Recently on social media, I hinted at the prospect of an entire month (give or take) cultivating lists focused around a specific genre, building up to one of my long-overdue “All-Time Greats” lists. In my pitch, I mentioned a month focused on animation – and in particular, Pixar, Disney, and the genre as a whole. As it turns out, the idea was greeted with much enthusiasm. And so, I thought I’d kick off Animation Month with one of my most-requested rankings ever: The Definitive Ranking of Pixar Movies.
As has any true-blue millennial, I have watched every single Pixar movie – most of them in theaters – and have created a mathematically sound, completely inarguable ranking of each and every film in the Pixar canon. My only ground rule: each film has to be made by Pixar themselves (so no Buzz Lightyear of Star Command or Planes), and the shorts are ineligible. That’s it. Everything else is up to my discretion, and I ranked them based on strength of story, ability to tackle weighty topics in a child-friendly manner, family-friendly appeal (i.e. children love it as much as adults), and animation innovation (i.e. did it break new ground in what animation can do). I even managed to sneak in Luca, just in the nick of time. So, without further ado, let’s take a look at the Definitive Ranking of Pixar Movies.
24. Cars 2
I’m not sure how much I blame Cars 2 on Pixar. Its creation came about after Disney forced a merger on the company where Pixar staff came to Disney and Disney staff came to Pixar (also the reason that Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, and Frozenwere so good). And I do give the company credit for some cool sequences playing with color. But overall, this film is a dud. It lacks the magic of its predecessors, mainly due to a lack of dazzling animation, a pretty substandard spy story (with a SHOCKING amount of death…good Lord, they brutally show Car Bruce Campbell’s head exploding), an overtly obvious and poorly rendered moral (this film is more obvious in its environmental messaging than Wall-E, and that’s saying something), and a story of friendship that doesn’t fit in with anything else in the film. Perhaps the biggest misstep is the amount of Mater in the film – while I like Larry The Cable Guy’s goofy truck, he works better in small doses. Larry just can’t carry an entire movie – especially a movie’s who’s sole message is to yell at the audience for laughing at him. The other actors seem wholly disinterested, with Owen Wilson reading lines fresh off his suicide attempt, and Michael Caine almost audibly asking about his paycheck between lines. Honestly, the only memorable moments in the entire film come from the John Turturro/Tony Shalhoub Italian jokes and the presence of a Popemobile. Everything else isn’t worth the money spent to animate.
Honestly, Cars 2 only snatches the bottom slot because it is an unoriginal project and the visuals are lacking. If you asked me to pick a film I think is worse overall, it’s Brave. I’ve got to tread carefully now, because Brave has a huge fanbase. But let’s really take a look at this one, shall we? Does Brave break any ground with its animation? Not really, it’s all forests we’ve seen before – and better – in Miyazaki movies. Ok, is the story groundbreaking? Well, let’s look at that. People give this film a lot of credit for being a) a great mother-daughter story, and b) because the princess “doesn’t end up with the prince.” But looking more closely, neither of these things seem to be true. The crux of this story focuses on Merida, fed up with her mother’s desire for her to become a proper lady and marry a prince, poisoning her mother and turning her into a bear. Even if the potion doesn’t kill her mother, Merida didn’t know that when she put it in the pastry. It’s not like Ariel, where the selfishness is only, in theory, supposed to affect her. Merida full on poisons her mom. I have an illustration of this logic below (courtesy of critic Brad Brevet):
Oh, and her three brothers, who become bears and force the audience to look at their little bear asses. Great. Once this becomes the film’s focus, all the goodwill earned in the semi-decent first act is instantly washed away as we watch our heroine spend the entire movie shouting “Not my fault!” over and over again, not even taking responsibility for her actions in the finale. Oh, and as it turns out, it’s all for naught, because if you pay attention closely to the ending, Merida does actually choose one of the princes. Seriously, go back and watch, you see her hug and kiss one of them goodbye. Brave is a failure as a story, as a piece of animation, and as a Pixar film overall.
