Recently, The Incredibles 2 was released on DVD and Blu-Ray, allowing the unstoppable Pixar machine to rake in a few more of the big bucks. Meanwhile, two trailers for Toy Story 4 appeared online just last week. While I wrote about one of the trailers right here, I never got a chance to review The Incredibles. Like so many films from the animation studio before, I fell in love with the smart story, vivid voice work, awesome animation, and the creative characters. And it is exactly those characters I want to take a look at today for this Wednesday Listicle, as we break down the Top Ten Pixar Characters!
In order to name the best Pixar character, we are looking at four criteria: Story Arc, Comedic Material, Empathy, and Voice Work. Basically, I’m looking to see if these characters go on an emotional or physical journey, if they can make us laugh, if they can make us cry, and did their Voice Over Actor put his or her heart and soul into the performance. Now, because of Pixar’s wide range of creative films and great characters, I had a wide number to choose from. Therefore, I will be breaking down the Honorable Mentions by movie, just to make it easy on you all to get mad at me. There’s the Toy Story movies, which gave us Buzz Lightyear, Rex, Jessie, Lots-O-Huggin’ Bear, and Ken, all to great effect. A Bug’s Life gave us Dot, Slim, Heimlich, and Francis, while Monsters, Inc. gave us Mike Wazowski. Finding Nemo gave us Crush and Bruce, and The Incredibles gave us the affable Frozone and the sensitive Violet Parr. Cars may have given us the obnoxious Mater (good in small doses), but it also gave us the wonderful Doc Hudson. And Up gave us Russell and Dug. Inside Out gave us complex characters like Riley and Sadness, as well as funny, sweet characters like Anger and Riley’s Hot Dad. And Coco gave us the mature, realistic portrayals of Héctor and Mamá Coco. Now, if you haven’t seen your favorite yet, never fear: there is a one-in-ten chance that your favorite character appears on the ACTUAL list. And if not…please hold your complaints until you’ve read my reasoning. And now…the Top Ten Pixar Characters!
I could write this entire essay on Roz, Monsters, Inc.’s secret weapon. Roz is a humorous satire of corporate bureaucracy, an archetype of the film’s office satire. Bob Peterson plays Roz as the bitter older woman often found in factory and blue-collar satires, a cross between Angela from The Office and Roseanne Conner from Roseanne. Her raspy voice is often judgmental of Mike Wazowski’s rule-breaking ways, and is known for its catchphrase: “I’m watching you, Wazowski. Always watching.” Even smarter is her design, a slug with the most on-the-nose hair-and-glasses combo satire has ever known. However, Roz’s shining moment comes in the film’s finale, when she is revealed not only to be an undercover agent for the Monstropolis’ version of the CIA (here the CDA, the Child Detection Agency), but the director. That’s right: this crotchety old administrator is the head of the Agency. That’s such a hilariously brilliant twist I don’t know what to say. All I know is whether you prefer Roz as an angry thorn in Mike Wazowski’s side or a badass boss who takes down corporate monsters (pun intended), she’s one of Pixar’s best characters.
You know, if you want a great character inside your grand epic, it’s a good bet to hire Willem Dafoe. Especially if your goal is to have Dafoe play a throwback to the grizzled leader of a prison break. Which brings us to Gill, one of the best characters in Finding Nemo’s massive cast of great characters. Finding Nemo is many things: it is an epic quest movie, an intimate family drama, a Gulliver’s Travels-esque journey film, and a mysterious prison break film. It is in this final plotline we meet Nemo and Gill. Having only grown up with his overprotective dad, Nemo quickly adopts Gill as a new parental figure, someone to save him from the impending threat of Darla (execution? Perhaps best to not overthink it) and someone willing to let him take risks in their quest to escape. And as voiced by Dafoe, it is easy to be taken in by Gill’s coolness: he’s tough, funny, suave, and supposedly super-smart (he breaks down prison breaks like he’s Steve McQueen). However, as Nemo almost dies in an attempt to initiate the escape, Gill’s flaws become more prevalent. However, while most films would make Gill a maniacal power-hungry schemer (i.e. Alec Guinness in River Kwai), Pixar makes Gill a more broken, likable figure: he cares for Nemo, but his one-mindedness will always put the poor youngster in danger, the same way he damaged his own gill many years before. And in seeing Gill’s vulnerability, it shows Nemo that his dad’s own vulnerability is not only a common trait, but an admirable one at that. Gill is a great foil, a great leader, and, at the end of the day, a great character.
