TOH! Ranks Pixar’s Films from Best to Worst

TOH! Ranks Pixar's Films from Best to Worst
TOH! Ranks Pixar's Films from Best Worst

“We ask what-ifs,” said Disney/Pixar animation czar John Lasseter at a Cannes show-and-tell in May Cannes for international press. “What if toys came to life, or a rat wanted to be chef? The next: what if that asteroid missed earth and dinosaurs and human beings co-existed?”

With the debut, this month, of “Pixar: The Design of Story,” a retrospective of the digital animation studio’s handmade sketches, paintings, and sculptures now on display at New York’s Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, we were inspired to survey Pixar’s feature-length output. What are your favorites?

READ MORE: John Lasseter Previews the Disney/Pixar Slate from ‘Inside Out’ to ‘The Good Dinosaur’ 

Only Walt Disney himself ever created such a consistent flow of animated features at such a high level. Since “Toy Story” in 1995, Pixar’s films have been fussed over by critics, audiences and once the animated feature category was launched, Academy voters. Of the films we rank—with difficulty—below, seven have won the animation Oscar.

READ MORE: “The Magic of Pixar, Explained”

1. “Toy Story 3”
(2010) *****
This marvel of a movie from the Pixar brain trust boasts one added ingredient: Oscar-winning “Little Miss Sunshine” scribe Michael Arndt. Pixar tasked him with writing the third installment in their most beloved franchise, working with director Lee Unkrich, who came up with an original idea which was enlarged by the original “Toy Story” creators, who gave Arndt a 20-page treatment. The genius of “Toy Story 3” was to come back after ten years of real time, as Andy’s going off to college. The toys must deal with what seems to be the end of their natural life, their fears of obsolescence, and embark on a quest to find a new home. The movie is crammed with pop culture lifts from “The Great Escape” and “Cool Hand Luke,” musical references, and shifting genre styles. The “Toy Story” films have always been allegories of parenthood. In “Toy Story 3” Woody is a parent who loves his child, watched him grow up, and now has to learn to let go. Andy is giving his toys away along with his childhood. Generations grew up with these characters and identify with them. Somehow Pixar figured out how to pay off all that emotional investment, while still keeping audiences surprised with masterful touches like Spanish Buzz. “It’s this process of stumbling forward and throwing out ideas,“ Arndt told me, “and having a bunch of smart people in a room together all working together trying to make the best film they can.” —Anne Thompson

2. “Up”
(2009) *****
The opening sequence of Pete Docter’s wildly
imaginative caper receives the lion’s share of attention, but the
remaining 80 or so minutes aren’t too shabby, either. As the
curmudgeonly Carl (Ed Asner) and his pudgy charge, Russell (Jordan
Nagai), trek through the South American jungle hitched to a floating
house—encountering talking dogs, a reclusive explorer, and an exotic
female bird named Kevin along the way—their “traveling flea circus”
cycles through the sweet and the sorrowful alike. Still, for the first
few minutes alone, a wordless, poetic montage that contains the
emotional resonance of not one but two lifetimes, “Up” counts as my
favorite in the studio’s history. Indeed, the finest moment in the Pixar
canon is perhaps not so dissimilar from the peaks and valleys that
follow as the film’s critics might suggest. After all, it’s the frank
appraisal of what brings us low that carries “Up” aloft. —Matt Brennan

3. “Inside Out (2015) *****
Pete Docter is accustomed to working in a collaborative way with the Pixar dream trust, from “Up” to “Inside Out.” But the director was the one on the line when a powerful emotion—fear—told him that this “major emotion picture” wasn’t ready to hit its scheduled dates. It needed more time. It wasn’t easy to take an original idea—what happens inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl (Kaitlyn Dias) when she turns toward adolescence—and mold it into an accessible, lively, funny, unpredictable animated movie. So Pixar postponed the due date to give Docter more time, which meant that Disney had no 2014 Pixar release, followed by a year with two. It was worth waiting for. “Inside Out” is a bold yet personal exploration of a world that has not been portrayed on film before: the mind. Docter and his Pixar team simplified and visualized their complex research into the inner workings of the brain as we follow a young girl through a traumatic move with her parents from the Midwest suburbs to San Francisco. Until now, her five inner emotions have been dominated by perkily optimistic Joy (Amy Poehler), who manages to keep Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Anger (Lewis Black) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) mostly at bay. With the move comes change and soon this cheerful child is overcome by her other emotions. As Joy and Sadness get sucked into the myriad labyrinths of her brain, she loses confidence, no longer has established friendships to rely on, and vents against her parents. What’s amazing about this movie is not just the dazzling storytelling, but the way that it changes the way we view the world. —AT