22. Monsters University
Another film that seems like it possesses no redeeming qualities, I give Monsters University an edge here over the bottom two films for two reasons. First and foremost, I think the college humor actually kind of works. Oh, it’s not great – what film marketed for children could accurately capture the college experience? But I enjoyed some of the frat jokes, and the pure hatred saved for the improv club is a great bit. And second, Mike and Sully, as voiced by Billy Crystal andJohn Goodman, are two of the best, funniest characters in all of Pixar’s canon. Unfortunately, outside of their chemistry, there is truly nothing memorable about this monstrously boring film. None of the side characters work, the story is lazy, and there’s no sense of stakes present…ever. I can’t even praise it for the visuals like some of the other films on this list. I won’t bash this film for the same reasons as my Monsters Inc. loving brother, who feels this film “disregarded the lore of the original film” (I’m not that big a nerd). But as a piece of art, and as a coherent, entertaining story, Monsters University is a nothing burger from beginning to end.
Onward was the last film I saw in theaters before the pandemic. Now, I don’t want to imply that this film caused the pandemic – that would be extreme. But I’m also not saying that it didn’t cause the pandemic. I really loathed this film; almost straight through, or at least for two acts. Sure, Tom Holland and Chris Pratt are charismatic characters, and there are a couple cute moments – Tom does a great job portraying the loss of a parent during one scene where he recreates a conversation with a recording of his late father, and I liked a lot of the humor involving Just Legs Dad. But other than that? Tell me how this story about two boys trying to bring their father back to life And Also They’re Monsters is unique in any way? The animation is flat and uninteresting. The voice actors seem solely interested in a Pixar pay out. The characters are confusingly motivated. And none of the action sequences feel memorable in the slightest. The only reason Onward isn’t lower is because its third act – involving a well-timed flashback – is exactly the type of climax Pixar is great at, earning tears when they quite literally should not. I give kudos to the studio for their understanding of the three-act structure – everything else is hogwash.
As we turn the corner from “bad” Pixar movies to “fine” Pixar movies, we must discuss Cars. Cars earned the reputation of being the first “bad” Pixar movie. I think that’s a little harsh. Sure, it’s not the most visually interesting film, in terms of animation. And in terms of the story, a bigtime hotshot who learns the importance of friendship in a small town is almost as old as the country itself. But what Cars lacks in terms of innovation, it makes up for on two different fronts: the execution and the voice acting. The car world is so fully realized, in relatively creative ways, from Volkswagon insects to car racing-as-sport to gasoline as food, female groupie cars “flashing” their headlights at celebrities, and each different car model serving as a different type of human (Italian cars as Italians, Jeeps as hardened vets, and VW buses as hippies). And let’s not forget the cast, which includes Wilson and Larry The Cable Guy, George Carlin, Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, and perhaps the film’s greatest weapon, acclaimed actor Paul Newman. Honestly, the film works thanks to Paul Newman’s heavy lifting as a grizzled retired racecar who serves as the mayor of the small town. Cars is an imperfect, but intriguing entry in the Pixar canon.
19. Finding Dory
I find myself in a strange boat with Finding Dory (so sorry for that pun). It quite literally only exists to make money, with no effort put into the plot whatsoever. But it also is a stunning technical achievement, giving the illusion that Pixar decided that, once Disney put the gun to their heads, they would test out new technologies to see what they could do in the future. Oh, sure, there’s a central story about finding lost parents that’s mildly interesting, and there are funny moments, including an octopus attack that results in a car crash, or near-sighted sharks and concussed whales, but the film mostly works because of what it accomplishes. Pixar had spent the better part of the decade trying to make their animation look as realistic as possible. And that shows in every detail of the water. The effects are realistic in a way no animated film had accomplished before, dazzling audiences time and time again with the company’s abilities. At the end of the day, the unnecessary story didn’t matter, no matter how many Diane Keatons and Eugene Levys they threw at us (for the record, EXCELLENT casting for Dory’s parents), or Idris Elbas and Ty Burrells and Kaitlin Olsons popped up in bit roles. This was always a money grab on the producers’ parts, and a technical experiment on the artists’ part. I’m just glad they (barely) made it work.