A Bug’s Life is often (incorrectly, I’d argue) considered a lesser Pixar movie. It is essentially just a riff on Seven Samurai and Three Amigos made mostly to see if Pixar could successfully create an expansive world outside of Andy’s closet. Yes, the scope in the film is somewhat limited compared to other adventures the animation company has taken us on. However, I don’t think that undercuts the sheer achievement in entertainment they managed to come up with in their second outing as a company. And I think a major part of that success is because they managed to come up with one of Pixar’s greatest villains ever: Hopper. Voiced with villainous glee by Kevin Spacey (as we know now, perhaps not as far a stretch as it was once considered), Hopper is a terrific stand-in for fascists. With a tyrannical grip on the ant community, Hopper uses his strength and his vicious gang of grasshoppers to crush the community of worker bugs. In many ways, his relationship with the ants and his sheer abusive might is a solid throwback to Battleship Potemkin’s story of the abusive officers and the put-upon proletariat. Spacey takes great glee in delivering each sinister line, whether terrorizing the ants or reveling with his forces in their layer. And if you want an example of how to make a speech in a children’s movie sound like Shakespeare or Ibsen, listen to Hopper’s speech when he explains the divide and conquer tactics that dictators, fascists, and power-hungry leaders have used for centuries. That is not just evil by children’s movie standards, that’s evil by real world standards. Hopper is far and away the best villain Pixar has ever created, and one of the best characters to boot.
The Toy Story universe has had its share of great characters. From the universe-upended Buzz Lightyear to the cynical but loving Jessie to Don Rickles playing Mr. Potato Head as Don Rickles, each character has experienced a journey, growing and changing from their initial starting point. However, if there’s a particular reason that the series ever took off, or that the original film was ever a success, it would have to be the all-too-human Woody the Cowboy. I think the reason that Woody is such a remarkable character is the fact that, despite being the protagonist of the first movie, he has every reason to be the villain. In any other film, he would be the antagonist – he’s filled with jealousy and loathing, he constantly mocks and ridicules his fellow toys, and, in a move much more in line with Richard III than Hamlet or Henry V, he actively tries to murder another toy, in an attempt to regain his supremacy over the other toys. However, the point of these films is not to demonize the character for bad decisions, but to show his growth, his journey to acceptance, to learning the error of his ways and redeeming himself in the climax. The story behind Woody’s growth is a funny one – originally, he was supposed to be an antihero, a Travis Bickle type if you will. In order to achieve this, Pixar based the character in the script and storyboard on their tyrannical boss – Steve Jobs. Jobs watched a rough cut of the film and, while he liked the complexity of the character, he ordered them to tone it down, because “No one would want to see a movie with such an unlikeable protagonist.” Add in Tom Hanks’ voice, both playing into his everyman persona while also offsetting the character’s rougher edges, and give him two sequels where he is tempted with images of grandeur and grapples with his own mortality, and you end up with one of the most iconic characters in all of movie history, and one of the best characters Pixar has ever developed.
6. Carl Fredricksen
Whenever the day comes that Pixar stops making movies (or at least stops making good movies), we may look back as a culture and realize that Up was their greatest achievement. An epic action-adventure mixed with a twist on the coming of age story, Up was unlike anything we had ever seen from animation, at least on a storytelling and visual level. And the reason for that is the rich, riveting characterization of Carl Fredricksen. On paper, Carl is the stereotypical crotchety old man – he doesn’t like kids, he doesn’t smile, he’s bitter, and he wants to leave behind a society that pities him more than cares about him. Hell, compare the first twenty minutes of this movie to Gran Torino and there would be little difference (confused parents please note: there would be a lot of difference). However, what makes Carl Fredricksen such a great character is the backstory we get to explore. We have watched this old man grow up, from childhood to old age, as he gave up on his dreams, as he learned that he could never be a father, and as he let his beloved wife, the only person to ever understand him, die without accomplishing her goals. He is bitter because he feels like a failure, and he loathes society for holding him back. However, watching him learn to love again, in the form of an idealistic and mistreated young boy named Russell, an obnoxious bird named Kevin, and an overzealous dog named Dug, is one of the purest demonstrations of growth in all of movie history, and seeing his face as he reads the final notes of his dear Ellie is finer than most performances given by flesh-and-blood actors. Thanks to the voice of Ed Asner (the living embodiment of a crotchety old man), Carl Fredricksen serves as one of the greatest characters of the 2000s, and one of the best characters Pixar has designed.
