With Finding Dory set to be the latest PIXAR Animation Studios latest release next week, now seems like a good time to reflect on their past films and rank them from best to worst. Over the past two decades PIXAR Animation Studios has become the number one producer of animated films. They’ve dominated the Oscars for Best Animated Feature, and more importantly they’ve dominated the box office, leaving other studios like Walt Disney Feature Animation and DreamWorks Animation in their rear view mirror. They’ve done this by being the masters of manipulating emotions and allowing you to leave the theater believing that you’ve actually felt and experienced something rather than just watched something.
However, even though their box office returns have remained fairly consistent over the last 10-15 years, they actually haven’t been as consistent with the quality of the content. I have some very definite opinions on that, so here is one man’s list on PIXAR from best to worst.
1. The Incredibles (2004)
Brad Bird’s second masterpiece (The Iron Giant being the first) remains the gold-standard of PIXAR films by combining the super-hero genre with the best motifs of James Bond. This story about a family of super heroes who come out of hiding and save the world turns into a story that is much more about family than about super heroes. The Incredibles is also PIXAR’s most complete film. It has a strong story, a strong theme, entertaining action, more than enough humor, and a group of characters that are easy to fall in love with. Honestly. I can’t find a single fault with this film, and I could watch it on a loop.
2. Toy Story 2 (1999)
PIXAR’s 3rd feature was initially slated to be released directly to home video, but the studio knew that they had such a strong film that they decided to release it theatrically and it is among the best films the studio has ever put out. The second installment of the adventures of Woody and Buzz Lightyear and their friends became a world-wide sensation and really got PIXAR’s ball rolling. This is a bit more of a road movie, but it has a strong narrative and John Lassiter and his team did an outstanding job of giving familiar characters new challenges to overcome that felt organic and natural by making it about embracing who you are and where the real love in your life comes from. If the Academy had any guts, this film would have been nominated for Best Picture in 2000.
3. A Bug’s Life (1998)
I’m sure a lot of people are going to take me to task over ranking this film so high, but bear with me for a moment. This is essentially an animated version of Seven Samurai, and to me this film has the best written screenplay of any PIXAR film. There is not one thing that happens in this story that doesn’t either effect or is effected by something else that happens. It’s a deeply layered story with dialogue that drips with subtext. It’s just as strong thematically speaking and any film that PIXAR has made since, and it has multiple characters that have satisfying character arcs. If you haven’t seen this film for a while, it’s a terrific film that’s worth another look.
4. Ratatouille (2007)
The ultimate in dramatic irony, this is a story about a rat who longs to become one of the great chefs of Paris. Most every film is about overcoming obstacles, but Ratatouille is the ultimate underdog story Remy the rat teaming up with an unlikely sidekick to save the name and reputation of one of Paris’s most famous restaurants. But like Brad Bird’s other great PIXAR film, The Incredibles, this film isn’t really about what you see on the surface. This film is about dreaming big while also remembering the importance of the simple things that really make life worth savoring.
5. Toy Story (1995)
The film that started is all for PIXAR, Toy Story is a seminal film if for no other reason than it showed that CGI could carry and entire feature, and thus changed the industry of Feature Animation forever. From that standpoint, the argument could be made that Toy Story is one of the most important films of all time. However it would have been nothing more than a footnote had it not also been a great film, and that’s exactly what it is. Thematically it’s about the old versus the new and the modern versus the quaint. This is a story about embracing who you can become rather then who think you’ve been. Rather than relying on a new technology to carry the film, PIXAR used the new technology to tell a story that a universal audience could relate to.
6. Inside Out (2015)
One of the biggest grossing films of all time, Inside Out tells a coming of age story from the perspective of individual emotions inside a 11-year old girl named Riley. Her life is upended when her family moves from the open spaces of Minnesota to the crowded city of San Francisco. While this goes on, the leader of her emotions Joy, struggles to keep Riley happy, while also learning that sadness and disgust and fear and anger are not necessarily bad things. In fact, Joy learns that we need to feel those emotions in order to appreciate how happy we really are. I’m not a huge fan of the film’s plot because I feel the story has some holes in it, but the emotional roller coaster that the story sends you on is as effective as it possibly could be.
7. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
In an alternate universe where monsters’ jobs are to collect screams from kids which they use as the energy source to power their world, two unlikely heroes discover an alternate energy resource and learn that many fears are unfounded. The themes of this film are a little more on the nose, but it’s an entertaining film and John Goodman and Billy Crystal are hilarious as the reluctant heroes of this world. Technologically speaking, this film advanced the look for fur and hair in order to make it much more realistic looking than it had been in the past. The story is also well constructed and actually leaves the audience guessing, who-done-it style until the very end. It’s an entertaining film with one of the most heartwarming final shot in the history of cinema.