18. Cars 3
I was a little hesitant to put Cars 3 above the original Cars. After all, while they are more directly tied-together, this one doesn’t have Paul Newman’s soulful performance as Doc. But there’s something about Cars 3 that makes it feel more unique. I can’t quite put my finger on it – maybe it’s the improved animation, maybe it’s the more poignant story than “winning isn’t everything,” but it just feels more immediate. It’s a story about being forced out of your career/passion (be it athletics, film, writing, etc.), and it weirdly doubles as a smart, funny sports story. It’s funny, everyone involved seems to be bringing their A-game in a way they didn’t in the first two films. Perennial Pixar favorite Randy Newman’s score is better than any work he’d done outside of Toy Story. The animation is stellar – maybe too stellar; the sequence where Lightning McQueen gets into a brutal, life-threatening crash is brought to life in graphic detail. A later sequence involving a hyper realistic Georgia race track is far more peaceful. Even Larry The Cable Guy strikes the perfect balance – he’s used mildly and appropriately, so much so that when he inevitably shouts “Git R Done,” it doesn’t bother me. And the new characters are interesting and enjoyable, whether its Cristina Alonzo’s bad-dialogue/great performance creation of Cruz or Actual Cannibal Armie Hammer “acting” like a douche. Cars 3 is a sweet little piece of filmmaking, a solid sports film, and the best of its trilogy.
The only problem I have with Luca, the most recent Pixar film, is that the story is pretty…ordinary. It feels like one of those one-off Disney films from the 40s and 50s where they blew their budget on one of Walt’s passion projects so they had to make an incredibly cheap film to recoup (see: Dumbo). Luca is strange because it feels fairly…anti-Pixar. Whereas the company in recent years has been trying to make their animation as photorealistic as possible, Luca goes the opposite direction, capturing a whimsical fantasy more aligned with Hayao Miyazaki and early Disney animation. That attempt to recreate Miyazaki magic is present throughout, telling a simple, mild parable about two boys trying to navigate a friendship as they get older. There’s also a subtle story about being different and having to hide who you are that has been and will be interpreted six ways to Sunday, but I’m not sure there’s enough evidence there for any interpretation. Still, despite all this negativity, Luca is still pretty fun. The story is cute, Giulia’s dad is easily a great Pixar character (a violent one-armed fisherman is always a solid addition), and Jacob Tremblay and Jack Dylan Grazer perfectly voice their characters. At the end of the day, the film is probably more SpongeBob than Miyazaki. But what’s wrong with that?
Ooh controversy. I think I just lost half the readers of this ranking. Now I know what you’re thinking: “But wait, isn’t Wall-E considered one of Pixar’s best? Groundbreaking in animation and story?” Well, yes, it is considered that. But hear me out: what if it wasn’t? Listen, I will give Wall-E its dues, for sure. The animation is utterly flawless – probably amongst the best the company has done. WALL-E is a great character, evoking Chaplin in his loveably earnest pratfalls and mostly silent performance. And the first act, following the little robot alone on a mountain of trash finding love with a suddenly-inoperative robot, is truly remarkable. It’s once we hit the second and third act that the film struggles. Wall-E billed itself as a subtle commentary on the way humanity’s consumption and corporations’ greediness was destroying the environment. Cool, great message. Only the film is so on the nose with its messaging that the company is named “Buy ‘N Large,” and humanity’s greedy consumption is personified by humongous fat people staring at cell phones and riding around in floating rascals. Oliver Stone is more subtle with his messaging. In fact, this isn’t even one of Pixar’s best stories about corporations destroying the environment. It was first done many years before, far more subtly, in a film I’ll get to in a minute. When coupled with a third act that’s just a ripoff of 2001 and Alien, and the fact that every character outside of WALL-E is so unmemorable they barely register beyond “Girl Robot,” “Fatty One,” “Fatty Two,” “Jeff Garlin,” and “Live Action Fred Wilard,” Wall-E finds itself at the middle of the pack of Pixar’s otherwise-impressive oeuvre.
