This weekend Pixar‘s latest digital marvel, “Monsters University,” roars into theaters (you can read our review here). Few studios can claim the kind of quality that Pixar often does – for a while there it was the most critically and commercially adored studio in the history of cinema (though they are not without their faults; read our controversial The 5 Worst Things About Pixar feature). And for good reason. It seemed like year after year they would commit a new classic, an endlessly re-watchable delight full of characters that will be beloved by children the world over for decades to come. In fact, the amount of excellence made ranking the films a blurry and burdensome proposition. But in hindsight (and after a couple of shoddy 3D conversions), it becomes clearer which movies are truly more special than others. This is what we’ve attempted to do, with our worst-to-best Pixar retrospective.
It goes without saying that some of these rankings represent a fractional superiority of one over the other and that this list was really hard to make and arrange. It also goes without saying that it will undoubtedly piss a lot of people off, so we encourage you to respond in the comment section below.
14.”Cars 2” (2011)
There’s a reason that “Cars 2” is the only Pixar movie not to be nominated for the Best Animated Feature Academy Award (since the category’s inception). Seemingly fueled more by commercial need than creative necessity, this sequel to the amiable and charming “Cars” totally negates that movie’s message that life is only worth living if you slow down once in a while, instead delivering nonstop thrills and dizzying set pieces which are hung loosely inside the garage of a spy movie spoof. Bafflingly, original “Cars” director John Lasseter, who was brought in after initial director Brad Lewis couldn’t cut it (during an incredibly difficult period for Lasseter, personally, coinciding with the death of his father), decided to shift the focus of the story away from hotshot race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and instead built the movie around his dimwitted tow truck sidekick Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). Mater finds himself mistaken for a crack secret agent, in a pin-balling plot that involves international espionage and a potentially deadly alternate fuel source. The whole thing is nonstop insanity that never makes much sense, except for the coldly cynical fact that it opens up the “Cars” universe to include boats and planes, ripe for sequels and spin-offs of their own (two “Planes” movies have already been scheduled). It did help inspire one of the studio’s towering non-cinematic achievements, though: the Carsland section of the Disney California Adventure theme park.
13. “Cars” (2006)
The low ranking of the first “Cars” suggests that the film, as many have claimed, is downright awful; the first bad Pixar movie. It’s not. But the other movies are much, much better and “Cars” (at least at the time) did feel like something of a letdown. Set in a world where anthropomorphic vehicles drive themselves, it stars Owen Wilson as an egotistical racecar who is sidelined in the sleepy town of Radiator Springs, a relic of the Route 66 days, where he’s forced to learn humility thanks to his friendship with a junky tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy) and a wizened former racecar turned doctor (real life racing enthusiast Paul Newman, in one of his final performances). Pixar godhead Lasseter said that he wanted to capture some of the soulfulness of his idol Hayao Miyazaki in the more laidback approach to “Cars” and in that aspect he does at least partially succeed. There are a handful of quiet, unrushed moments that rank amongst the very best in the Pixar oeuvre, but oftentimes the two halves of the movie feel diametrically opposed, and when they come together clash violently instead of seamlessly. The racing sequences, though, are truly thrilling and there are a handful of wonderful vocal performances (among them: George Carlin as a hippie VW bus and Michael Keaton as a villainous racecar). While not a blockbuster in its initial release, it did sell an obscene amount of merchandise, which explains the sequel and ongoing spin-offs (ironic since it was the final independently produced Pixar movie before it was swallowed up by Disney). If “Cars” was as smart as it was heartfelt, it’d be one of the classics, instead, it’s a cute near miss.
