Forgive me for stating the obvious, but Pixar has a lot of really good films. In their storied career, it’s incredible how many times they’ve changed the landscape of cinema and animation, redefined our perception of what a film can become and blown us away with stories centered on superheroes, robots, monsters, cars, lost fish, cooking rats, discarded toys and old men in flying houses. It would be a honor to know a variety of these films are associated with your name, let alone all of them. And while some were easier to rank than others, I’ll confess upfront that there hasn’t been one I outright disliked yet. To be fair, there have been a few that have gotten close, and I’ll talk about those more in a bit, but Pixar has yet to leave me in a theater completely unsatisfied. Each of these films are special in their own right, even as the studio’s output is now a little more formulaic in its approach. And with today’s release of Finding Dory, their 17th original animated feature, it’s only appropriate to look back on every time they’ve gone to infinity and beyond.
17. The Good Dinosaur
Several Pixar movies have their fair shares of ups-and-downs, especially these past few years. With The Good Dinosaur, however, the studio makes their first consistently average film. Beyond the always-stellar animation they bring to the forefront, there’s nothing to distinguish their 16th animated feature from any number of CG-animated films of late, let alone the better films the studio has made before. After an extremely interesting premise, “What if the meteor missed and dinosaurs didn’t go extinct?”, the wishy-washy family feature goes through-the-motions to focus on an insecure child-dinosaur who must prove his worth after his father is killed and he’s left astray from the rest of his family. It’s neither an original nor interesting story, and it doesn’t help that the main character isn’t all that likable or sympathetic to begin with. And boggled down by a run-of-the-mill return-home road trip story, it’s one of the few times where you wished the supporting character — Spot, the animalistic caveboy — was the real main character, since he’s much more lively and attentive than our wimpy lead, despite never uttering a word.
But it’s not all bad. There are some genuine moving moments, the kind you come to expect from Pixar. The richness of their landscapes and designs is always present, and it’s evident the animators had some fun, particularly during a wholly out-of-the-blue drug sequence mid-way through. It’s just a shame that, with such a great, interesting premise, they had to settle for such a generic story. There were more-than-a-few reported problems on this one, and it kinda shows. It’s not as bumpy as you would think, but it lacks that spark, that big bang that makes the best Pixar movies such instant classic. As a result, even with some of the best animation in the world, The Good Dinosaur comes across a little too prehistoric to stand toe-to-toe with its peers.
16. Cars 2
I’m going to be honest: I don’t hate Cars 2. In fact, I actually sorta, kinda like it. Now listen, it’s far from their greatest film. Even a dumbo like me knows that. It does deserve some ire thrown its way. It’s a messy, commercialized, annoyingly by-the-numbers spy parody centered around a one-time supporting character that has no real right to have his own film. That character in question would, of course, be Mater, voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, a.k.a. Dan Whitney. And its release officially marked the end of Pixar’s golden era, a time when hit after hit after hit suggested they were here for the long haul. But with all that said, what’s most enjoyable about this Cars sequel is how refreshingly simple it can be, much like it’s main character.
To put it bluntly: this 2011 sequel lacks the invigoration, that spark, that made the previous Pixar films so stupendously good. But there’s still enough clever visual gags and enjoyable character work to make it all worthwhile. And Cars 2 is decidedly a straightforward summer movie, even though it should have been a little more. I’m hesitant to call it a bad movie, like so, so many of my peers, since I believe there’s some punchy humor and well-crafted action sequences to make it all worth the time, money and effort invested. But it’s evident this Pixar vehicle could have used some more fuel.
15. Finding Dory
Whether people admit it or not, Finding Dory and Cars 2 suffer from a lot of the same problems. As far as Pixar sequels go, it feels like the company is treading water a little bit with this one. But in terms of general quality and execution, this Finding Nemo sequel aligns closest with Monsters University. There’s no real reason why Dory should have her own movie; she was already a little overused in the original. And, indeed, her fairly one-note character gets a little too old a little quick here. But packed with all the warmth and emotional gravitas that fans have come to expect from the animation powerhouse, Finding Dory has just enough going for it to have it stay float, even when it falls victim of unsteady waters.
