When Toy Story debuted in 1995, it marked a new era in filmmaking: the computer age. Since then, computer generated animation has become the standard for cartoons on television and in film, even if they are drawn to look two-dimensional. Moreover, not only did the movie advance animation technology, it was also a splendid film in any form. Woody, Buzz and the rest of the toys rank with Ariel, Belle, Aladdin and Shrek as some of the most memorable and beloved characters in the movies. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences even awarded Toy Story a special Oscar for its watershed moment in film history.
Since then, Pixar has turned out blockbuster after blockbuster of critically lauded films–a feat unmatched in Hollywood. At times, they’ve even produced modern classics. Along with Toy Story, movies like The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, and Wall-E have earned loyal fan bases, while the studio’s filmography has won a combined 13 Academy Awards and two nominations for Best Picture: Up, and Toy Story 3. But if the Pixar films stand tall above most of Hollywood’s output–animated or otherwise–how do they stack up against one another?
That’s what we’re here for. Submitted for your consideration, approval, derision or just a fine way to spend some time, here is our ranking of the Pixar filmography.
16. The Good Dinosaur
Pixar’s lone flop movie has already come and gone, and most of the public has forgotten about it. That’s for the best. The Good Dinosaur had major production issues, with revolving door of writers and directors, multiple restructurings, and cast changes. It opened to disappointing box office and mixed reviews, which for any other major studio release would be considered average. This is Pixar, though, and given the pedigree of films coming out of the studio, The Good Dinosaur ranks the weakest, though it’s still better than most of the dreck out there.
15. Cars 2
The first Cars proved a solid critical and commercial hit, and it generated a honeypot of wealth from merchandise sales. Given that Disney owns Pixar, and the former’s penchant for slapping their products on everything, a sequel became a foregone conclusion. That doesn’t invite a good film, however, and Cars 2 opened to critical lambasting. The movie has all the signs of a film made to sell toys, including an overstuffed cast and ever-shifting locations. As a Fast and the Furious sequel, Cars 2 offers some fun, but as a Pixar movie, indeed, a sequel to Cars, it’s just plain bad.
Pixar had trouble marketing Ratatouille, a movie about a French rat who wants to be a chef courtesy of its esoteric title. The plot also didn’t help–the talking rat makes friends with a human by pulling his hair, and helps him become a famous chef as well. A movie that focuses on recipes, a love triangle between two people and a rat, and frozen food marketing doesn’t exactly play to a family audience. A petty swipe at critics, embodied by the character Anton Ego (notice the last name) also comes off antagonistic. It’s as if director Brad Bird wanted to say to the audience “hey, my work is great, and if you don’t like it, it’s because you’re stupid and a catty b*tch!”
No, Mr. Bird, your film just isn’t very good.
The first outing of the Cars characters proved watchable enough, even if its greatest achievement came in the form of merchandising revenue (see #15). It does offer some fine characters and performances, including Bonnie Hunt in a rare film role and fine turns by the late Paul Newman and Larry the Cable Guy, but the story is a by-the-numbers Hollywood meets small town America tale. That it also teems with nostalgia and opines for a “kinder, gentler America” (which always translates to a more homogeneous and bigoted one) also makes it an uncomfortable watch…unless maybe it’s showing at a Republican fundraiser.
12. Monsters University
Prequel films, by nature, pose dramatic problems for filmmakers: how can a director build suspense if the audience already knows the foregone conclusions the movie must adhere to? How does a writer approach characters less-evolved than the last time viewers saw them? Monsters University suffers from some of these perils, though it still manages to deliver a great share of laughs and engaging story. The winning cast, headed by Billy Crystal and John Goodman also make the film worth watching, even if never quite takes flight.
Brave offers a fantastic lead character in Merida, the tomboyish Scottish princess, not to mention the outstanding, varied and interesting cast–Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson–that Pixar loves to assemble. The story, however, is just plain weird: a young girl rebels against her parents, and her family turns into bears? What could have been a wonderful and, pardon the expression, brave exploration of pan-gender friendships and female leadership takes the easy route, relying on fairy tale contrivances to move its plot along.
10. Toy Story 2
Pixar and Disney had a heated dispute over sequels to Pixar films: Disney owned the rights to sequels, and wanted to produce them on the cheap, something which horrified Pixar. Toy Story 2 represents a sort of compromise before Disney and Pixar split, only to have the former buy out the latter. Still, the film offers a fresh and interesting adventure for the beloved Toy Story gang, and introduces some new characters worthy to stand alongside the returning favorites. While nowhere as groundbreaking or emotionally powerful as the other Toy Story outings, it offers a clever story and lots of fun.
