PIXAR Animation Studios. I mean, do I need to introduce them? They’ve only made some of the best and most iconic family films of the past 20+ years, completely changing how family films are made in the process. While I will lament the loss of 2-D animation, it’s not necessarily PIXAR’s fault… They didn’t help, but it’s not their fault.
This is my ranking of 17 out of 18 of the released PIXAR films. You may disagree with my order, and you’re welcome to leave your own rankings in the comments. There are no truly bad PIXAR films, even the least good ones are at least mostly coherent narratives with good animation and defined characters. That being said– yes, this list only has 17 of the 18 movies in the PIXAR line-up. I’ll admit it. I haven’t seen Cars 2. Well, I haven’t seen it all the way through, and what I have seen, I barely remember. I look forward to your complaints.
This’ll be a long one, so let’s get to it.
17. Monsters University
Were you upset that Billy Crystal and John Goodman weren’t in Animal House? Then, buddy, I have the movie for you. Honestly, I kinda feel bad that I put this at the bottom of the list, but it just had the least of everything I was looking for for this. The animation is creative, but not in a way that wasn’t already explored in Monsters, Inc. The characters that aren’t from the original movie are mostly one-note antagonists/comic relief, most of whom I have trouble remembering. The messages, while topical and good for kids to learn, are also piled on top of each other like they couldn’t pick which one they wanted and so they just kept all of them. You can pick “You don’t need college to be successful” or “Sometimes your talents don’t match your dream” or “Just because you have expectations on you, doesn’t mean you can’t carve out your own path” or even “Don’t cheat” and that would have been fine, but they piled all of them on there. It was nice to see Mike and Sully again, though.
16. The Good Dinosaur
PIXAR was a little late in their Lion King/Ice Age mash-up film, but ignoring the derivative plot and one-note characters, this film is drop dead gorgeous. It was worth seeing in theaters just for the environmental animation alone. Everything, save the characters, was just about photo-realistic. And because it’s set in the Wyoming/Montana area of the US, you have some gorgeous landscapes to work with. I was half convinced that they’d just hired the people that did Planet Earth and animated the characters over it, it’s that good. The plot isn’t exactly inspired, the message about “making your mark” isn’t new, and most of the characters are forgettable. But when I revisit this, it’s going to be set on mute, I’ll put on some nice music, and just watch it.
Brave had a troubled production, which was a major contributory factor in its less than ideal product. Again, these movies are not bad, it’s just when you put them up against other PIXAR films, they miss the mark. Merida, however, doesn’t. One of the saving graces of this film is its main character, a worthy addition to the Disney Princess line, and PIXAR’s only entry thus far. She definitely deserved a better movie. So did Queen Elinor, King Fergus, and Mor’du. Much like with Monsters University, if they had stuck with the high fantasy, or the mother-daughter relationship, or the refusal of an arranged marriage, or the people turning into bears, they would have had a much better film. But given that this movie has two separate directors (as opposed to a directing team like Musker and Clements), four screenwriting credits, and a “Story By” credit, that wasn’t going to happen. Here’s to hoping Merida gets a better deal in another film.
14. Finding Dory
We’re now moving out of movies that I have direct criticism of and into movies I enjoy. Finding Dory was highly enjoyable, and certainly a different story than the original film, which was nice. I liked the gags with Sigourney Weaver, I liked Hank and Destiny, baby Dory is irresistibly adorable– there’s a lot of fun things in this film. It’s a fun film. I have trouble articulating what more there might be about this film, but that’s not to say that it’s not fun. Sometimes we forget that a movie can just be fun.
13. Cars 3
Cars 3, from all accounts, was a better sequel to Cars than Cars 2 was. It was certainly better than any movie called Cars 3 had any right to be. That teaser, with McQueen just hurtling through the air after a devastating crash shocked just about everyone, and, like a real car crash, left everyone involved disoriented. Was Cars 3 going to be… good? My first impression, I thought that it was a better movie than the original Cars, but after some time and consideration, it settled here. I think ultimately, there were places in Cars 3 that could have been done differently to make the story stronger, while Cars did a well enough job with the choices it made. However, the heart of this film is the relationship between McQueen and Cruz Ramirez, and there’s nothing like it in any other PIXAR film. The way they interacted was wonderful, and I wouldn’t change that at all.
12. A Bug’s Life
I’ll admit, A Bug’s Life is probably better than I remember it. It’s been a while since I last watched it, and I’m sure there are parts I’m forgetting about it. At this point PIXAR was trying to carve out its own identity, separate from Disney and Don Bluth and Rankin/Bass and the other big names in animation at the time. They were also trying to figure out the medium of CGI animation– what were its limits, and how could those limits be pushed? They’re still doing that, pushing their animation to be more realistic or more stylized. A Bug’s Life is a solid film, with some good comedy and memorable characters.
11. Toy Story 2
Toy Story 2 is great, but it’s more or less the same movie as the original, only with the subtext being brought forward into the text. The replacement of westerns with science fiction, Woody’s anxiety over Andy eventually outgrowing/discarding him in favor of other things, there’s even another Buzz that has to learn he’s a toy and not a real space ranger. However, the new characters all bring something new to these ideas. Wheezy and Jessie have been discarded and forgotten by their kids. Al is a great foil to Sid, a collector who prizes perfection and original condition and collectability over the original intent of toys. And Stinky Pete, being one of those collectibles, having no idea what it means to be a toy. Plus, Jessie’s song is one of the top 10 most emotional PIXAR moments, and that’s saying something.