Truth be told, I’m not a big fan of the movie Wall-E. It’s pretty to look at, but it’s so on-the-nose the plot is almost exhausting (oh, it’s a blunt statement about environmentalism? Yeah, Monsters, Inc. did that first seven years earlier). However, despite the film’s glaring flaws and weak characters, there is one character that stands out as original, empathetic, hilarious, and utterly charming; and that’s the eponymous WALL-E. From Charlie Chaplin to Chauncey Gardner to Winnie the Pooh, audiences have always loved the idealistic dreamer. A fine contrast to the bitterness of the rest of the cast, the dreamer is the embodiment of love and hope, who sees the good in things even as the world falls apart around him. When we first meet WALL-E, he has dreams of love and hope, inspired by his Hello Dolly! VHS, despite the fact that he is the sole survivor on an abandoned Earth ravaged by reckless pollution and garbage. However, like Chaplin’s famous Tramp, he finds himself on a journey of love and sacrifice when he meets EVE, a cynical robot programmed to study the Earth for signs of habitable life. And when he finds himself transported to the Axiom, his childlike wonder at the vastness of space, the purity of love, and his passion for both people and plant-life alike, he reinvigorates the human race with a desire for love and a desire to reinhabit their former home. WALL-E is an ode to physical comedy, a loving clown filled with hope and optimism, and one of the best characters Pixar has ever designed.
4. Bing Bong
Oh Bing Bong. You sad, wonderful clown. Bing Bong works on two levels, both as his own character and an undercut of expectations based on recent Disney trends. Some background: ever since Disney and Pixar merged staffs in 2010, the writing of both films started to become interchangeable. And one of the most overused storytelling beats has been the Secret Villain – Toy Story 3, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and more have had a supposedly likable character turn out to be the film’s villain in the third act. While often clever, its overuse soon became cliché and predictable to anyone paying attention to the story. So when Bing Bong, Riley’s former imaginary friend, shows up in Inside Out, it seems fairly obvious that he will become angered by her neglection and set out to sabotage Joy and Sadness’ journey back to the Command Center. Of course, as we all know, the film not only avoided the popular trend of the era, but it bucked it. Hard. Which brings us to why Bing Bong is so great. Voiced by the sensitive, wonderful Richard Kind, Bing Bong shows up as a lovably obnoxious source of energy – his inability to read causes increasing danger to the group, he seems caught in the past and unable to escape, and his energy can only be described as half-SpongeBob and half-Donald Duck. However, his sweet earnestness and his hearkening back to our own childhood imaginary friends serves as a nostalgic connection to audiences. And then the kicker: in the darkest hour, when Riley seems hopeless and Joy is broken down, Bing Bong sacrifices his life to save his former friend, and to bring Joy back into her life. It’s symbolically poignant, a farewell to childhood that works literally and metaphorically. And it reduced a then-twenty-year-old to tears in front of an audience of toddlers (piss off, you emotionless freaks).
3. Anton Ego
It still baffles me that critics in 2007 so readily acclaimed Anton Ego from Ratatouille (or maybe not, considering I’m about to do the same thing). He exists solely as a satiric critique of the entire nature of criticism. I mean, the film opens with Ego relishing in the knowledge that his scathing review of Gusteau’s Restaurant most likely killed its owner. However, the reason that most critics and audience members love Ego is that, in essence, there are two Egos. The first is the infamous food critic audiences are introduced to in the film’s first half, leveling threats and foreboding promises upon the protagonists with a distinctive growl only possessed by the best English actors to ever live. He is the embodiment of critical satire, a grotesque that audiences can laugh and jeer at throughout. However, things change when we meet the second Ego, the one who lays bare the reason people become critics in the first place. Upon tasting chef Remy’s ratatouille, Anton is transported back to his childhood, when his mother would take care of his wounds and prepare him a delicious meal. It is a reminder of simpler times, of the love he has in his heart, and tasting the meal awakens the passion that had gone dull in his old age. This results in one of the greatest screen monologues ever delivered, thanks to Pixar’s casting of all-time great actor Peter O’Toole in the role. Listening to one of O’Toole’s last great monologues, audiences are reminded that critics understand that, while bad reviews are fun to write and fun to read, the “junk” they review will always be more popular. The true joy of being a critic is not the put-downs or insults; it is the knowledge that you can be a champion of the new when society isn’t ready to accept it. It’s why Ebert loved movies, it’s why Kaufman loved theatre, and it’s why Anton Ego loves food. This is a rich character unlike any seen in animation, and thanks to this wonderful monologue delivered by a pro (heard right here), Ego remains one of the best Pixar characters of all time.