9. Inside Out
Pixar has a knack for creating gorgeous, surreal images and building an inventive story around them. Inside Out imagines the mind of a child as represented by a series of floating islands and personified moods that operate like an office crew. The movie also uses its premise as a metaphor for emotional well-being in a very touching way. Leads Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith approach their roles with vigor, and the film manages to entertain every step of the way, even if the characters don’t quite resonate as well as the premise.
8. Monsters, Inc.
A bit too cute for its own good, Monsters, Inc. nevertheless offers winning characters and a imaginative premise to make it a very good film. The animation also reaches a new level of technical finesse, particularly with the fuzzy character Sully, who manages to look real and animated at the same time! Chock full of humor and excitement, Monsters, Inc. is great family entertainment, visually arresting and even moving at times.
7. A Bug’s Life
Amid all the cuddly characters, cutesy tales and toys in the making, A Bug’s Life gets lost in the shuffle. It’s a shame: the movie offers great visuals and hilarious jokes as well as an engaging plot. Sight gags abound, and a terrific cast brings the characters to life. It may not rank in the top pantheon of Pixar movies, but A Bug’s Life certainly takes the title of most underrated.
Wall-E is a total animator’s movie: it relies almost completely on visual storytelling and sound effects to tell its story with very little dialogue. That does not, however, diminish its quality or entertainment value, nor does it make the characters less relatable or human, even if they are robots! Director Andrew Stanton creates stunning visuals with a lush color palate, though the real star here is sound engineer Ben Burtt, who manages to make leads Wall-E and Eve-E come to life and emote.
The premise of Up doesn’t make much sense: a balloon seller who makes his house fly away? Beyond that large conceit, however–mainly used to implement the surreal image of a house flying under a bunch of balloons–Up tells a poignant story of an aging widower and a boy in need of a friend. Exceptional characters, including Doug the talking dog and the gruff Carl Fredricksen, add to the excitement of an exotic adventure. The movie owes much of that drama to the casting of Edward Asner in the lead, who gives a performance of real pathos and depth.
4. The Incredibles
This is the comic book film studios have been trying to make for years: a wild adventure of spectacle with rich characters and plenty of heart. While the vivid story of The Incredibles ranks among the best of the comic book genre, the movie also works as a family comedy and a mid-life crisis drama. Ideally cast and featuring spectacular art direction, The Incredibles marks the best adaptation of Marvel’s Fantastic Four (even if not an official one), and fulfills just about every reason anyone would ever go to the movies in the first place.
3. Toy Story
In the annals of film, historians will forever measure eras by technology: sound, color, optical effects and CGI, with one film marking the beginning of each period. Toy Story will be one of those listed as ushering in a new era of visual effects. Yet, to proclaim as much does the film a disservice. Toy Story is fabulous entertainment, loaded with humor, layered characters and genuine emotion. A fantastic voice cast, led by Tom Hanks, gives across-the-board great performances, making Toy Story one of the greatest films of all time.
2. Toy Story 3
And yet, Toy Story isn’t even the best in its series! Cynics dismissed Toy Story 3 as a rehash of the original film: the toys get lost, get found, and live happily ever after. But the film is more than that. Toy Story 3 is the story of childhood’s end, and from both the child and the parents’ point of view: like young Andy, Woody and his friends must venture out into the world, and like his mother, they must let go of the child who has brought meaning to their lives. Both rights of passage make people examine their own mortality, and thus, so do the toys. The brilliant script by Oscar-winner Michael Arndt gives a new layer of complexity to the returning characters, and supplies new ones worthy to appear alongside the old. Ned Beatty’s performance as baddie Lotso creates one of the most sophisticated and evil villains in recent memory, and the perfect mix of adventure, humor and drama make Toy Story 3 one of the great movies.
1. Finding Nemo
Finding Nemo isn’t just the best film in the Pixar canon; it is, quite simply, the best film of the 2000s and one of the best in history. A movie that works as a buddy comedy, a road movie, a coming-of-age tale and a rip-roaring adventure, the film features nonstop splendid visuals, hilarious comedy and a score of great performances, lead by Ellen DeGeneres as the forgetful Dory. Finding Nemo subverts expectations at every turn, telling a story about a nurturing father, a plucky special-needs child, a man-woman bond that isn’t a love story, and a group of vegetarian sharks! Heartwarming, hilarious, exciting and original, it will remain a classic film for viewers of all ages for years to come.