12. “Brave” (2012)
It was supposed to be the one that set things right: after repeated criticisms were (rightfully) leveled against the studio for what many perceived as outright sexism in its feature films, Pixar hired a wonderful female director (Brenda Chapman) and started development on what was known as “The Bear and the Bow.” Later, the title was changed to “Brave” and, a little later than that, Chapman was unceremoniously removed from both the film and the studio. (When the movie later won a Best Animated Feature Oscar, she would accept the award with her replacement, Mark Andrews. The amount of pride that must have been swallowed that night…) With Chapman gone, a lot of the movie’s moodiness (including its wintertime setting) was swapped for more traditional, what some would claim were more overtly “Disney” moments of sunny cheeriness. The sentiment, that a Princess (played by Kelly Macdonald) can choose her own fate instead of being auctioned off to some loser prince, is a powerful message and the closest any Pixar movie has come to being considered a “feminist” work (there is a feminist angle to another Pixar movie, but, in the words of Mr. Incredible, we’ll get there when we get there). The problem is that the movie is clunky, with a narrative that, instead of allowing the princess to really become her own person, saddles her with a burdensome buddy movie scenario wherein her mother (Emma Thompson) is accidentally turned into a bear. She’s never actually allowed to be the woman she should become since she’s babysitting her bear-mom. It’s a drag.
11. “Monsters University” (2013)
A movie that already feels instantly underrated, this college-set prequel to the beloved “Monsters, Inc.” (more on that in a minute) shows us what it was like when Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) weren’t the best of pals but were, in fact, mortal enemies. The movie uses “Animal House” and “Midnight Madness” as its template, with the two monsters forced into a loser fraternity (Oozma Kappa) so that they can compete in a series of Greek games. Thematically there’s a lot going on, with the movie’s principle concern being the fact that, even though you may wish and dream and hope against hope, you might not accomplish what you want to in life. It’s kind of an abrasive message for a kids movie, especially one filled with candy-colored monsters that look like fuzzy fanged Muppets. Crystal and Goodman slip back into their roles with ease, and the movie investigates the dynamics of heterosexual male friendship with surprisingly subtlety. Oh, and it’s also incredibly funny. Critics have already begun dismissing “Monsters University” as an unequal follow-up, but for bizarre comic inventiveness, it stands comfortably alongside the original. (Where it pales in comparison is in the first film’s raw emotionality; although there are a few heart-tugging moments in this one too.) It might not be a sequel that anybody was asking for, but we’re sure glad it’s here.
10. “A Bug’s Life” (1998)
Borrowing its template from “The Seven Samurai,” this adventurous follow-up to the paradigm-shifting “Toy Story” is a widescreen retelling of the grasshopper and the ant fable. Except this time the ant is a neurotic inventor (Dave Foley) and the grasshopper is the leader of a ruthless biker game (Kevin Spacey). When the ant goes away to the big city to recruit warriors to combat the villainous grasshoppers, he ends up hiring a bunch of circus performers (including David Hyde Pierce, Madeline Kahn, Jonathan Harris and Denis Leary). The Pixar team was still relatively small when “A Bug’s Life” was completed, and much of the creative team (including director John Lasseter) went straight from “Toy Story” into “A Bug’s Life.” Not that this kind of fatigue shows. If anything, it makes the movie, with dozens of principle characters and expansive crowd sequences, even more impressive. (Famously, Pixar re-framed the complex crowd sequences for the full frame home video, something that now seems like an incredible waste of time.) “A Bug’s Life” is colorful and often quite funny (it introduced the credit sequence “bloopers” that would become a mainstay of Pixar movies for a little while), but lacks emotional resonance. More a dazzling technical achievement than a storytelling tour de force, it none-the-less proved that the computer-animated feature, more adept at crafting geometrically perfect structures, could capture the outdoors in a naturalistic way.
9. “Toy Story 2” (1999)
One of the rare sequels that is just as good as the original, “Toy Story 2” started life as a direct-to-video sequel that the studio was producing on the down low. When John Lasseter and Disney executives saw the quality of the story, they decided it could be a theatrical release, and Lasseter stepped in to massively overhaul the movie in a little over a year, which is unheard of for an animated film, especially a computer animated film (this was still during the technology’s infancy). “Toy Story 3” deepened the original film’s “mythology” by exploring Woody’s origins – as a highly valuable tie-in for a long lost “Howdy Doody“-type television show, and introduced a second Buzz Lightyear (still Tim Allen), who was just as delusional as Buzz was in the first film. The sequel hedged pretty closely to the original from a structural standpoint (with an obsessive toy collector standing in for the abusive kid next door, and an elaborate runway chase replacing the moving van chase from the first film) but offered some nice new flourishes, the best of which being the introduction of the cowgirl Jesse (Joan Cusack) character, whose tragic backstory makes for a moving, Sarah McLachlan-sung musical interlude. Many elements of the sequel, including the fantastical videogame-world opening and the more adult themes of loss and memory, would be expanded upon and perfected in the following film. But at the time, “Toy Story 2” was as close to a peerless follow-up as you could have asked for – visually, thematically, and emotionally rich.
