Four years ago, I compiled a list that ranked the then-ten Pixar movies in order of my personal love for each – not necessarily which ones were objectively the best, but the ones that were my favorites (a small but critical distinction). Then last year I updated the list, and now I’m doing it again in what I strongly suspect is becoming an annual tradition.
A disturbing (to me) trend I need to note here in the 2013 edition: none of the last three Pixar releases comes in at higher than eighth on this list of fourteen, meaning the last three have all been among my least favorites. (Again, though: “least favorite Pixar” is still better than most other animated flicks. Cars 2 excepted, of course.) And distant early warning on the next one doesn’t have me feeling confident: the Pixar brain trust recently removed Bob Peterson as director of The Good Dinosaur and replaced him with a team of their veteran directors. That doesn’t have to mean terrible tidings; Ratatouille and Brave both had their directors yanked midstream and were solid films, but the same thing happened to Cars 2, and we know how that turned out.
Speaking of that bottom-feeder…
14. Cars 2 (2011)
I remain convinced that the only reason this movie even got made was because Disney insisted as part of their purchase of Pixar in ‘06: “If we’re gonna buy you, you’re gonna give us franchises and more movies we can use to sell more toys.” Hence, this one and Toy Story 3 and likely the upcoming Monsters University. But (not to spoil anything for later in the list) they must have used up all the heart they had at the Pixarplex on Toy Story 3, because there wasn’t anything left for Cars 2. If they had to make a sequel to what had already been one of their worst movies, why did they have to focus it on Mater – a character who was only “annoying” when he was minor comedic relief, but completely intolerable as the focus? There was no authenticity to this movie, no sense that the filmmakers believed in what they were creating, and featured by far the worst script of any of the Pixar canon. It felt like a cynically easy cash grab and a vehicle (heh heh) for toy sales.
But it also broke Pixar’s track record of never making a crappy film. Technically as marvelous as any of their others, but a total failure in every other meaningful way.
13. A Bug’s Life (1997)
While A Bug’s Life was my least favorite Pixar movie up until the release of Cars 2, I want to note that I don’t at all think it’s bad. It’s still perfectly entertaining, and the leap in technology from Toy Story, their first film, to this, their second one, was immense – just look at that model bird in the big climax compared to anything from Toy Story. But A Bug’s Life also featured what would stand as their most annoying lead character until Mater, and most of the secondary cast, while funny, didn’t have any of the emotional resonance that even the minor characters from the great Pixar movies boast. This one gets a solid B from me, which is still damn good, if not truly Pixar-like.
12. Cars (2006)
I know John Lasseter’s “The Man” at Pixar and all (y’know, being the guy who founded the company), but this labor of love from him was… underwhelming. Again, certainly not bad, and it’s held up surprisingly well to the several thousand viewings of it I’ve endured thanks to my kids. The Boy especially is enamored of Lightning McQueen; the number of toys and articles of clothing I have with Lightning’s mug on them is positively staggering. But I think the fundamental problem with Cars was much the same as with A Bug’s Life: its lead character simply wasn’t compelling enough (Owen Wilson’s voice just didn’t connect with me) and the supporting cast was colorful but not especially engaging (Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson aside).
(Oh, ha ha ha – when I wrote this originally in 2009, this is where I said “Maybe that’s a problem which will get rectified in the sequel.” Ah, the naïveté of youth.)
11. Monsters University (2013) new for 2013!
I’d said in the 2012 version of this article that I wasn’t looking forward to this prequel to the number ten movie on this list – not because I was expecting it to be bad, but because I didn’t feel like it was a story that needed telling. And the movie we got was almost exactly the movie I expected to get: a safe, predictable, easily-digestible comedy that slid easily through the eyeballs, into the brain and right out the earholes. Or something like that. It was mostly forgettable is what I’m saying.
Except for the turn MU took at the three-quarter mark, when the recent Pixar tendency toward maturity and complexity kicked in, and we got an absolutely lovely moment (both visually and emotionally) between James P. Sullivan and Mike Wazowski. It wasn’t enough to much raise my estimation of the movie as a whole, but it was a good sign that Pixar’s still willing to bring the emotional hammer. It’s part of what makes even their lower-end fare stick out above the flood of mediocre animated movies that come out every year.
10. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
And now we enter the solid A-minus-and-up range with the movie that has been bumped down the list not because of any real flaws on its part, but simply because all the films ahead of it are better. And that “emotional connection” thing I mentioned was missing from the non-_Monsters_ movies above? Yeah, totally present here. There’s more pure emotion in the closing shot of Sully than in those last bottom three flicks on this list put together. (Pixar Show-Off Shot: Sully’s fur, especially when blowing in the wind and covered in snow.)
9. Toy Story 2 (1999)
In many ways, probably a superior film to the original Toy Story, but this list is rating my favorite Pixar movies, not necessarily the best. Story goes that Toy Story 2 was supposed to be a straight-to-video release (banging out straight-to-video sequels was pretty much standard practice with Disney’s animated features back then), but when Disney realized just how good it was, they had Pixar polish it up for theatrical release instead. And good thing, too: it went on to gross $245 million, making it the third-highest-grossing film of ‘99.