8. Brave (2012)
This is probably the most Disney-like film that PIXAR has made. In fact, almost the whole time I was watching it, I felt like I was watching a Disney movie. If there’s one word that comes to mind with this film, it’s “average”, which stands to reason as it comes in the middle of the list. It’s not a particularly memorable film, for good reasons or for bad. Like many other PIXAR films, familial relationships, specifically the relationship between the spunky and free-willed Merida and her traditional mother Elinor, and the struggles that they each have as Merida wants to control her own fate while Elinor tries to push her towards what she’s supposed to do. This might be PIXAR’s least emotionally accessible film, but it took their storytelling in a direction it hadn’t gone before.
9. Finding Nemo (2003)
This might be the most visually beautiful film that PIXAR has ever made, and that is truly saying something. And yet, I have to admit that I missed the boat on this one (no pun intended). This has one of the weakest storylines of any PIXAR film, and the only thing that keeps it from being lower on the list is the outstanding B-story of Nemo trying to escape the fish tank before the Dentist’s pescicidal niece arrives. However the storyline of Marlin and Dory trying to find him is nothing more than an episodic road movie where any of the challenges that they face could be swapped in order with any of the other challenges and it wouldn’t affect the narrative at all. Each individual scene is good, but when they’re all combined into one narrative, they become less than the sum of their parts.
10. Up (2009)
This film has perhaps the most gut-wrenchingly emotional opening 20 minutes of any film in history. The first half of this film is so strong and emotional and entertaining that it makes it that much more of a shame when the story completely falls apart over the second half. The story of the elderly Carl Fredricksen lifting his house with thousands of helium filled baloons and then flying it to South America to realize a life-long dream that he’d had with his late wife is implausible enough until he meets his childhood hero, the adventurer Charles Muntz. They actually have a show-down where the two of them, one in his 80’s and the other pushing 100-years old very spryly fight around a dirigible. All movies require a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, but Up just went a little too far for me.
11. WALL-E (2008)
Another half a great movie. The first half of this film is a brilliant experiment in dialogue-less film making. Director Andrew Stanton did an amazing job of making us like and care about WALL-E, a solitary robot who’s job it was to clean up a now inhabitable Earth. When Eve, a security robot shows up, the two of them communicate largely non-verbally. It’s only when WALL-E follows Eve back to her space ship and they come across humans that the story goes off the rails. This film is a classic example of how no dialogue at all trumps bad dialogue every time and that cinema is a visual medium where showing is always better than telling.
12. Toy Story 3 (2010)
The most recent and most frustrating film in the Toy Story franchise. I call it frustrating because it was essentially a rehashing of Toy Story 2 and also because it made so much money that we’re going to get a Toy Story 4, even though this film essentially closed out the series. While it had it’s moments, the first hour and 15 to hour and 20 minutes were real hard to get through. It was the last 15-20 minutes of this movie that won it the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, and even with that it never should have beaten How To Train Your Dragon, which was a superior film in every way. I was also frustrated because the toys had now spent 3 films trying to get back to Andy, and what does Andy do at the end of this film? (WARNING: SPOILER ALERT) He gives them away to a stranger.
13. Cars (2006)
I’m not as down on this film as many other people are. Like nearly every other PIXAR film, it had amazing art direction and was beautiful to look at. The character growth of Lightning McQueen, the main character, is well developed and organic. Plus any animated film with Paul Newman doing a voice is worth your time. The main problem with this film is that, even with that said, we were never really given the opportunity to really engage with the characters, especially Lightning McQueen. We really don’t care enough about him by the end, so the climax comes off as anti-climactic and flat. In fact, the word that I would use to describe the entire film is “flat”.
14. Monsters University (2013)
I must admit that my expectations for this film were pretty low going in, and even those low expectations weren’t met. This film is funny at times, but that’s going to be the case with any film with Billy Crystal. PIXAR’s on prequel, it felt in this film like they were trying to recapture the magic of the first film while also interjecting some Animal House or Revenge of the Nerds to the plot ad theme. Once again we have a film that has some nice individual pieces that just don’t fit together and the result is a boring movie with characters about whom I could not care less.
15. The Good Dinosaur (2015)
This is the one PIXAR film that we know about that just had too many problems to overcome. IT was racked with story problems all along, and it got to the point where they couldn’t push it any further and just had to release something. While the hyper photo-realistic backgrounds are amazing to look at, they were too jarring when the very cartoony looking characters were placed in those environments. Add to that the fact that the story was just Finding Nemo without the excellent B-Story, and this film was a recipe for disaster. The ingredients on their own were good enough, but the final product came out very bland and uninspired.
16. Cars 2 (2011)
Can we all just come out and admit that this film was nothing more than a consumer products money grab? Actually, the opening sequence of this film is super-entertaining and drew me in. I was thinking that maybe it would be better than I anticipated coming in, and then the rest of the movie happened. Using Mator, the sidekick from the first film and voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, as this film’s hero was perhaps the most bone-headed decision of PIXAR’s illustrious history. Larry the Cable Guy is great in small doses, but should not be carrying an entire film. They attempted and failed at creating a James Bond-esque story, and we care even less about these characters than we did in the first installment of the franchise. But not to worry. Cars 3 is headed your way in 2017.