15. The Good Dinosaur
Is The Good Dinosaur the most underrated Pixar film? I’m not quite sure I’d go that far. But it’s certainly got to be up there. So many dismiss The Good Dinosaur as one of Pixar’s lesser films. And I get it – it’s like a mash-up of Bambi, Ice Age, and The Croods. But there’s a simple beauty to the film that I feel most audiences overlook. The story may not be super original, but its simply told, and appropriately sweet. In a world where dinosaurs aren’t eliminated by the asteroid, they have evolved to the Western era, while humans evolved into dogs. Therefore, we get to play in two sandboxes: the natural world of films like Dumbo and Finding Nemo, and Western tropes, like cattle rustlers, outlaws, and a group of sheriff T-Rexes. The voice cast is smartly filled across the board, primarily perfect patriarch Jeffrey Wright, perfect matriarch Frances McDormand, and a wisely hammy Steve Zahn as a pterodactyl cattle rustler. And above all: the animation. This was one of Pixar’s first efforts to dabble in hyper-realistic animation, and it shows. The opening shots of water on a beach and a tranquil forest are unlike anything the company had accomplished before, and quite frankly hasn’t been matched yet. The Good Dinosaur is a delightful experiment, even if the parts are better than the whole.
14. The Incredibles 2
You know, it’s funny. For a series designed to be a throwback to superhero films of the eighties/nineties, The Incredibles 2 actually feels like the type of sequel to a superhero film of the eighties/nineties. It raises the stakes, mixes things up, but keeps the heart of the film firmly intact, even if it doesn’t take too many risks otherwise. The Incredibles 2 is a big budget version of a Saturday morning cartoon, complete with exciting action sequences (including one involving a train that is just super fun to watch), dazzling visuals, and a true sense of fun. Sure, the plot is just Mr. Mom. But that’s part of the fun! We get to watch Helen Hunter’s Elastigirl kick some major butt (for boss Bob Odenkirk!) while Craig T. Nelson’s hilariously huge father tries to learn “New Math” and harasses his teen daughter’s boyfriend at a restaurant (a scene my colleague Lena Smith once described as “aggressively accurate”). Oh, and have I mentioned the incredible team-up between Greatest Pixar Character Edna Mode and super-baby Jack-Jack? Sure, The Incredibles 2 isn’t very original, and its yet another sequel distracting Pixar from breaking new ground thematically and creatively. But what it lacks in emotional growth and creativity, it makes up for in great storytelling, great thrills, and a sense of magic and wonder. And sometimes, that’s all we need.
If I hadn’t seen Nine Days so recently, I may have considered placing Soul higher. When I first saw Soul, I thought its portrayal of the afterlife and its message about living life to the fullest were unique and thought provoking. Alas, having seen these themes done so well, and having had a year to think on it, I realize now that Soul just never brings its ideas together the way it should. It comes close. Like all the best animated films in history, it tackles weighty ideas about the meaning of life, the importance of art, and remembering to correct with people while we still can. Some of these moments are incredible, including most sequences in the Great Beyond, or the gorgeous, moving scene set inside a New York barber shop. But ultimately, these messages don’t come together the way they should. It’s like the filmmakers did 95% of the legwork, but couldn’t tie it off in a neat bow, so they taped it up and hoped no one would notice. Still, regardless of its just-miss nature thematically, there’s still a lot of good in Soul – in fact, mostly good. The voice cast is all excellent, including Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, and especially Rachel House as Terri. The stark, expressive animation is gorgeous to look at, and the score is an emotional journey. And above all, it’s really funny – every joke lands, and it may actually be the funniest Pixar film to date. Soul isn’t the best Pixar movie, but it certainly shows us exactly the type of magic we love so much.
Ratatouille has perhaps the strangest legacy of all Pixar films. It’s never thought of in the same way as, say, Toy Story or The Incredibles. And yet, it’s the one that sticks out in so many millennials’ minds. I think it’s because the premise is so ridiculously simple, and yet so iconic at the same time: a tiny rat who wants to be a chef and hides underneath the chef’s hat to cook. I mean, how great is that? Ratatouille is a love letter to Paris, to cooking, and, to a greater extend, to art. It’s about a young rat trying to follow his dreams, to become the top of his craft, and about a community coming together to bring dreams to life. Patton Oswalt is, strangely, the only choice for a cartoon rat who loves to cook, just as Brad Garrett is the perfect choice for the chef who trains him. The film not only comes up with an interesting theme – “Anyone can cook,” which, like so many great Pixar films, is a metaphor for art – and actually backs it up. Oh, and have I mentioned that performance by the legendary Peter O’Toole as a vicious food critic who is transported back to his childhood by the magic of food in a Proustian existential crisis? It’d be wrong to place Ratatouille in the Top Ten – its just too simple by nature. But it’d be wrong to dismiss it off-hand, just as it’d be wrong to dismiss the tiny rat who just wants to cook. Side note: how great does that ratatouille look? I’ve tried to cook it myself and it’s damn difficult – I’ve got the scars to prove it.
