With the release of Cars 3 this month, and the trailer for Coco coming with it, I thought it might be time to reflect on the animation studio that defined my childhood and shaped modern children’s animation. Here are my rankings of all 18 Pixar feature films, from worst to best. Or more accurately, great to least good.
18. Cars 2Since it’s release in 2011, Cars 2 has been the only Pixar film that I had never seen, until I watched it for this list. I wasn’t missing much. Cars 2 is the most naked cash-grab in Pixar’s filmography, and easily it’s weakest film. This sequel takes it’s focus away from Owen Wilson’s race car Lightning McQueen, and shifts it to annoying sidekick Mater, played by Larry the Cable Guy. Sadly, Lightning’s storyline, about a globetrotting race around the world, is actually kind of interesting, but the story keeps cutting back to Mater’s antics before you can get too invested. And Mater’s storyline is just awful. Almost all it’s conflict is based on easily explainable misunderstandings, like secret agents mistaking Mater for a spy, or Lightning refusing to listen to Mater telling him he is strapped to a bomb.
This is the only Pixar film to feel legitimately dumb, and not to be mean, but the song that plays in the credits is among the worst songs I’ve ever heard. Only click that link if you’re feeling brave. And speaking of:
17. BraveThere’s some interesting elements to Brave, but for the most part it’s just kind of boring. Brave was a troubled production, with director Brenda Chapman replaced halfway through the film’s completion by Mark Andrews. This really shows in the final film, where has a really cool concept (a princess playing for her own hand in marriage in a competition), is sidelined in favor of a supernatural story that feels like it comes out of nowhere.
I’d be interested to see Chapman’s version of the film, because the Brave that was released is kind of a mess. It also bothers me that it beat out the thoughtful, moving, Paranorman for best animated feature at the 2012 Oscars. Made me feel like the academy just blindly votes for Pixar every year.
In summary, Brave has it’s moments, but never really comes together.
16. CarsI was still in elementary school when Cars came out, and it was the first Pixar film I decided to avoid. Even though I was a kid, I think I could kind of tell it was pandering to me. Cars went on to make an insane amount of money, but when I saw it a couple years later, I felt like I was right to avoid it.
The racing sequences at the beginning and end are okay, but the main story, about a race car needing to slow down and appreciate small town life, doesn’t really work. It would help if any of the “small town life” was interesting. Instead, the setting is boring, and the cast is mostly thin stereotypes, with unnecessary characters that make you wonder if they’ve been included just to sell more toys. Plus, the aforementioned Mater the tow truck, almost as annoying here as he is in Cars 2. Not even the last performance of the late Paul Newman can save this one.
15. The Good DinosaurAnother troubled production with another replaced director, The Good Dinosaur is probably a less cohesive movie than Cars, but it’s more interesting, and a lot more fun. Essentially a western, The Good Dinosaur‘s main story, about a highly evolved dinosaur coming of age is fine, but the real show here is how weird this movie gets. Again, the beginning and end work well enough to be passable, but there is a 20 minute section in the middle that is just completely bonkers, and there is a lot of fun to be had. If that intrigues you, check it out, because I know most of you didn’t see it.
14. Cars 3And we’ve reached the point in the list where everything from here on out is pretty good, which is cool. Seriously though, somehow Cars 3 is a really good sports movie and easily the best of it’s trilogy. It’s also surprisingly progressive, with a subtle through line about the barriers women and minorities face when breaking into sports (and other white-male dominated fields). It also cleverly sidelines the series’s unnecessary side characters (Mater), for a more focused story about Lightning and a fun new character named Cruz Ramirez. It even uses some archived, unused Paul Newman lines from the first film for some emotional flashbacks.
Cars 3 will never be considered one of Pixar’s best, but it’s a good little movie all the same.
13. Monster’s UniversityThe only prequel Pixar has ever produced, Monster’s University is a pleasant, not terribly memorable movie with great animation. I appreciated the approach the film took to the central conflict, by not having Sully and Mike act as a stereotypical jock and a stereotypical nerd. Instead, they are a person born with natural talent (Sully) and someone born without it, who has to work twice as hard to excel in their field (Mike). This makes for a far more interesting conflict, and it’s not a bad angle for a prequel. Other than that, there isn’t much to say about this movie. It’s a fun, inconsequential return to the Monster’s universe. If I had time to rewatch this I would probably switch it’s rank with Cars 3, but who has that kind of time?
12. Finding DoryThe strongest of the non-Toy Story Pixar sequels, Finding Dory is still not quite strong enough to be a great movie on it’s own, but it does pack an emotional wallop. This movie manages to build an emotionally devastating backstory onto a one-note comic relief character, and with the opening, crafted maybe the single most disturbing montage I’ve ever seen in a children’s film. Coupled with the ending, this movie is pretty much designed to make you cry, and like many Pixar films, will probably succeed. Other than the strong emotional moments, it’s mostly just okay. There are a lot of extraneous side characters (including Marlin and Nemo, who have almost nothing to do) and weird fish-on-land stunts that broke me out of the movie’s reality. Still, the development of the Dory character, and the big emotional reveal near the end, more than justify this sequel.
11. A Bug’s LifeA weak entry in the renaissance of early Pixar maybe, but A Bug’s Life would still be a strong effort from almost any other studio. A loose retelling of The Seven Samurai, albeit with circus performing insects instead of Toshiro Mifune, A Bug’s Life is consistently fun and entertaining. The highlight is the character designs, which seem to match the voice performances perfectly, most memorably a menacing Kevin Spacey as an evil grasshopper.