4. “Toy Story 2” (1999) *****
After enduring a lot of adversity in trying to top themselves, Pixar created the rare sequel (like “The Godfather: Part II” and “The Empire Strikes Back”) that’s better than the original. The stakes are greater after Woody’s kidnapped by a toy collector and Buzz and the gang heroically rescue him. Only Woody’s confronted with an existential crisis: he fears being forgotten when Andy grows up and toys with the idea of sterile adoration. This makes it even more ambitious and compelling than its predecessor. — Bill Desowitz

5. “Toy Story”
(1995) ****1/2
It’s hard to believe that “Toy Story” celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The first CG-animated feature catapulted Pixar and changed the industry, and the action-filled buddy comedy became the studio’s template. Indeed, every successive Pixar movie since has been a success by building on “Toy Story’s” greatness. Woody, Buzz, and the gang have become as important and endearing as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In fact, John Lasseter and company took inspiration from Walt Disney in adapting a modern workflow and updating a storytelling model that’s both personal and universal and doesn’t talk down to its audience. More than anything, Pixar proved that we could empathize with CG characters and it was off to Infinity and Beyond. — BD

6. “A Bug’s Life” (1998) ****1/2
After wowing the world with the novelty of CG animation with “Toy Story,” Andrew Stanton and John Lasseter took the medium to a new place, closely observing nature and light and bugs to create a family comedy unlike any other. It’s tough to recognize now how ground-breaking Pixar’s use of light and color and movement and design was back then—because all we cared about was an ant named Flik trying to set his people free. Which of course is the genius of the Pixar system: make sure the story works, one scene at a time, and then make the animation sing, until all 25 or so scenes are complete. Their goal has always been to snag the audience and never let them go. Not for a moment. —AT

7. “Brave
(2012) ****1/2
Pixar won the Oscar again with magical Scottish Medieval comedy/adventure “Brave.” Although “Brave” split critics, the Academy recognized that original director Brenda Chapman and her replacement Mark Andrews took a dramatic risk with a mother/daughter story, which is rare in animation. The trick for Andrews was to broaden the appeal to both men and women with action and comedy while keeping the emotional power of Chapman’s original feminist thrust. For example, Andrews moved Merida’s turning of her mother the Queen into a bear into the castle, increasing the jeopardy. And animators took the Scottish elements as far as they could, from Merida’s curly red locks to massive layered kilts and the gorgeously detailed, atmospheric highlands. —AT

8. “The Incredibles (2004) ****1/2
Half “Superman,” half “Dr.
No,” and all charm, director Brad Bird’s slyly funny genre hybrid is
also a potent homage to the golden age of comic books. Whether in the
sleek, angular arrays of hometown Municiberg—cubicles in an insurance
company office, high-finned cars in a traffic jam, rectangular lots in a
suburban neighborhood—or on the technological Fantasy Island of
supervillain Buddy Pine (Jason Lee), the mod aesthetic becomes the
perfect vessel for a winsomely old-fashioned adventure. As Mr.
Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), his wife (Holly Hunter), and their two
adolescent children (Sarah Vowell and Spencer Fox) join forces to save
the world, and each other, “The Incredibles” emerges as an reminder of
the superhero in all of us. “Your identity is your most valuable
possession,” Hunter’s Elastigirl advises. “Protect it.” — MB

9. “Wall-E” (2008) ****1/2
Andrew Stanton broke the rules when he started off his movie about a robot abandoned on a decrepit planet buried in garbage with 20 minutes of no dialogue. The movie isn’t silent, exactly: sound genius Ben Burtt gives Wall-E plenty of communicative sounds, as well as his sleekly modern romantic partner Eve. Once they leave Earth and join a luxury space ship full of lazy inert people, they take on a mission of another kind: reconnecting these lost souls with their humanity. And Wall-E, who has spent hundreds of years studying earthlings, is the one who knows how. Another Oscar winner. —AT