While I’ve never been a big fan of Ellen DeGeneres or her comedy, I’ll admit she gives a sincerity and a tenderness to the role that not easy to find elsewhere. And while Finding Dory, much like Finding Nemo, always nervously walks the fine line between laughing with Dory and laughing AT Dory — particularly at the expense of her disability, which can often sour the comedy beyond its general repetitiveness — there’s something rich about Dory’s journey that makes it feel purposeful in its telling, if not especially vital. As far as Pixar goes, this is a fairly middle-of-the-road sequel, propelled more by its emotions than its storytelling virtues. Playing more like what we would expect from a DreamWorks Animation sequel than from the studio that brought up Toy Story 2 and 3, Finding Dory has just enough going its way to keep it swimming ashore, but it’s also appropriately pretty forgettable too.
While Cars isn’t necessarily a bad film, for Pixar, it’s a weird use of resources. While developing a universe filled with humanoid automobiles with expressive faces and motormouths is no stranger than some other films in this list, John Lasseter’s long-brewing passion project never quite justifies its existence quite as well as they did. There are always so many questions left unanswered, like, “Was this a human world that was overtaken by cars, AI-style, or did cars always run this world?” Or, “If this is, indeed, a car world, were the cars created by someone, like a car God, or did they simply exist?” Or, “What would a car god be like? Would He be a bigger car, or is he simply just a god who watches over self-driving cars?” Or, “If there is a god in this world, how does he make the cars? Does he have a giant factory in the sky? Does he simply will them into existence? Does he use parts from used cars to make new cars?” Or, “do cars in this universe grow up, or are they simply born as adults?” I’ll spare you the next 50 questions; I think you get the general idea. Nothing makes a lick of sense, but that’s okay. It doesn’t really need to, so long as the story is interesting, the characters are entertaining and the world is interesting. And how does it fair by those standards? The answer: good enough.
The characters range from good-to-bad, as some are little more than irksome stereotypes, while others are genuinely pretty compelling personalities, like Doc Hudson, voiced by Paul Newman in his final role. The world itself is inspired and often amusing in its conception, but at the same time, it’s not as funny, interesting or lively as the ones in, say, Toy Story, The Incredibles and/or Monsters, Inc., just to name a couple relative examples. And the story itself is basically just Doc Hollywood with talking vehicles. What results, then, is a production that’s not necessarily poor, but failing to reach top gear. Is that a proper car analogy? There are some well-observed character moments, some beautiful imagery (as always) and tons of noteworthy visual gags, but it’s ultimately a lesser effort for the animation company, and an unexpected sign of what was to come in the next decade.
Cars 3, for better or for worse, is set to become our 18th Pixar film, and we’ll have to wait until next year to see how it holds up. Unless, you know, you skip it. In the meantime, however, the Cars films are not among the best the studio has produced, but they’re not quite as bad as some people suggest either. I mean, I would much rather watch them before I’d view the Hotel Transylvania films again, revisit the Ice Age sequels or watch the Open Season “series.” I suppose that’s something to ram its engine.
13. A Bug’s Life
Do you know what Kevin Costner, True Detective and Pixar all have in common? They’ve shared their share of sophomore slumps. And though it would be unfair to suggest The Postman or True Detective season two are on par with A Bug’s Life, the animated film is still, nevertheless, a disappointing follow-up to Toy Story. Granted, it’s enjoyable enough. There are some great supporting characters, a few backdrops are fun and it has a pretty solid villain in Hopper. But without any lead characters as fun or invigorated as Woody and Buzz, it often swats away its potential to settle somewhere along the lines of pretty good.
