high speed car chase, seems to jump the shark (pun intended) and pushes what the audience will accept as plausible. All in all, these are the types of sequels, if any, Pixar should make – full of emotion, memorable new characters, and expanding on the original.
Alright, Alright, put your pitchforks down. While Up usually tops some Pixar ranking, let’s take a step back. When asked to remember what people remember about Up, most remember the house flying with balloons or perhaps the dog that is constantly distracted by squirrels. Plot-wise, this movie is completely overshadowed by the devastating opening ten minutes, which may be the best short film Pixar made. What follows is a pretty typical adventure plot, with a rather boring villain, whose main themes are never fully realized. Take away the opening, and Up is a lot less than you remember.
9. Toy Story 3
Ranking the three Toy Story films is nearly impossible, but I’ve got to put this one third if only because it’s Great Escape-style plot feels somewhat familiar. Coming over a decade after the previous entry, Toy Story 3 sees the return of favorites Woody and Buzz, and address themes such as mortality and the passing of time. The audience, having grown up with these toys just like Andy, has their heartstrings tugged not once, but twice at the finale and watching Andy pass his beloved toys on to Bonnie will always be a tearjerker. Toy Story 3 may be the most hilarious of the three. (Guys, Mr. Tortilla Head gets me every time)
8. Monsters, Inc.
Monsters, Inc. can be viewed as a buddy pic or a tale of friendship, but ultimately it’s a story about love. The fact that the relationship between a big blue monster and a small human girl who can hardly speak even works is a testament to the talent of director Pete Docter (who would go on to direct Up and Inside Out). Billy Crystal is hilarious as Mike Wazowski and the third act chase scene on the conveyor belt of doors is thrilling. This is the movie that proved Pixar wasn’t just the Toy Story guys and kicked off a string of classics that would dominate the 2000’s.
7. Inside Out
After a string of disappointments, there was a lot riding on the release of Inside Out and a hope that it was a return to form for the studio. Taking us into the mind of 11 year old Riley Anderson, Pixar delivered one of it’s most unique and expansive worlds yet. What makes Inside Out special isn’t the emotions (or Bing Bong, but yes, I’m crying now), it’s the way they tackle mature subject matter with high emotional intelligence and without talking down to children. One of its key messages – Joy’s revelation that all emotions are worth experiencing and shape us as people, and to explain to kids the value of sadness instead of suppressing it in favor of just being happy – is radical and bold for a children’s movie. However, Inside Out does suffer from the “Inception Effect”: it has such an inventive, expansive world that in order to convey it to the audience, a few characters are reduced to explaining everything. On any other list, Inside Out would rank near the top.
6. Toy Story 2
Toy Story 2 should never have worked. Disney initially envisioned it as a direct-to-video release, but, after initial reels looked promising, upgraded it to a theatrical release. Unhappy with the film’s quality, but also unable to move the established release date, the guys at Pixar rewrote the entire plot in one weekend and compressed the production schedule into nine short months. Miraculously, the film shows no signs of being rushed or the panic that went into making it. Expanding upon the world of the original without losing focus on the characters, laughs, or emotion, this follow-up continues to deepen the theme of embracing the future while also remembering the past. Joan Cusack shines as the rootin’-tootin’ cowgirl Jessie, and the “When She Loved Me” flashback sequence will always bring tears.
5. Finding Nemo
Director Andrew Stanton, after a trip to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, wanted to make a movie set in the ocean, but also wanted to address his own guilt over losing possible father-son bonding experiences by being an overprotective father to his young son. So, he made this emotional, riveting, visually beautiful film about an overly cautious clownfish on a desperate journey to find his lost son Nemo, with the help of the lovable, forgetful Dory (voiced by the excellently cast Ellen DeGeneres). Finding Nemo insists that instead of smothering those we love, we need to release them into the world if they are to survive on their own.
At the height of their critical success in the mid-2000s, Pixar made a movie about a rat who dreamed of being the greatest chef in all of Paris. It’s a testament to the creative force at Pixar that audiences bought this premise, and that it works tremendously well. Bolstered by a wonderful vocal performance in Patton Oswald as Remy, Ratatouille may be Pixar’s most grown-up film and the closest they will get to an art movie. The scene where Remy’s delicious ratatouille dish causes the once hardened critic Anton Ego to reminisce of his mother’s cooking and his childhood will always rank among Pixar’s best. As earnest as they come, Ratatouille is an example of a film only Pixar can produce.
3. The Incredibles
Superhero movies were on the rise in 2004, but director Brad Bird brought something unique to the genre by asking what it meant to be “great” in a world where uniqueness is frowned upon. The Incredibles effortlessly builds a world we seem to know, yet haven’t experienced yet. The film expertly mixes an emotional family drama with some of the most thrilling action scenes ever animated. Throw in a wonderful score by Michael Giacchno, some retro 60’s-inspired production design, and the best Pixar villain yet, and the result is one of Pixar’s best.
2. Toy Story
Twenty years after Toy Story‘s release, only the once state-of-the-art animation looks dated but it’s really a testament to Pixar’s continuing effort to push CGI animation to new heights with each new film. Otherwise, the studio’s freshmen outing remains flawless and sows the seeds for every great movie that studio has made since: genuine emotion, instant unforgettable characters, and lots of witty laughs (some of which go entirely over kids’ heads). Woody and Buzz’s battle for Andy’s attention and affection speaks to everyone’s fear of becoming obsolete, as well as the confrontation with time and the fleeting nature of childhood, a theme the two sequels expand upon.
There is no doubt that Pixar’s most original and most unique movie is also their best. There is no dialogue for the first half hour, and it’s a testament to the craft of writer/director Andrew Stanton that the audience falls in love with a robot. While the film is obviously a critique on the wastefulness and self-absorbed apathy of our current society, at the heart it’s a love story between WALL-E and EVE. WALL-E has been longing for companionship after many years of tireless work on desolate Earth and finally finds love . He is a kind, gentle protagonist of little words, yet much is said through his surprisingly expressive eyes. Wall-E is a masterpiece. Pixar has never been better.