Yes, it’s Doc Hollywood with brightly colored
plastic marketing devices cars as the main characters. Yes, it’s one of the highest grossing media franchises of all time. Yes, it’s essentially turned into a vehicle (heh) to sell toys. But if every film that was made just to sell toys had the care and effort that Lasseter put in to making Cars, we wouldn’t have as much of a problem with the concept. Because the PIXAR model is always story first, and Lasseter wasn’t actually looking to make a movie to sell toys. The movie, if you actually go back and watch it, is more about how you need to slow down sometimes so that you can appreciate life (which Lasseter was attempting to do himself), and is a heartfelt love letter to the Mother Road, Route 66. It’s a better film than you remember, I bet.
9. Monsters, Inc.
The high concept for this film is essentially What if the monsters in your closet were unionized? which is not a bad high concept. It’s in the execution though, that really makes this movie. As much as I derided Monsters University for its lack of creativity, it is only in reference to just how visually creative Monsters, Inc. is. Between the accommodations for the various sizes of monsters, to how the monster kids played, to how the monsters worked, there was immense thought put into how the whole world worked. Plus, we saw advances in animating humans with CGI with Boo. And the story itself is an absolutely wonderful variation on the standard PIXAR formula (explained by Jonathan Carlin here). The relationship between Boo and Sully is completely charming and John Goodman and Billy Crystal are fantastic.
8. Toy Story 3
Toy Story 3 came out at just about the right time for me to watch it. I was in High School, thinking about where I was going to college, and so Andy was just at that next step. And for reference, I still have books and toys that I can’t remember ever not having. That being said, the movie is spectacular. It continues on the themes that were built up in the first two– the idea of kids eventually outgrowing and giving away their toys, the toys wanting kids to play with them– but adding new ones as well. Many of the toys from the first two are already gone, and so the transition has already started. Losto has a similar backstory to Jessie, but takes a darker turn than she does. And Andy finally giving away his toys at the end is a gut-punch in the way that only PIXAR can pull off.
WALL-E is gorgeous in every way a movie can be. The desolation of the earth, the shots in space, the Axiom– everything is amazing. The integration of the music from Hello, Dolly! is also ingenious. The only fault this movie really has is that it’s a bit ham-handed in getting across its messages. Sure, it’s a case of Some Anvils Need To Be Dropped, but given how PIXAR excels at subtlety in its other films, it’s a bit of a let down, I guess. Still, that doesn’t make it any less of a fantastic film.
This movie is mostly known for its heartbreaking prologue that shows the audience Carl’s relationship with Ellie before her death. And yes, those 10-15 minutes are fantastic and emotion in all the best ways. But that’s not the whole movie, and the rest of the movie is highly underrated when it comes to PIXAR’s works. On top of Carl learning how to cope with Ellie’s passing, there’s a great lesson in how you should interact with the people you look up to and the people that look up to you. Kevin and Dug are highly enjoyable comic relief, the villain is equally menacing and sympathetic, and the South American setting is very visually interesting.
5. Toy Story
Toy Story is, at this point, a classic. It’s hard to say anything about it, good or bad, because it’s such a monumentally important film that there’s already been so much said about it that I’m not sure what I could add. It’s Toy Story. It not only created the opportunity for a new medium, it told a fantastic story. On some level, they knew it had to be good, or else the medium would die in its inception. The PIXAR story doesn’t start with Toy Story (in fact, it starts with Star Wars), but Toy Story is an important early milestone.
4. Finding Nemo
Two of the hardest things to animate well in CGI are water and hair. So between Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc. early PIXAR had its work cut out for it. Finding Nemo is a wonderful adventure film with the least likely of protagonists, but the whole film runs on Marlin’s quest to get Nemo back and it works. The characters are memorable (hell, there’s a reason Dory got her own sequel), and each leg of the adventure is new and exciting and memorable.
3. Inside Out
The movies that PIXAR made right around the time that Inside Out came around I’ve already put on the list, and it was clear that PIXAR was in sort of a creative slump. Again, none of the films are particularly bad— any middling to average PIXAR film is still solid film-making from at least one perspective. But before Inside Out, PIXAR hadn’t put out anything particularly spectacular since Toy Story 3. In many ways, Inside Out was a return to form, both in story and technology. The animation of the emotions, the creativity behind how the mind worked, the story on the outside and how it was imagined on the inside and how the two are symbiotic with one another. Plus, being a movie all about emotions, it is great at getting the audience to react.
2. The Incredibles
The Incredibles is probably the best adaptation of Watchmen that we’re going to get right now, and it’s definitely the best Fantastic Four movie we have. It’s a darn near perfect movie, and it was really hard to choose between this and my number one pick. What’s great about this film is not just the story, and the characters, and the message, and everything, which is all great– what stands out to me usually is the many different ways they find to use the characters powers. We see them using them at home for chores and in fights, we see them on the island, lurking around and spying on Syndrome’s base, and we see them fighting crime and evil, and it shows just how much creativity they put into every detail.
Again, it was difficult to pick between this and The Incredibles, and I still maintain that The Incredibles is a near perfect film, but there’s one thing that makes it stand out for me, and that’s this monologue by Peter O’Toole’s character Anton Ego:
In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.
Emphasis mine. The absolute defense of art regardless of origin gets into some muddy waters sometimes, but if a rat can cook, who knows what might come from where? It’s a similar message to The Incredibles (and the fact that both films come from Brad Bird makes the thematic resonances that much clearer) but it is better stated than The Incredibles, I think.
So those are my thoughts. Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments! Like if you can, and there’s a nifty place in the sidebar where you can put in your email and get email notifications about when I post in the future.