These days, if A Bug’s Life is really remembered at all, it’s often in correlation to Antz, DreamWorks Animation’s rebuttal to Pixar (that actually got released before). Both have their strengths and weaknesses, but what ultimately puts them both down are their rather generic storytelling. Antz has something of an upper hand, since its more coarse sense of humor allows for some more consistently funny jokes, but neither really stand the test of time because neither really captures an emotional pull. Both often seem more preoccupied with besting one another that they don’t really stop to make themselves better instead. Like two ants competing to give the better present for their queen, they both feel a little rushed and a little less than graceful in their presentation. The character designs are often not as inspired and the animation isn’t quite as great as what we’ve seen from the studio before. Neither are bad, but neither are great either. Their accomplishments, then, are ultimately a little miniscule.
12. Monsters University
As I’ll note a little later done in this list, there was no real need for us to learn about Mike and Sully’s backstory. Everything we needed to know was already felt in the first movie. But Pixar, now officially in the sequel, prequel and anything in-betweenquel phase, decided it was time to dust off that old story and see what they could dig. The result? A prequel that’s funny, likable and appealing on its own right, but one that doesn’t quite capture the charm and sophistication of the original. For the most part, it’s a silly wink at the ’70s/’80s college party movie. You know, your Revenge of the Nerds, your Animal House, your Back to School, what-have-you. It’s odd to see this kind of satire directly largely at children but, hey, why question Pixar now? They (usually) know what they’re doing, so why mess with the method?
At worst, Monsters University is kinda bland. It’s still a good movie, especially towards the beginning and most especially towards the last act, which is simply terrific and genuinely filled with a couple surprise twists. But it’s that middle act that just sorta, you know, settles — particularly by Pixar standards. Like a fazed-out college student living their days on ramen noodles and some local agriculture, this film tends to have a habit of coasting by, making the most with “pretty good” when it could strive harder for excellence. It is fun to see Sully and Mike during their early years, but at the same time, there’s no real hard-hitting conflict because we know they’ll get together in the end. That’s the danger with prequels, and often with ones like this one, you have to settle for time devoted towards setting up characters and actions to come, even if they don’t really have an impact on the story-at-hand (Randall’s origins come to mind here). It gets a little annoying at times, but such is the territory.
Nevertheless, while never living up to the high standards of the original film, Monsters University puts in some extra credit hours in a few unexpected areas. It might not graduate with cuma laude, and it won’t remembered as one of Pixar’s all-time classics, but it still gets good enough marks to pass the class.
To its credit, Brave starts out exceptionally good, on par with the best films the studio has put together. There’s a strong, self-dependent woman at the forefront (nice!), there are some gorgeous shots of animated Scotland and there’s some interesting mysticism carrying it along. Unfortunately, once it reveals its hand and goes the course with its paint-by-numbers mother-daughter fable, any and all intrigue fizzles out like a broken helium balloon. Our lead character becomes less reliable, the animated scenery is now familiar to our eyes and the cards have been dealt. There was some behind-the-scenes controversy where one director, Brenda Chapman, was pushed out and another, more “reliable” director, Mark Andrews, was put in her place, and much like The Good Dinosaur, you can see how the story was simplified and somewhat awkwardly misshaped. What starts out as an interesting new take on princesses quickly becomes a banal reconnection story without anything exciting or interesting to fire it up. And while it might be called Brave, that sounds like a kinda cowardly thing to do.
Nevertheless, there’s something just sweet and compassionate enough that makes you never completely give up on the film. It’s attentive attention to folk lore and traditionalism always remains interesting, and it’s often neat to see how actual magic factors into their storytelling methods. It’s a bit of a disappointment, especially when you think of what it could have been, but it’s not a miss either. It might not be a bullseye, but Brave hits the mark to make it on the board. But you can’t help but want a little more magic.