11. Toy Story 4
Let me explain first why Toy Story 4 isn’t in the Top Ten. I could not, in good conscience, put all four Toy Story films in the Top Ten. And if any Toy Story film was going to miss out, it was going to be the most unnecessary, the coda on the story that decided that “what comes after death” is the most interesting story this series could tell. Ok, now that I’m done being negative – how great is Toy Story 4? It’s a beautiful story about finding your place in the world when you’re past your prime, and what comes next when you’re too old to do what you love. It takes place in a world where there are no easy answers – the “villain” Gabby-Gabby is basically hero Woody’s twin, and her motives are not only understandable – they’re justifiable. She even earns the film’s biggest sob moment, right near the end. And the film overall serves as a beautiful coda to the Toy Story saga, a farewell to the characters a generation grew up with. The film is coupled with stunning animation – including an opening scene rescue that stands tall as one of the series’ best moments – and fabulous new characters, like Keanu Reeves’ Duke Kaboom and Key and Peele as Ducky and Bunny. Oh, and how can I forget Forky, a character whose entire role is to suffer existential dread and try to kill himself, set to a jaunty musical number? Toy Story 4 is the best you can hope for on a film that shouldn’t exist – whimsical, enjoyable, and breezy, even if the wind is already out of the series’ sails.
10. A Bug’s Life
At the time of its release, A Bug’s Life was criticized as a failure for the up-and-coming animation studio. Met with a similar film from rival Dreamworks in Antz and expected to live up to Toy Story’s acclaim, A Bug’s Life never stood a chance. Which is a shame, because it is not only memorable and engaging – it’s downright delightful. A cross between “The Grasshopper and The Ant” and Three Amigos!, A Bug’s Life tells the fascinating story of a group of actors called upon to save an ant colony from a gangster-esque group of grasshoppers. There’s an interesting message at the core, as the subtle allegory for unionization against a group of corrupt elites. But what’s most engaging with A Bug’s Life is not the story, but the execution. The cast itself is massive and impressive, from leads Dave Foley, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Hayden Panettiere to acting troupe Jonathan Harris, Madeline Kahn, Brad Garrett, David Hyde Pierce, and especially Denis Leary, and even the villains played by Richard Kind and the probably-not-acting Kevin Spacey. Each actor plays an intricate role in the film’s tapestry. And then there’s the animation – not quite up to par with modern standards, but still unbelievably gorgeous with its hues of green, impeccable scale (look at the blades of grass in relation to the bugs on display), and a massive, horrifying bird ready to kill the characters at a moment’s notice. A Bug’s Life is a smarter film than it seems, funnier than we remember, and better-cast than most in the Pixar oeuvre. And it deserves the acclaim it didn’t quite get in 1998.
9. Toy Story 2
Toy Story 2 is a strange little creation. Done in an effort to appease Disney’s contract with the studio (a contract Disney later reneged upon in an effort to bankrupt the studio and buy it outright), the film is basically the greatest “Screw You” in cinematic history. Who knew that a throwaway film meant to pass the time to make quote unquote “better movies” could have this much heart and depth? Each Toy Story film tackles a different aspect of adulthood and working life – the first film is about being replaced, the last film is about retirement/death, and Toy Story 2 is about suffering a midlife crisis and pursuing fame. However, unlike the other Toy Story films, where the themes and the story are the point, Toy Story 2 seems more interested with character dynamics and engaging set pieces. The fact Woody’s dealing with his “collector status” while the other toys stage a rescue mission is inconsequential. We get to see what a toy store looks like in a world where toys exist. There’s a terrifying dream sequence where Woody is “thrown away.” Toys scramble across a street using traffic cones and ride elevators. And Kelsey Grammar treats a silly screenplay like he’s reading Shakespeare for no discernible reason. Oh, and I can’t forget the Sarah McLachlan sequence designed solely to break your damn heart through the magic of storytelling. Toy Story 2, like the fourth film in the series, should not be. But it does, and we are, against all odds, all the better for it.