And now we come to the only Pixar character so popular, she inspired a drastic change of course for the entire series of movies: Dory. Dory is the perfect example of the Pixar Template: a funny, sweet character that will tickle the fancy of most young children, while dealing with some sort of major trauma that would mainly be appreciated predominantly by adults. While Gill’s arc above made up a good portion of Finding Nemo’s plotline, the main thrust of the film follows the epic buddy road trip comedy of Marlin and Dory. Like Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Midnight Run before, the duo is something of an odd couple: Marlin is a bitter widower who is now afraid of everything and annoyed by everyone (except his son), while Dory is a happy-go-lucky Regal Blue Tang suffering from short-term memory loss. Much of the fun of the film is watching Dory get Marlin into a series of shenanigans, including accepting an invitation to a Shark AA meeting, getting eaten by a whale after attempting to speak to it, and ultimately getting caught in a fisherman’s net. However, Dory’s shenanigans also allow Marlin to open up from his shell, to remind him to enjoy life after being crushed in the massacre of his wife and 999 of their children (did I mention that this is a children’s film that opens with mass genocide?). Her motto of “Just Keep Swimming,” as well as the euphoric voicing by the un-dislikeable Ellen DeGeneres is a call to look on the bright side of life, to embrace optimism and see the light in the darkness. And when compounded with the fact that Dory is optimistic despite a debilitating mental illness, it makes the character richer, smarter, and all the more beautiful. Dory has become one of Pixar’s most popular characters, but her impact goes beyond that: she is one of their greatest.
1. Edna Mode
I lied at the beginning of this article. I said that I was making this list because of the DVD release of The Incredibles 2 and the Toy Story 4 trailers. This is inaccurate. In truth, I made this list for one reason, and one reason only: I wanted an excuse to write about the genius that was and is Edna Mode. Edna Mode is, without a doubt, the funniest, richest, most realistic character Pixar has ever made. You see, in answering the mundane questions of superhero life (what do they do when they go home at night? How do they date? Who made their suits?), Pixar introduced the concept of a Superhero Designer, a fashion designer who, beyond making gowns and suits for royalty, celebrities, and diplomats, designed bulletproof, superpower resistant super suits for heroes large and small. And to create their own personal Reynolds Woodcock, they channeled the greatest, most insufferably wonderful designer of them all: Edith Head. The result is a super short Tallulah Bankhead-sounding firecracker voiced by Brad Bird, and while she only appears in a handful of scenes (seriously, she’s probably onscreen for a total of ten minutes of the two hour runtime), she damn near steals the entire movie. There’s her incessantly long security system that almost executes Helen Parr, her general malaise about creating a bulletproof, fireproof super suit for baby Jack-Jack (“What do you think the baby will be doing?” asks a horrified Helen), her mocking tone as she inspires Helen to chase after the presumably cheating Bob Parr, and the immortal catchphrase, “No capes!” Every moment Edna is onscreen is iconic, because she is an amalgamation of so many real-life pop culture touchstones, an Easter egg for movie lovers. She is clever, witty, funny, adult, childish, and ingenious. In short, she is the best example of everything that makes Pixar characters great, and easily the greatest Pixar character of all time.
Well, I hope you enjoyed this look at the Top Ten Pixar Characters! I’ll be back later this week with another list, hopefully before Thanksgiving. Until then, please feel free to comment below, whether to support your favorite characters or wish death upon me for leaving off yours! And here’s hoping Pixar will bless us with more masterpieces for years to come.