10. Finding Nemo
Is Finding Nemo a good film? Sure. Is it a great film? Not really. At least, not to me. To be honest, while I’ve come to appreciate Andrew Stanton’s film more over the years, I still tend to find it a little overrated in the Pixar cannon. Not that I’m fighting against it; I’m just not as taken by it as many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many others have been since its release. The underwater adventure hits all the right notes: the sea environment is fresh and fascinating to discover, the characters are mostly likable and entertaining (give or take Dory) and there’s a nice beating heart at the center of this father-son tale that graciously takes you through the tide. But with that said, the jokes are often cornier than they are in other, better Pixar features, and the message, while deeply-felt, doesn’t resonate as much as some other Pixar movies in the past. I don’t know, maybe I’m just alone on this one. Maybe not. The animation company has a wide net of great films at their disposal. Finding Nemo is just not my ideal first catch. With that said, however, I’m not going to throw it back into the ocean anytime soon either.
The beauty of Ratatouille is often undervalued. Easily among Pixar’s most gorgeously animated features, it’s an exquisite, lavishly-made look at self-determination in the face of adversity. But more than that, it’s a sterling look at the relationship shared between creator and admirer, artist and critic, cook and foodie, and what ultimately makes us all love what we love unconditionally, and what becomes of us when we forget what it means to love that very special thing. It’s both epic and intimate, grandiose but also very fragile in its execution. It’s among the best examples of Pixar toying the line with what they can create, and how they can have an impact on audiences of all ages with one gentle swoop. But the best thing about Pixar, in the end, is their human condition, even if it comes from a rat that makes fancy food in Paris. At their best, Pixar knows how to make the impact felt, how to stir you with emotions even when you don’t realize what they might mean or why they mean so much to you in the moment. That’s simply great storytelling.
8. Toy Story
It’s the one that started it all, the one that rightfully put Pixar on the map and the film that revolutionized animated films as we know them. The first film made entirely by CG-animation, Toy Story is a groundbreaking technical achievement that, ultimately, isn’t quite as revolutionary in the story department but should definitely be applauded. It’s enemy-to-friends narrative is one we’ve seen countless times before-and-after, but it’s enriched through always-competent filmmaking, an imaginative use of corporate branding and warm voice performances from Tom Hanks and Tim Allen.
It lost some of its magic over the years thanks to numerous rip-offs and reimaginings of the same story, including those within the Pixar system. And in retrospect, it doesn’t hold the power the film once held. The animation has noticeably aged, the pacing is a little clumsier and it doesn’t help that some of the jokes are a little lamer than you remembered them. But through it all, it remains a captivatingly entertaining, staggering emotional piece that lends itself handsomely to the great sequels which followed. Its brilliant filmmaking and marvelous attention to character is what ultimately earns its classic status. It might not be the most perfect Pixar film, but it’ll always have a friend in me, at least.
7. Inside Out
Inside Out was a much-needed return-to-form for the studio. Lost in a sea of good-not-great films — all of which didn’t have anywhere near the staying power of their last truly great film, Toy Story 3 — Pixar wasn’t necessarily in a rut, but they needed another hit irregardless. With their output feeling more insignificant with each passing year, things were getting a little dire. The Pixar magic was starting to fade. But thankfully, they pulled themselves together to put together one more really good film, an original work filled with great characters, imaginative backdrops, captivating visuals and all the heart-tugging themes you expect to find in the best Pixar features. While it’s not quite top 5 material — not for me, at least — it’s a defining comeback, a masterfully constructed film that’ll likely only become more beloved and celebrated in its mastery as the years go on. Pixar needed to think out of the box again, big time, and they did that and then some here. Hopefully this isn’t their last great film. These kind of efforts may start to become fewer-and-farther between, but it would a shame if this was the last time they mastered such emotionally-driven filmmaking. If that’s true, then I’m going to become Sadness. Or Anger, perhaps. Anger is cooler. Or hotter. You know what I mean.