8. “Toy Story” (1995)
The one that started it all, “Toy Story” was the rare combination of technological breakthrough and storytelling prowess. The movie, which we can’t forget was not only the first feature-length Pixar movie but also the first entirely computer-generated feature (ever), was based in part on a short film Lasseter had directed called “Tin Toy” that imagined what rich interior lives toys must have when their owners are not around. From that came the creation of Woody (Hanks), a cowboy doll and the favorite toy of Andy… That is until Andy gets a brand new, high tech toy in the form of Buzz Lightyear (Allen) for his birthday. Suddenly Woody feels inadequate and outdated. In a fit of jealousy he tries to shove Buzz out of the picture (quite literally), which leads to him also getting abandoned. The movie, at its heart, is a classic buddy movie in the vein of “48 Hrs” or “Midnight Run,” which was quite shocking given that it was released by Disney during the height of their Disney Renaissance period, one that was largely defined by big, Broadway-style musicals (there are songs in “Toy Story” but they’re warbled by Randy Newman and played in the background, not the foreground). In a way, “Toy Story” is a metaphor for animation – with Woody representing the traditional, hand-drawn animation that the makers of “Toy Story” grew up on (and still love) and Buzz standing in for the computer animated features that would come to dominate the marketplace. While some of the imagery is overtly simplistic by today’s standards, the movie still moves – and from a storytelling standpoint the movie is even more impressive when you think that the filmmakers behind the movie (besides from a few key outside collaborators like Joss Whedon) weren’t traditionally trained in film. They were guys who wrote code and developed software. And yet they made one of the most exhilarating animated features of all time, full of characters that will literally live forever.
7. “Finding Nemo” (2003)
At the time of its release, “Finding Nemo” soon became the biggest animated feature of all time (surpassed later by one of the “Shrek” sequels) and it’s easy to see why – the tale of a father clown fish named Marlin (Albert Brooks) who loses his son after years of being overtly cautious and super protective – is something that everyone can relate to (even cowboys have daddy issues). And the characters are well drawn, from Marlin’s forgetful partner-in-crime Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) to the motley crew of fish that surround Nemo in the dentist’s waiting room aquarium (most notably Willem Defoe). There’s a reason that there are ‘Nemo’-themed attractions at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, EPCOT Center, Disney California Adventure, and Disneyland theme parks and a sequel in the works – people love this movie. But upon re-watching it during its recent theatrical 3D conversion, revealed that not all of “Finding Nemo” works. The bisected storyline, split between Marlin’s journey and Nemo’s imprisonment, often slows down the movie’s pace (at times it nearly crawls); the Marlin/Dory dynamic was too familiar at the time, when it seemed like every Pixar movie was going to be a variation of a buddy movie; and the movie’s extra climax, wherein Nemo gets caught in a net (again) and has to convince the similarly captured fish to swim to the bottom of the ocean so that they could all escape, is both tedious and thematically redundant. We get it. Let’s move on. Still, “Finding Nemo” has an undeniable powerful, one that can speak to anyone, really. It’s also a singularly beautiful Pixar movie too, with the naturalistic style that they pioneered for “A Bug’s Life” plunged under the ocean, with relatively few stylistic flourishes (comparatively, “Finding Nemo” was a low-budget movie because they blew so much R&D money on “Monsters Inc.”). It’s just that, like Dory, it’s easy to forget some of the film’s problems because it’s so easy to praise the work as a whole.
