On the one hand, trying to compare and contrast a bunch of different Pixar movies who tend to have very little in common other than the fact that they are from the same studio (and feature a John Ratzenberger cameo) is a futile and arbitrary exercise. On the other hand, why not? Here we go:
20. THE GOOD DINOSAUR (2015) dir. Peter Sohn
This is the rarest of Pixar movies: one that is an unqualified dud. The concept where the dinosaurs don’t get wiped out and humans have to evolve alongside them is intriguing enough but it is clear that the problem with this movie lies in its execution. That the movie got released at all is a minor miracle as it spent years in developmental hell, being constructed and reconstructed several times. Ultimately the end product stands as a clear example of the sunk-cost fallacy.
19. CARS 2 (2011) dirs. John Lasseter & Brad Lewis
The best way to describe this movie is as a cynical cash grab. The Cars franchise has always stood as a minor blip in the Pixar canon – a franchise whose commercial appeal is more important than its critical considerations. Cars 2 eschews the more grounded and quietly sentimental Cars for an outlandish spy-chase thriller that makes little sense in the previously established universe but fits in perfectly with a corporate ethos of putting out merchandise and toys. Needless to say, what ends up on screen is less than compelling with the decision to sideline Lightning McQueen in favor of goofy sidekick Mater simply cementing this movie’s status as a bit of a car wreck.
18. MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (2013) dir. Dan Scanlon
The very best Pixar sequels easily justify their existence. Monsters University is not one of them. This prequel origin story of how Mike and Sully meet in college has a myriad of problems right from conception. First of all, it negates the claim that Mike and Sully had known each other since they were kids in Monsters Inc. In addition, the movie desperately wants to be an Animal House type of college movie, but with firmly G-rated sentimentalities. It is at least an entertaining movie, even if it is forgetably so.
17. CARS 3 (2017) dir. Brian Fee
The clearest sign that Cars 2 was a regrettable misstep can be found in Cars 3 which finds the franchise returning to its more grounded roots and making absolutely no reference to the first sequel. Fortunately Cars 3 is more than a reactionary readjustment to Cars 2 as it compellingly explores the twilight of Lightning McQueen’s career as he finds himself being beaten by younger, faster, and hungrier competitors. However it also severely relies on our goodwill to the franchise as a whole, and your mileage on that may vary.
16. BRAVE (2012) dirs. Brenda Chapman & Mark Andrews
Brave is ultimately a tragic example of Pixar’s darker history, that of being a less-than-friendly work environment for female animators. The first Pixar movie to feature a female lead protagonist is marred by the fact that Brenda Chapman, Pixar’s first female director, was taken off the project due to “creative differences”. Meanwhile the effort to retool the movie subsequent to her removal results in a workable, if altogether conventional movie that is entirely unmemorable. This is a case of what could have been, seeing as we will never see Chapman’s original version of the film.
15. A BUG’S LIFE (1998) dirs. John Lasseter & Andrew Stanton
Following up on Toy Story was always going to be an impossible task, and it should come as no surprise that A Bug’s Life – an invertebrate reimagining of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai – should feel a little underwhelming as a result. The true problem with this film is that it is the only one that feels like a “kids movie”. Pixar’s calling card is in making making family movies that could appeal to all demographics and not just the younger members of the audience and it is clear that in A Bug’s Life they are still in the process of callibrating that formula. Still, it remains a charming if slight film that if anything established that Pixar was no mere one-hit-wonder.
14. FINDING DORY (2016) dir. Andrew Stanton & Angus MacLane
Like the Cars sequels, it is hard to see this Finding Nemo sequel as being anything other than a cash grab that relies on our goodwill to the original movie. Fortunately for Finding Dory there is much more universal affection for Nemo, Marlin, and Dory to justify an new adventure with the beloved trio. Focusing on Dory’s character and backstory could have been a Mater-like misstep but this is mitigated by the inclusion of great supporting characters like Hank the octopus, Destiny the whale-shark, and Bailey the beluga as well as the fact that they managed to give Dory a compellingly tragic backstory that perfectly fit with her current bubbly personality. While it obviously isn’t as good as the original, it more than holds its own.