Up is noticeably more adult and somber than your average Pixar movie, but that’s what happens when you make your animated family film centered on a curmudgeon old man with a floating house. But packed with all the astounding emotional cues, exhilarating action and endearingly colorful characters you’ve come to know and love over the years, it’s exactly the kind of film Pixar does best. Smart, quick-paced, impactful and grounded with harsh realism amidst all the playful whimsy, it doesn’t get celebrated as often as it should, and that’s a shame. Because Up has no problem standing toe-to-toe with its studio peers, or sometimes soaring above them entirely — even if it has a little more sorrow in its eyes and a little more weight in its step. It’s a beautifully realized, genuinely moving film every step of the way, and even when the climax gets a little too silly for its own good, the Pixar team still finds a way to keep it all afloat with grace, levity and a keen sense of awareness.
And yes, this is one of those times where Pixar peaks with their first ten minutes, and it’s a great first ten minutes. Maybe among the best in cinematic history, in fact. But to dismiss the rest of the film because it fails to live up to that level would be a fool’s errand. Up never lets itself fall to the ground at any point. It’s constantly finding exciting and endearing new ways to keep everything buoyant and meaningful. There’s hardly ever a false step or a miscalculation in the process. And while it doesn’t often rise to the top of people’s list, it should be elevated a little higher than it’s often regarded.
5. Monsters, Inc.
For my money, Monsters, Inc. doesn’t get enough credit. Aided by a creative and fully realized environment that welcomes clever visual gags and inspired character designs at every turn, it’s among the freshest and most innovative films the company has produced to date, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s also one of the funniest and sweetest too. Billy Crystal and John Goodman share a fruitful chemistry together as our two mismatched leads, Mike and Sully, one that’s build on a genuine sense of compassion and a fitfully rousing love for one another’s company. It’s the kind of bromance that always feels truthful and deep, even if we never really see their full history together. But we don’t need to see it, even if the company thought otherwise when they made Monsters University, because we can always feel their compassion and deep-seated care for one another. Crystal, Goodman and the team of animators and filmmakers at Pixar can make us feel like we know characters that we never expected to feel for, that we never expected to understand. That’s why they’re among the best of our time — at least, in their prime.
And, of course, to celebrate Monsters, Inc. without bringing up the cuddly father-daughter relationship shared between Sully and Boo would be an absolute sin. If Sully and Mike are the soul of the film, then Sully and Boo are the heart. All this innovative storytelling won’t make the impact if they didn’t land the emotional core but, of course, they pluck the heart strings with vibrato. The endearment shared between two different personalities is a familiar plight, but one that Pixar does best. They understand that, in the end, we’re all a little human and we’re all a little monstrous. It’s just about channeling that in a way that makes you come alive. And there’s nothing scary about that.
4. Toy Story 3
When Toy Story 3 was first announced, it was hard to know how to react. Yes, the last two films were excellent, but how will this one compare? Could it possibly live up to the standards set before? Will it tarnish all the goodwill we felt for the series prior? Will it matter that it’s been 11 years since the last time we saw these beloved characters on the big screen? Needless to say, we never had to worry. Toy Story 3 was always in good hands, and as a result, it remains not only one of the best sequels ever made, but the perfect capper to one of the best trilogies in cinematic history, bar none.
Building on the themes established in the film prior, it’s a masterfully crafted exploration at early adulthood and warmly woven tale about accepting one’s place in this world, as well as learning how you’ll always be loved, even if you’re not always needed. While often mournful and piteous in its themes, among its greatest feats is how it’s able to take these heavy ideas and apply them to a film that’s always rousing, exciting and heartfelt in its execution, while never losing the value of its messages. And while the third film in this series is laced with nostalgia for itself throughout, almost to its determent, its uses that history and time to inform its characters and their value to one another, therefore making its gooey center also act as its rock-hard core. We’re then left with what’s undoubtably a one-in-a-million franchise, and one that we should always value. At least, unless Toy Story 4 ruins everything. But considering the studio’s track-record with the series, there’s reason to stay optimistic.