6. “Monsters, Inc.” (2001)
Pixar had some experience in world building by the time “Monsters, Inc.” rolled around in 2001, but the worlds they had constructed where microcosmic and very much a part of our own reality. With “Monsters, Inc.” they crafted an entirely separate universe, one in which monsters cultivate the screams of children to power their own modern cities, using a system of magical doors. It’s an ingenious concept and one that relates to our own childhood fears of the monster in the closet (who turns out is just an employee at what amounts to a large energy corporation). There’s a kind of frazzled inventiveness to every frame of “Monsters, Inc.,” from the design of the characters (like the one-eyed Mike and the blue, furry Sulley) to the system of doors, which really pays off in a jaw-dropping climax where our heroes and villains ride the doors through the labyrinthine back channels of the corporation. It’s also a sly take on our ongoing energy crisis and a loving homage to the monster movies of yore (a popular restaurant in the monster-y universe is Harryhausen’s, named after the great, recently departed effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen). But the real reason “Monsters, Inc.” works so well is the emotional connection forged between the tiny human who is unleashed in the monster world (who they nickname Boo) and Sulley, a giant, fearsome monster whose job it is to scare little kids just like Boo. The way their relationship develops, mostly wordlessly, is a testament to the confident storytelling prowess of the studio. The way the movie ends is probably one of the most powerful moments the studio has ever crafted, one that is delicate and unforced. The simplicity and emotional power of “Monsters, Inc.” is what made a sequel seem (for a while at least) inconceivable. But with a world as large and immersive as the one created for “Monsters, Inc.,” there are undoubtedly many, many different stories to tell.
5. “Toy Story 3” (2010)
Pixar is utterly fearless. Still. Consider “Toy Story 3”: it was the second sequel to the beloved original and (at the time) considered by many to be the conclusion of the “Toy Story” saga as a whole. They could have lathered on the fan service, kicked back with a predictable plot that saw all the old characters falling back into their familiar roles, and watched the hundreds-of-millions come pouring in. But instead, director Lee Unkrich and screenwriter Michael Arndt, decided to flip the formula on its head. Instead of having Andy suspended in perpetual childhood, they had him age in the years in between the films, so that now he was going away to college and putting his playthings behind him. This caused the toys to show a different side of themselves – petty, jealous, self-pitying (basically all the things Woody was in the first movie) as they dealt with the inevitable. Instead of having them remain at the house to ponder their fate, the creative team had them imprisoned at a ghoulish daycare center ruled by a ruthless teddy bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty). The previous films had been defined by a kind of unerring cheeriness, no matter the danger, while “Toy Story 3” developed an almost film noir-y sense of lighting and color and took on the tone and structure of a prison escape film, laced with elements of old horror movies. Thematically, it was concerned only with death, as the characters faced an eternity decomposing in some landfill (or incinerated, as a powerful last act sequence dramatizes, complete with Holocaust imagery) or, as Lotso proposes, being stuck in the day care where new kids can play with you every year, which can either be read as an allegory for purgatory or an elaborate investigation of reincarnation. Pretty heady shit for a movie where one of the main characters is a Slinky dog. The final moments of the film, which saw Andy pass off his beloved toys (and our beloved characters) to a new family, is some of the most deeply touching and profoundly moving. Walking out of the first screening, everyone sheepishly kept on their 3D glasses, all the better to hide the tears.