10. “Finding Nemo
(2003) ****
Pixar’s oceanic epic may suggest echoes of “Bambi,” Dumbo,” and “One Hundred and One Dalmatians,” but its wonder at the beauty and terror of the sea is pure “Fantasia.” Vibrant communities of coral become vast, inhospitable expanses, and then frightening forests of jellyfish, the scintillating backdrop to what is, in essence, a lovingly constructed road movie. While young Nemo (Alexander Gould) befriends a band of eccentrics in a dentist’s tank, his father, Marlin (Albert Brooks), embarks on a deeply moving rescue mission with Ellen DeGeneres’ irrepressible Dory—a grand comic creation who also embodies the film’s spirit, swimming forward no matter what stands in her way. — MB

11. Monsters, Inc.
(2001) ****
Directors Pete Docter, David Silverman and Lee Unkrich’s delightfully screwy “Monsters, Inc.” showed that, like “A Bug’s Life” before it, Pixar could deliver a slam-dunk outside the “Toy Story” franchise. John Goodman and Billy Crystal give voice to Sulley and Mike Wazowski, an odd couple of monsters who generate their city’s power by scaring children. Writers Andrew Stanton and Daniel Gerson throw Sulley and Mike into chaos when our heroes befriend a three-year-old, nicknamed Boo, who’s immune to scary monsters, and poses a toxic threat to their utopian world order. An ensemble of ingeniously made creatures is voiced by a superb voice cast, including Steve Buscemi’s scene-stealing nemesis Randall Boggs, a purple hydra-headed lizard who’s actually terrifying to squeamish little viewers. It’s impossible to forget the film’s wonderful ending, a touching moment kept entirely off-screen as Sulley enters a door, and is reunited with Boo. – Ryan Lattanzio

12. Ratatouille (2007) ***1/2
Writer/director Brad Bird’s whimsical “Ratatouille” is a feast for the eyes of gastronomes and a pop-colored underdog adventure story as entertaining for adults as it is for kids. Patton Oswalt voices lovably klutzy street rat Remy, who dreams of escaping the Paris sewers and becoming a chef. He falls under the wings of a garbage boy named Alfredo Linguini (Lou Romano) — just one of many charming character names — whipping up one delicious creation after another at Gusteau’s restaurant. But they have to impress Peter O’Toole as Anton Ego, the acerbic food critic who’s one of Pixar’s funniest creations. – RL

13. “Cars”
(2006) ***
Lasseter’s love of cars and NASCAR, inspired by a family roadtrip along Route 66, spawned a new twist on the buddy comedy between the slick Lightning McQueen and the folksy Mater. But Paul Newman’s final performance voicing Doc Hudson gave it gravitas and transformed it into a meta experience. Although critics didn’t warm to the concept of animated cars as a whole and Mater in particular, the movie did very well and kids helped make it a merchandising bonanza for Disney; the Radiator Springs racing attraction helped jump start California Adventure. It’s mid-level Pixar, to be sure, but animation wise, the crew conquered another holy grail in figuring out how to get as much performance and emotion as possible given the limitations of the mechanics. “Truth in Materials” was certainly put to the ultimate test. — BD

14. “Monsters University
(2013) ***
Pixar’s first prequel actually turned out more daring than expected, as Mike confronts failure in his desire to become a Scarer and compete with Sculley before bonding as buddies. It humanized Mike and gave viewers a rooting interest. The college frat humor, though, was a bit tame. However, Pixar introduced a simplified and more artist-friendly lighting system with ray tracers and one pass renders that has produced even more believable photorealism and has become part of the workflow. — BD

15. “Cars 2” (2011) **1/2
For the “Cars” sequel, Lasseter went for something completely different outside of Radiator Springs: Formula 1 and spying, with Mater as the centerpiece. This sat even less well with critics, but Michael Caine was a delight voicing the Bond-like Finn McMissile and Pixar turned the glam settings (Tokyo, Paris, an Italian Riviera-style town and London) into eye candy. The animators also opened up the expressiveness and wackiness of the characters. But perhaps the strain of Lasseter running both Pixar and Disney and the tragic, premature passing of storytelling great Joe Ranft prevented “Cars 2” from coming up to Pixar’s usual high standards. —BD

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