13. CARS (2006) dirs. John Lasseter & Joe Ranft
NASCAR. Route 66. Small-town America. When I originally saw the trailer for this movie in Malaysia I immediately decided to skip it because I assumed, as someone who was not necessarily well-versed in any of these things, that this movie was not made for me. When I eventually did catch up with the movie I realized that I was both right and wrong in my early assessment. I was wrong because hidden beneath the American veneer is a warm and funny comedy that radically dares to suggest that happiness and success are mutually exclusive goals. But it is also a movie that relies on nostalgia, and American nostalgia at that, to make its points. Thus of all of Pixar’s franchises, this still remains one that is the least universally appealing.
12. INCREDIBLES 2 (2018) dir. Brad Bird
Of all the Pixar franchises, the one that seemed most ready for a sequel (and yet ironically took the longest to get there) is The Incredibles. If Incredibles 2 doesn’t necessarily break the mold of what made the original successful, it still is an effortlessly entertaining superhero movie that displays just how well-established and deep the characterizations of the super-family are. Of course given that it doesn’t break any new ground creatively (even as it explores some new thematic avenues) it simply ends up feeling a little bit like a throwaway installment. Nonetheless, this still remains the Pixar franchise that I’m most excited to see a sequel for.
11. TOY STORY 2 (1999) dirs. John Lasseter & Ash Brannon
This movie should have been an unmitigated disaster. Originally slated to be a direct-to-DVD release by the brass at Disney, the movie was granted a shock theatrical release after the Disney brass started to get excited by what they saw. In this case they were right to do so as the movie is a perfect example of how to make a sequel. No retread of the original, this chapter finds Woody and Buzz with their roles reversed as Woody suddenly has to contemplate the choice between chasing fame and cementing his legacy or being a temporary plaything for a growing boy and fulfilling his purpose. As always the solution is not black and white, made all the more heartbreakingly complicated by Joan Collins’ Jessie whose song “When She Loved Me” is a strong contender for the most moving sequence in Pixar’s ouevre (there are many candidates however).
(Author’s Note: The Top 10 in this list is basically a painful exercise in hair-splitting. Feel free to assume that extremely arbitrary and petty reasons, such as which movie I saw last or my current digestive system’s status, separates Number 10 from Number 1)
10. RATATOUILLE (2007) dirs. Brad Bird & Jan Pinkava
A rat who is also secretly a world-class cook! In the hands of another studio this could easily have become a recipe (sorry…) for a broad and slapsticky story that mined cheap laughs from the absurdity of the premise. What Pixar decided to do with this story instead was to create a warm and likable fable about art and the process of the artist. Of course Patton Oswalt deserves much of the credit for keeping the movie from being a pretentious art film whose wit and manic timing helps make a movie about a rat who is also secretly becomes a world-class cook seem universally relatable.
9. TOY STORY 3 (2010) dir. Lee Unkrich
Admittedly, as someone who was in grade school when the original Toy Story came out, this movie was tailor-made to leave me absolutely devastated by the movie’s end. The sequel pushes the existential theme of the series to its absolute limit by begging the question, “What happens once your original purpose for being is no longer needed?” by having the young Andy grow up and leave for college. It powerfully suggests that sometimes the only way to grow as a person (or plastic child’s plaything) is to cherish the moments you had but to also say goodbye. The fact that Pixar is returning for Toy Story 4 does take the shine off this movie’s perfect ending though, but not by much.
8. THE INCREDIBLES (2004) dir. Brad Bird
The best Fantastic Four movie ever to get made succeeds because, unlike the actual Fantastic Four movies, it understands that the most important part of that super-family is, in fact, the family part. On one level this is simply a thrilling action movie with its James Bond-ian nefarious villain, secret villain base, and a plethora of action sequences to boot. But it is also a powerful indictment of the dangers of trying to relive the glory days of old while missing the greatest adventure that’s right in front of you. Made during the pre-superhero movie glut we now find ourselves in, it’s a testament to how good this movie is that very few superhero movies have come close to matching its excellence, let alone top it.
7. UP (2009) dirs. Pete Docter & Bob Peterson
Pixar’s reputation of turning grown adults into blubbering messes was cemented by this unlikely movie about an old man, a little boy, a floating house, a dog, and an adventure that served as a perfect metaphor of how grief works. The first montage sequence is among the most devastatingly beautiful scenes I have ever seen, so much so that its impact manages to permeate the rest of the movie giving weight and poignancy to what is, on surface, a silly little story about an old man taking his house to the top of paradise falls.