8. Brave (2012)
Honestly, I’m not yet sure if this slot is where Brave will end up after I’ve seen it a few more times. As of now it feels correct, but we’ll see; I suspect the mother-daughter relationship will only grow on me and become more meaningful to me over time. Certainly a gorgeous film, and with a fantastic lead character (I’ll admit I might have been happy to see a feisty redhead as the lead, having one of those myself), I think Brave suffers most solely by our expectations of what a Pixar movie should be; had it not so closely followed Up and Toy Story 3 and WALL-E, it might have seemed brighter in our collective eyes. But I also think time will be kind to it as we see it more times and realize exactly how much it’s not Just Another Disney Princess Movie (an entirely unfair accusation thrown its way by far too many lazy critics).
(Also: bears. I love bears.)
7. Up (2009)
Ah, Up – part of a string of Pixar movies which all made me cry. Jerks.
This brightly-colored meditation on death and the passing of love was occasionally difficult to watch – but joyous at the same time. It’s a fairly well-passed-around Internet meme at this point, but it’s true: Up told a deeper, more meaningful love story in ten minutes, without dialogue, than the Twilight films have managed over eight+ hours of screen time.1
6. Ratatouille (2007)
I realize this is higher than most people would put this movie, but I’ve always really liked Ratatouille, quite possibly because it was helmed by Brad Bird, my favorite animation director (and one of my favorite directors, period). One of the things I absolutely adore about this movie – even aside from the gorgeous renderings of Paris and the celebrations of both cooking and eating – is the fact that lead characters are so flawed. Remy is petty, obstinate, defensive and rash; Linguini is weak (to begin with, anyway), cowardly, willing to take credit not due him, and equally rash. Yet together, they manage to lift themselves above their “humblest beginnings” (so says the critic Anton Ego) to incredible successes – and they lift Ratatouille up, too.
5. Toy Story (1995)
I first discovered Pixar in 1992 when I saw their short film “Knick Knack” as part of an animation festival in Tampa. I immediately fell in love with the company – while they certainly weren’t the first company to produce computer-generated animation, they were far and away the best I’d seen yet – and I desperately looked forward to seeing more work from them. Then two years later, I heard they were producing a feature-length animated film to be released by Disney. I saw Toy Story the weekend it opened in theaters – a tradition I’ve continued to follow with all twelve of their subsequent releases – and loved it even more than I’d been expecting to. The technology obviously doesn’t hold up as well as one might hope, but hey, it’s almost twenty years old; that’s lifetimes in terms of software development. The story craft was already there, though, and (here’s a little secret for you) that’s just as important to me as the actual animation. (Toy Story also sparked some of my earliest love for Joss Whedon, before I even knew who the hell he was!)
4. WALL-E (2008)
WALL-E has to be one of the most engaging, sympathetic leads in any movie in recent history; the fact that director Andrew Stanton and his crew managed to convey those qualities with such limited dialogue really is a testament to Pixar’s animation genius. Yes, OK, fine – the environmental message can come across a little preachy. Or a lot preachy. But it’s a good message, so it doesn’t much bother me, especially in the service of such an excellent movie.
The Incredibles (heh heh)
3. Finding Nemo (2003)
One of the most finely-tuned scripts of any movie I’ve seen, animated or otherwise. Not a scene or line feels wasted to me: the Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay director Stanton received for this movie was very well justified. Nemo features one of the strongest supporting casts of any of the Pixar flicks, and the interplay between Ellen DeGeneres’ Dory and Albert Brooks’ Marlin still makes me laugh (and care) every time I watch it. Unsurprisingly, the bit about the overprotective father learning to let go gets to me, too. (Also, Nemo was the first of six Pixar movies to date to take home the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.)
2. Toy Story 3 (2010)
The antithesis in almost every way of Cars 2. This was a story that deserved to be told and characters who warranted re-visiting. Easily the darkest of Pixar’s movies, Toy Story 3 (which was rightfully nominated for Academy Awards for, among others, Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay) packed a hell of an emotional wallop, especially during an ending sequence in which I truly thought the animators might actually off their beloved cast. Thankfully, that’s not the ending they got; instead, not only did they get a happy ending but the right ending… as well as a new beginning. While the setup for a Toy Story 4 is most certainly there, I hope the temptation to make it remains merely that. (They’ve started making short films with these characters, and I’m fine with those, especially since all the ones I’ve seen so far have been hilarious.)
1. The Incredibles (2004)
Honestly? The Incredibles is my favorite movie, period. Here’s the thing: when I first saw the teaser trailer for this one before Finding Nemo and found out what it was about and who was behind it, my mind was already blown. It’s Pixar? And superheroes? And it’s written and directed by Bird, the genius behind The Iron Giant, my favorite non-Pixar animated movie? My expectations were so high that I was convinced there was no way this movie could possibly live up to them.
But it did. To make a bad Pixar joke: if my expectations were infinite, then The Incredibles went to infinity and beyond. The characters are richly nuanced and believable, the animation and design are stunning, the script respected its audience’s intelligence, the heroic action scenes had a “the way superheroes really would move” quality to them that I didn’t see matched until The Avengers… honestly, The Incredibles is in many was my platonic ideal of a movie, a film that feels like it was crafted solely with me in mind. I sincerely hope they never make a sequel, because I don’t think it could do the original justice.
Of course, Pixar’s blown away my expectations before…
Oh, like I even know if that’s true. I haven’t seen any of the Twilight movies. This is me engaging in the “lazy criticism” I accused other people of in regards to _Brave. Very well, I contradict myself._ ↩