4. “WALL-E” (2008)
Beloved by critics (A.O. Scott called it his favorite film of the decade) and derided by right wing pundits (who claimed that its touchy-feely environmentalist message was harmful to kids), “WALL-E” is a boldly experimental movie that doesn’t quite stick the landing but none the less feels like an out-there art house joint more than a hugely budgeted Hollywood kids’ movie. Consider the movie’s almost completely wordless first half, where a junky little droid named WALL-E (those of you playing at home might remember that WALL-E stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class) still cleans a completely deserted, garbage-covered planet earth hundreds of years after the last human lived there and at least that long since the last robot stopped working. The reason WALL-E has survived is that he has developed a personality: he forages through the wreckage for knickknacks that he brings back to his home and he has a pet cockroach that he cares for. When a spaceship lands in the wasteland and a sleek new robot named EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), WALL-E becomes smitten. When she discovers that he has a living plant amongst his souvenirs, she’s recalled back to a floating cruise ship called the Axiom, which is bursting with robotic life but where humans have devolved into gelatinous blobs. While on the Axiom, WALL-E uncovers a conspiracy and “reboots” humanity. He also falls in love. There are moments of pure transcendence in “WALL-E,” like the space dance that he and EVE go on outside of the Axiom, and the movie is probably the hardest, in terms of satire, of all the Pixar movies (co-writer Jim Reardon was a “Simpsons” bigwig for many years and in a lot of ways the movie feels like a really expensive episode of “Futurama“). It’s also incredibly strange: from the wordless first half to the fact that this is a movie in which real life actors appear alongside their CGI counterparts (mostly by Fred Willard as the head of the Buy-N-Large corporation) to all the “Hello Dolly” references and the general bleakness in terms of tone, this is a ballsy, gonzo movie. The story, however, could have still used some tightening (if this super old robotic conspiracy to keep people from earth was in effect why send EVE down there at all?), the fact that they were so hell bent on assigning binary gender characteristics to sexless robots seems foolhardy and it goes without saying that the wordless first half makes the chaotic second half less powerful.
3. “Up” (2009)
In many ways “Up” is just as weird (if not weirder) than “WALL-E,” but with a more controlled story and covered in a layer of sweet surrealism. In “Up” an old man named Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) is still reeling from the death of the love of his life, Ellie. They had both been drawn together by a longing for adventure, but life often got in the way of their plans – specifically to visit a waterfall in the South American jungle. After Carl assaults a construction worker, he’s forced to evacuate the home he made with Ellie and move into an old folks home. Instead, he ties a gazillion balloons to his home and charts a course for South America. He’ll still get to that waterfall if it’s the last thing he does. Of course, to complicate matters, there’s a stowaway on this adventure – a Wilderness Explorer named Russell (Jordan Nagai) who was trying to score his “assisting the elderly” badge and got much, much more than he bargained for. While in the jungle, Carl and Russell meet up with a talking dog named Dug (co-director Bob Peterson) and an exotic bird named Kevin. Carl also meets his long lost idol, a disgraced adventurer named Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). The entire plot is gleefully bizarre but somehow all of the different strands make sense both independently and when they’re threaded together. “Up” will probably be best remembered for the wordless, four-minute “married life” prologue that gracefully tells the story of Carl and Ellie’s life together, down to its bittersweet ending. It’s not only the movie’s greatest triumph but it’s one of the defining moments in animation from the last couple of decades (it is also scored, beautifully, by Michael Giacchino). Early prognosticators said that the film’s chances for commercial success were dim (toy makers wouldn’t even license the property), but it ended up being a smash both critically and financially, and became only the second animated movie in the history of the Academy Awards to be nominated for Best Picture (the first was “Beauty & the Beast“). Instead of a liability, its strangeness ended up being an asset. Like Kevin, there’s an elusive wonder to “Up” that is hard to pinpoint or put into words. Adventure is out there. It’s in here too.
2. “Ratatouille” (2007)
For a while it looked like “Ratatouille” was doomed: its original director, Jan Pinkava, was fired from production a little more than a year before the movie was scheduled to hit theaters and it was carrying with it extra importance, since it was going to be the first film released outside of its distribution pact with Disney (which explains its international setting). Then the movie was assigned to Brad Bird, who radically overhauled the story, recast the characters, and made it into something of a new classic. The story of Remy (Patton Oswalt), a rat who longs to be a chef, is poignant and odd. When Remy befriends a hapless cook Linguini (Lou Romano), he figures out that, by hiding underneath his hat and tugging on his hair, he can control the human and turn him into the culinary sensation he only dreams of becoming, it echoes old Disney movies of yore. But there’s so much else going on in “Ratatouille.” On one hand it’s a sharp critique of the way the Disney company was being run at the time, with an evil elder cook (Ian Holm) disgracing the restaurants name by churning out a series of frozen dinners (stand-ins for Disney’s direct-to-video sequels of classics like “Cinderella“), on another it’s a deeply felt examination of what it’s like to follow your own destiny, even if that destiny is very different than the one your family or countrymen think is right for you. There’s an odd couple element of the mismatched buddy movie in the friendship between Remy and Linguini. And maybe most profoundly it’s an exploration of the importance of criticism and art, lovingly summed up in a monologue by Aton Ego (Peter O’Toole), a villainous critic who has his heart melted by the confections of Remy and Linguini. There is so much going on, thematically, that you think the story itself might get lost, but under the tight control of Bird it steamrolls along, heading to an unforgettable climax involving a whole squadron of rats in the kitchen, something both revolting and hopelessly cute. You can’t help but be in awe of “Ratatouille.”