For the first act of Coco, I likely wouldn’t have put it in the Top Ten. Mostly a story about a young boy who wants to play music but whose family doesn’t want him to, there’s nothing unique there. In fact, by the time Miguel enters the Ghost World, I was already rolling my eyes and looking at my watch. Heck, it wasn’t even subtle – I’m pretty sure anyone could connect the dots over a Mexican man jumping the fence and trying to flee to a better world, but being sucked back in to his side of the border. But by the time the second act comes around, the film falls into place in new and unexpected ways. The family story comes to a head in a surprising way (involving murder! And betrayal! And long-lost loves!) The power of music is no longer an “this sounds pretty” thing, but a universal reminder of love and loss in a way most live action films just can’t manage. And in the final scene, where Miguel revives his dying grandmother’s memory with the song her father used to sing to her – reader, I cried. The entire third act is so moving, I couldn’t leave the theater for minutes after the movie ended. Coupled with gorgeous hues of orange, red, and blue that create an otherworldly, special quality (not quite hyper realistic, certainly not flat or disengaging), and Coco marks itself as a special experience, one that surpasses its own flawed first act.
7. The Incredibles
The Incredibles may be Pixar’s coolest film. I mean, it’s an original superhero film that doubles as a metaphor for suburban angst and satirizes the 60s nostalgia for the nuclear family. How cool is that? The basic concept is pretty simple: there’s a family of superheroes, and they aren’t able to use their powers. The dad feels cooped up in his office, and he decides to start moonlighting as a hero, and uncovers a conspiracy. The mom notices his midlife crisis and thinks he’s cheating, and goes to confront him. And soon the entire family is caught up in superhero shenanigans. Each detail of this world is thought out, even the powers – the dad is a staunch “tough guy,” so he’s super strong; the mom is stretched thin keeping things together, so she has elasticity; the son is a little ball of energy, so he’s super fast; and the daughter feels like an awkward teenager, so she becomes invisible. The action sequences are better than anything Marvel has done in twelve years’ time. Samuel L. Jackson plays a superhero scolded by his wife for forgetting their anniversary. And of course there’s Edna Mode, the flamboyant costume designer spoof of Edith Head who speaks in sardonic statements of grandeur. There are certainly smarter Pixar movies in the lexicon – and we’ll get to them. But in terms of sheer fun, you can’t do better than The Incredibles.
6. Toy Story 3
How many series manage to stick the landing (excluding Toy Story 4, which should not be) quite as well as Toy Story 3? The Godfather didn’t do it. The Matrix didn’t do it. One could argue that neither Star Wars or Lord of the Rings could do it, despite their popularity. Nevertheless, Toy Story 3 managed to conclude a story for children in a dazzling, masterful way that I’m not sure any other studio or director could ever pull off. And not many would dare to – after all, this is a children’s film that has decided to confront the greatest taboo in the genre: mortality. Toy Story 3 is two different films, combined into one, and both films are executed perfectly. On the one hand, it is a story about facing down mortality, as the toys who remain standing have witnessed friends “sold off” (read; passed on), look to reclaim their former glory, and eventually, stare into the fires of death holding hands, ready for the next chapter (side note: watching them accept death, only to be rescued by the tiny green aliens is probably the most perfect execution of cinema for Pixar…maybe ever?) And on the other hand, the film is an epic prison break, complete with a corrupt 1970s authoritarian (voiced to perfection by Ned Beatty), a terrifying monkey sidekick, and a master plan of escape, involving stealth and action. Oh, and did I mention that Michael Keaton voices a flamboyant Ken doll? Toy Story 3 is one of the only two Pixar films nominated for Best Picture, and it deserves it. It is a masterful conclusion to a trilogy, a thrilling feat of storytelling, and an emotional tour-du-force worth of Death of a Salesman – but, ya know, for kids!