6. COCO (2017) dirs. Lee Unkrich & Adrian Molina
Pixar’s first foray into a non-white culture (about time!) is a gorgeously rendered, intricately textured, and most importantly heartwarmingly joyful celebration of the Mexican celebration of Dias de los Muertos that finds Miguel, a sprightly 12-year old, mining the history of his family’s complicated past when he finds himself transported to the spirit world and desperately needs to find a deceased relative who will bless him back into the land of the living – made all the more complicated by his determination to become a musician, which is going against his family taboo. Perhaps I overrate this because it a later Pixar original that fires on all cylinders amongst their many less-than-inspiring sequels, but it is a welcome reminder to us that Pixar is still capable of enchanting us with truly original storytelling.
5. MONSTERS INC. (2001) dirs. Pete Docter & David Silverman
This movie might be too high on the list admittedly but I have placed it here because: (a) I love Mike and Sully (meaning my Billy Crystal tolerance-levels must apparently be pretty high), (b) I tend to think this movie is severely underrated, and (c) this is the movie that made me really take notice of Pixar as a studio. Up until that point Pixar had only made movies about toys coming to life or cute bugs. Monsters Inc. decided to take the childhood terror-myth of monsters hiding in the closet and turn it into a high concept workplace buddy comedy featuring which is a borderline genius move and heralded the beginning of Pixar’s commitment to high-concept storytelling that is grounded in earned emotional stakes. Besides, Sully’s final shot epitomizes what a perfectly restrained ending should look like.
4. INSIDE OUT (2015) dirs. Pete Docter & Ronnie Del Carmen
In their long history of high-concept storytelling, nothing perhaps is more high-concept than Inside Out, which dared to visualize the inner-workings of the human mind by anthropomorphizing emotions while telling a dual-level Inception-for-kids type story that functioned both as a captivating way to teach kids emotions and be a therapy session for adults as well. Amy Poehler perfectly channels her Parks and Recreation Leslie Knope into the character of Joy, infusing this admittedly heady (sorry…) movie with enough energy and effervescence to keep the kids interested, while its more poignant lessons (and Bing Bong) will surely leave most adults in some state of waterworks.
3. FINDING NEMO (2003) dirs. Andrew Stanton & Lee Unkrich
It’s a good thing that this movie is so beautiful to look at, because it helps mitigate what is quite possibly the saddest Pixar movie (which is saying something). After a baraccuda basically murders his wife and most of his babies, Marlin the sad clownfish is left with his one son Nemo to raise in what he’s seen first-hand is a dangerous world. Director Andrew Stanton puts Marlin through the ringer, by insisting on portraying the world around him as a truly dangerous place fraught with terrors while maintaining that the best way for Marlin to truly show his undying love for his son is to let him have his freedom. It is a devastating message for him, and all of us parents whose instincts are to overprotect. Thankfully the movie is also a fun adventure thanks in no part to Ellen Degeneres’ Dory who brings just the right amount of bubbly humour to this melancholy tale.
2. TOY STORY (1995) dir. John Lasseter
The very first film from Pixar set the bar almost impossibly high for the films that followed. In the 23 years that have passed, it is clear that the once cutting-edge graphics have aged considerably. But that has only highlighted just how good the storytelling is in this movie, laying the template for Pixar movies for years to come. There is the incredible attention to detail, as Toy Story successfully echoes what it feels like to imagine your childhood toys come to life. There is a commitment to introduce and ruminate on “grown-up” themes in a children’s movie in a way children can relate – in this case the existential threat of replaceability amidst a professional rivalry – without dumbing it down for the presumed audience. And finally, there is, at the centre, a focus on character as Woody and Buzz remain some of the most complicated and thus lovable protagonists in a children’s movie. That they are voiced to perfection by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen is simply a bonus.
1. WALL-E (2008) dir. Andrew Stanton
Frankly, the margins that separate the top five are razor-thin for me but I have to give the top spot to WALL-E because it embodies the peak prowess of Pixar’s storytelling powers. You know you are firing on all cylinders when you have the moxie to pitch a children’s movie about a trash robot in a dystopic future where the first half of the movie contains no dialogue whatsoever and depends entirely on beeps, whistles, and the facial expressions of robots to convey all of its storytelling. That is works so well to the point that it never occurs to you that there should be dialogue is simply one of the great cinematic achievements of the 21st century.