1. “The Incredibles” (2004)
When “The Incredibles” was released, it felt like a revelation, like a genuinely groundbreaking moment from a studio that had literally reinvented the animated feature at least once before. It was a first in a lot of ways: the first movie of theirs to have humans be the central characters (instead of bugs or monsters or toys); the first movie to be rated PG (because of its action and implied sexuality – that’s right, implied sexuality); the first movie to be scored by Michael Giacchino (who would go on to become a Pixar power player); the first movie to flirt with the 2-hour mark (115 minutes); along with a number of esoteric technical innovations (skin, clothing, and physics engines that scatter light realistically). But all could have all been for naught if the story of “The Incredibles” wasn’t so compelling. Ingeniously devised by Brad Bird, who had recently suffered terribly at the hands of Warner Bros Animation, “The Incredibles” is about an over-the-hill superhero Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) forced to relocate to the suburbs and assume a new identity, along with his equally super-powered wife Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) and children, after superheroes have been outlawed. It’s while Mr. Incredible is working at a soul-deadening insurance company that he’s approached by a mysterious woman to carry out a series of tasks that only he can accomplish, on a secret jungle island. Suddenly, he’s back in the game. He feels better about himself, walks with a spring in his step, and romances the wife again, which of course leads her to suspect that an affair is a part of this midlife crisis he seems to be going through. Instead, it’s much more dangerous than that, and soon the entire family is in jeopardy. Metaphorically, “The Incredibles” is brilliant, with each family member getting the over-sized abilities of what is demanded of them at home (the dad has to be strong, so Mr. Incredible can lift train cars, the mother has to be in a million places at once so she can stretch, the awkward teenage daughter comes invisible, etc.) and stylistically it’s still Pixar’s strongest effort, with a design aesthetic that combines sixties sleekness with James Bond-ian gadgetry; it’s both futuristic and timeless. Countless comic books and characters are referenced in “The Incredibles” – everything from Will Eisner‘s “The Spirit” and Alan Moore‘s “Watchmen” (both of which had yet to be adapted for the big screen at the time), and Bird builds action sequences the way that Robert Zemeckis does, with a series of escalating obstacles that never once decreases on the throttle. Bird doesn’t shy away from violence (a little kid seemingly murders countless goons) or sex (the affair analogy, and some well-placed double entendres) and adds at least one amazing addition to the mythology of superheroes: Edna Mode (played by Bird himself), the costume designer to superheroes. “The Incredibles” is often so full of exuberant life that it threatens to burst at the seams. Thankfully, like one of Edna Mode’s suits, it all stays together. The result is an unparalleled masterpiece and the very best Pixar movie.
Of course, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the amazing short films that almost always accompany the features (many of which are now completed by Pixar’s brilliant Canadian campus), the latest of which, “The Blue Umbrella,” features a nifty score by Jon Brion and is attached to “Monsters University.” That would require a whole separate list. Also, if we had more time we would have included “John Carter” somewhere in here. The movie was developed, designed, and edited at Pixar by “Finding Nemo” and “WALL-E” director Andrew Stanton and “Brave” co-director Mark Andrews. And for a while at least “John Carter” was being branded as “Pixar’s first live action movie” (until John Lasseter got squeamish). There’s also “Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins,” a kind of feature-length pilot for a traditionally animated Buzz Lightyear TV show that Pixar co-produced and did the opening animation for.