5. Monsters, Inc.
A major reason for my disappointment with Wall-E is that, despite some of the greatest visuals in Pixar’s oeuvre, its central message was just so obvious. I prefer my stories to possess nuance, intelligently skewering their subject in dazzling new ways. Thus, Monsters, Inc. Like WALL-E, Monsters tackles environmentalist messages about big businesses damaging the Earth due to greed and corruption. But whereas Wall-E tackled these themes head-on, Monsters wove a more intricate narrative, where monsters scare children (i.e. drill for crude oil) to wade off a power shortage and businesses intentionally hide the benefits of making children laugh (i.e. wind and solar energy) instead. It’s a deep story, one whose message cannot be missed, and yet never feels “preachy” or “obnoxious” like its successor. Plus, Monsters, Inc. possesses a lot more magic. It’s the first Pixar film where the effects don’t look dated (the fur and scenery still stand out 20 years later). The set pieces involving a fancy restaurant and a series of changing doors are masterful examples of physical comedy. And it boasts perhaps the best collection of stars in any Pixar movie – Crystal and Goodman have excellent chemistry, but there’s also Jennifer Tilly’s Celia, the lovable Boo, James Coburn as a corrupt CEO, Steve Buscemi as a weaselly rival, and one of my favorite Pixar characters ever, Roz. Monsters, Inc. is the most underrated Pixar film, and easily deserves to be in the Top Five.
Up is a complicated one to choose for the Top Five, because how high does it deserve to go? If the film had ended after the first ten minutes, it probably could have been #1. Between Michael Giacchino’s score and the expertly animated depiction of a life full of love, hardship, magic, and loss, you have probably one of the greatest moments in movie history, all wrapped up with a neat little bow. Nothing that comes after it could even come close, in terms of storytelling, animation, or filmmaking in general. But it comes close, and that’s what makes the film so wonderful. It’s a story about redemption, of a man who has shut himself off from the world learning to live again after the loss of his beloved wife, and who learns to care for his fellow living beings thanks to the help of a lovably dorky Boy Scout named Russell, and a talking dog named Dug (who is the cutest damn dog you ever did see). You know, it’s funny. I started writing this article two months ago, and yet I must now share it in the wake of Ed Asner’s death. I think that’s a fitting sendoff. His Carl Fredricksen is one of Pixar’s greatest characters, a perfect curmudgeon who keeps his heart buried deep down, and whose innovation (a flying balloon house!) and redemption make for one of Pixar’s most intriguing characters. Coupled with excellent jungle adventure and a terrifying villain voiced by Christopher Plummer, and you have the makings of an all-time great family film: whimsical enough to dazzle children, and thought-provoking enough to delight adults. It’s damn near perfect.
3. Inside Out
I was very tempted to put Inside Out at #1. It’s the most I’ve ever cried during a movie. I’m not kidding – the literal child next to me asked if I was all right and offered me a tissue. But I cannot help it. I have two not-so-hidden beliefs about the nature of animation: I believe that children should not be coddled, and I believe that it should take us to places the real world never could. As for the first part, Inside Out does just that. It is an explanation of depression and loneliness that even children can understand, helping both the young and old feel less alone as they grapple with the complicated emotions adulthood brings. The story works both on a literal level – Joy’s ability to understand Sadness’ role in life – and the metaphorical level – if you cut out everything happening inside Riley’s brain, the story still makes sense. It’s all just a metaphor for how this girl’s feeling. But let’s stay on the metaphorical level, shall we? Every detail in Inside Out is perfect. The animation is bright and dazzling, contrasting the realistic hues of the real world. The side jokes about gum commercials and dumb teen boy brains are seamless and smart. And the actors are all perfectly cast, whether its NBC stars Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith as Joy and Sadness, Lewis Black as himself aka Anger, and Kyle Maclachlan as the Hot Dad. Oh, and I can’t forget Richard Kind as Bing-Bong, a character not so subtly set up to follow in the traditional Pixar villain footsteps, only to sacrifice himself in the most painful animated death since Bambi. Inside Out is easily the best Pixar film this decade, and if it weren’t for the innovation and emotion on display from our Top 2 choices, it would easily have been my #1 pick.