3. Toy Story 2
I went back and forth on this one a lot. Picking your favorite Toy Story movie can feel like choosing your favorite child: it’s practically impossible, and nobody wins. Nevertheless, when push comes to shove, I usually always go with Toy Story 2 over 1 and 3. Even though they’re all brilliant in their own right, Toy Story 2 is what I’ve considered the happy medium of the trilogy. It contains all the warm lightheartedness of the original along with the sweetly-realized gravitas found throughout the third film to produce a sequel only Pixar could make so well. It’s funny but also very, very, very emotional, heartwarming and heartbreaking, touching and thoughtful in its themes on family, commitment and accepting that the ones we love will get older, even if we’re not ready for them to move on.
It’s as funny and entertaining as it is deeply touching and moving, without ever getting too goofy or corny in the process, and that’s a very hard balance to achieve, even by the great minds at Pixar. Jessie’s flashback origins montage, in particular, still remains on the strongest scenes the animation company has ever produced. It’s hard to watch it without getting a least a little lump in the throat. My eyes water just thinking about it. Toy Story 2 is made all the more impressive by how well they balance their characters, both new and old, while never losing track of the more action-orientated and mature story. It’s about as good as sequels come, a film that’s not only great as a continuation of the series, but one of the best films Pixar has ever made, and maybe will ever make. Even though Pixar has gone infinity and beyond a number of times in their 25 year career, this is undoubtably one of their brightest shining moments.
2. The Incredibles
Brad Bird’s The Incredibles is not merely one of the best superhero movies ever; in my eyes, it is the best. No other superhero film, animation or live-action, has combined the heroic highs-and-lows of being super-powered with this much honesty, weight, smarts, humor and heart. It’s at once a towering look at modern family dynamics and a wickedly sharp commentary on the state of superheroes, soaring high based on its inspired voice cast (Craig T. Nelson is excellent as Mr. Incredible, while Holly Hunter continues her hot streak as his supportive wife and mother of their kids), revolutionary animation and sharp-as-a-speeding bullet writing. All that comes together to form a superhero film nobody can beat.
And at a time when Fox is struggling mightily to put together their first good Fantastic Four movie, Pixar has been sitting around waiting for them to catch up. Indeed, at its heart, The Incredibles is the one and only good FF movie in our universe, even if none of the characters share the same origins or name of Stan Lee’s iconic characters. That’s because Pixar wisely lets us trust the characters, rather than simply tell us everything that happens on screen. The result is not only their first PG movie, but easily their most mature and adult-orientated film to date, packed with emotional poignancy that would go well above the heads of children until the time was right. Fearless, fresh, fitfully entertaining and full of life, The Incredibles is a super great film, for more reasons than one. And to this day, it’s one of those movies I have no problem watching from beginning-to-end whenever it’s on TV. Packed with tons upon tons of entertainment, as well as thoughtfulness and heart, it’s an high-flying masterpiece that officially proved Pixar is in a league well above their peers.
There have only been a few movies that left me temporarily paralyzed in my seat, transfixed by what I witnessed and refusing to let me divorce myself from their sheer excellence. But WALL-E was one of those movies. Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo follow-up is a masterful tour-de-force, a defining benchmark for the power of modern storytelling, not merely the power of modern animation, that’s amazing in every conceivable way. The first 20 minute alone remain the best filmmaking the studio has produced to date, and no film in history has used the soundtrack to Hello Dolly! better. Not even Hello Dolly! But you’ll be hard-pressed to have me say too many negative things, because I have no qualms considering it a near-perfect film. I could celebrate this movie for days upon days, and I probably have done just that before. Since I’ve seen it, it has unquestionably become not only my favorite Pixar movie, but one of my favorite movies of all-time, animated or otherwise. It’s a film I’ve come to cherish more over time, a rare ruby gem amongst a treasure trove of excellence, and I doubt I’m going to turn around on it anytime soon. It’s a big world out there, but I love to know there’s someone as close as my little robot friend to keep me through it.