2. Toy Story
I mean, it was always a question of how high Toy Story was going to go. It’s the first Pixar movie, and the one that put them on the map. While the animation looks mildly dated by today’s standards (Andy and Sid look absolutely terrifying), it is still a masterful accomplishment by any measure of the imagination. The size and scope on display here, where ordinary rooms feel massive from the toys’ perspectives, is masterful – an opening shot of the toy soldiers marching out through an open door is otherworldly. But what makes the film interesting is the central concept. As I’ve written about multiple times thus far, Pixar is about angst in your career, and your purpose in life. In the first one, that angst is that you’ll eventually be replaced by someone younger and “cooler” in your respective field – thus the 60s-era conflict of a “cowboy,” the coolest thing of the 50s, being replaced by a space man, the coolest thing of the 60s. This central conflict also gives us Woody, voiced perfectly by Tom Hanks, one of the most interesting characters of all time. He’s a protagonist, and yet he’s a massive jerk (famously, he was based on Steve Jobs for this movie, the producer who never saw the parallels). He tries to murder his rival, constantly belittles his friends, and makes it hard to root for. It makes his eventual redemption all the more rewarding. Meanwhile, Tim Allen brings a macho daffiness to the role that I’m not sure another comedian could have accomplished. He makes Buzz Lightyear seem cool, then pathetic, and then, just when you need it most, triumphant. Heck, the film works so well, even the goofy songs by Randy Newman feel perfect. Toy Story was a hell of an accomplishment, and it’s the reason Pixar is where they are today.
1. Finding Nemo
There is no Pixar film more perfectly crafted than Finding Nemo. It is visually striking, with effects that have not aged. It is narratively and thematically rich, telling a grown up story in a grown up way that kids can still relate to. And it is cleverly funny, with each character perfectly cast and acted. Lots of people remember DeGeneres’ work as Dory, the comedic fish with memory loss issues and a stay-positive attitude. And there’s good reason for that – say what you will about the actress/comedian, Dory is an inspired creation. But let’s look at the central conflict involving Albert Brooks’ neurotic father and Alexander Gould’s wide-eyed son. This is a story that opens with a fish genocide, with Marlin watching his wife and kids being massacred by a barracuda. It gives his neuroses a whole new level, and makes his overprotection understandable. Meanwhile, watching Nemo come to understand, respect, and love his father is an emotional, beautiful journey that Pixar has yet to match. Each sequence on their odyssey possesses the perfect balance of whimsy, thrills, laughs, and adventures, whether it’s the deepest part of the ocean packed with weird-looking carnivores, a jellyfish field, a Vegetarian Shark Support Group (still one of the greatest creations in all of Pixar), and riding the mouth of a seagull to the rescue. And each character, whether it’s a scarred prison gang leader voiced by Willem Dafoe, a pelican voiced by Geoffrey Rush, or director Andrew Stanton as a stoner/surfer sea turtle named Crush (brilliant), is memorable in a way only Pixar can create – how many other films, animated or otherwise, can you name and define every character of the ensemble? No, Finding Nemo is one of the finest animated movies of all time, and easily Pixar’s best.
And there we are! The Definitive Ranking of Pixar Films! I hope I didn’t ruffle too many feathers with this list. I’m sure there are some of you who are appalled your favorites are so low, or wondering why I put certain films so high. Please remember: a Pixar film is about remembering the joy of being a little kid again, while also helping you wrestle with the pain of adulthood. If you manage to feel that special connection to any of these films, there is nothing in the world that can or should tell you that you’re wrong. Not even an Incredibly Accurate List by someone who is Absolutely Inherently Right. Nevertheless, if you want to plead the case of one of the film’s ranked here, or want to tell me I’m wrong, then please feel free to leave comment below. I love to engage with readers and discuss the magic of animation, even if you’re just telling me creatively where to shove this listicle. I’ll be back next week when I turn my attention to *checks notes* the Mouse House itself. Oy vey. I’m sure that’ll turn out well.