10. Finding NemoThere is no uncontroversial ranking of the Pixar films to be made on the internet, but I feel putting Finding Nemo this low will probably not be a popular move. I assure you that it’s more due to the strengths of the films above then any weaknesses in this particular movie. In fact, Finding Nemo is a really good adventure movie. Almost every character and sequence is memorable, both in Marlin and Dory’s quest across the ocean and in Nemo’s escape attempts at the dentist’s office. It’s worth noting that it was a pretty bold move to have a child character essentially trapped in prison for almost an entire film, but this choice only made it all the more satisfying to finally watch Nemo escape. By the end of the movie, it really feels like you’ve been on a sweeping, satisfying adventure, making Finding Nemo an excellent adventure film.
9. Monster’s Inc.Monster’s Inc. is a movie I’ve seen approximately 1000 times, and it’s hard to detach myself from my childhood viewings, but I think it’s worthy of a high slot on this list. As has been pointed out, there is an undercurrent about clean energy that I never considered as a kid, plus fun main characters, scary villains, and the creative “door chase” climax. Monster’s Inc. is a fun buddy movie set in one of Pixar’s most unique and visually creative worlds.
8. Toy StoryThe film that started it all still holds up as an exciting adventure, and begins to explore the themes of mortality that it’s sequels would later dive so far into. Toy Story was the first computer animated film ever, and set itself apart even in the midst of the renaissance of Disney animation. Beyond it’s cultural significance, it’s well told story full of memorable characters and put Pixar on the map as great storytellers. The animation may look a little weird now, but for the most part it fits the plastic characters and isn’t too distracting. Not as strong as the other films in it’s trilogy perhaps, but Toy Story has more than cemented itself as a children’s movie classic. Plus, it delivered us Sheriff Woody, the perfect animated distillation of Tom Hanks.
The cliche complaint about Wall-E is that the opening half hour is way better than the rest of the movie, which is a little bit true. If we’re being honest, Pixar always nails the first act of all it’s movies, but doesn’t always deliver to that level of quality for the rest of the film, which is a problem not at all unique to Wall-E. Putting that aside, Wall-E is still a very good movie, and a surprisingly dark vision of the future. It borders on preachy at times, but this is kept in check by just how charming and fun the main characters are, despite never speaking a word. Veteran sound designer Ben Burtt, who worked on Star Wars and Indiana Jones, crafts distinct audio personalities for the cast of robot characters, really bringing them to life.
Director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo, Finding Dory) delivers his best film thus far, filling the movie with striking images, memorable sequences. He also keeps things moving fast enough that kids don’t get bored, while still providing us with satisfying character moments.
6. Toy Story 3There isn’t much to say about Toy Story 3 that hasn’t already been said. It’s already been said the toys grimly accepting their deaths in the incinerator is one of the bleakest images to ever appear in a Disney film. It’s been said that it’s designed to make you cry. It’s been said that it’s a great sequel with a cleaver use of the real gap in time between it’s release and Toy Story 2′s.
One thing I’d like to highlight though, which isn’t talked about as much, is just how suspenseful Toy Story 3 is. This movie makes the children’s day care it takes place in genuinely scary, which isn’t easy. Lotso’ Huggin’ Bear is an all time great Pixar villain, and the movie knows exactly when to ratchet up the intensity for our heroes, and when to ease back and provide some comic relief. I do think the ending verges on being overly sentimental, but for the most part Toy Story 3 is one of Pixar’s finest, and the truly rare great threequel.
5. Toy Story 2
This may be another controversial ranking, but Toy Story 2 is the strongest of it’s trilogy, no question. Every scene in this movie just works like crazy. Buzz vs Zurg, the toy repair man, Wheezy, Jessie’s backstory. Every individual scene is great, and the movie is just super fun.
The main adventure story feels sweeping and high stakes, while Woody’s identity crisis feels small scale and personal. All of this pays off into one of Pixar’s best climaxes, a suspenseful escape from an airport baggage claim. With the possible exception of one other film on this list (#2), there is no Pixar movie I have more of a blast watching than this one.
Ratatouille was a movie I found kind of boring as a kid, but I rewatched it while making this list and loved it. A movie about an artist trying to reconcile his work and his family, Remy the rat’s journey to becoming a chef is a beautifully sincere story that revels in the joy of creating. The scene with food critic Anton Ego is one of Pixar’s all time best, the stunning animation hasn’t aged a day since the film’s release 10 years ago, and casting Patton Oswalt as a character obsessive about his art was a stroke of genius. Ratatouille is the most underrated film in Pixar’s oeuvre, and a great film on it’s own merits.
3. UpFor a long time, Up was my favorite Pixar film. It’s a very easy movie to fall in love with. The animation, music, and opening sequence are just stunning. Recently, I have started to feel like it suffers from the Pixar issue of a strong first act and a weaker second and third act, and I considered ranking it lower. The thing stopping me is just how strong the great moments in Up are, and how many there are. For it’s flaws as a slightly uneven whole, Up is still a stunningly emotional movie, and watching protagonist Carl Fredricksen move on from the death of his wife and decide to keep living is always profoundly moving. So even if the villain isn’t super interesting, and the talking dog henchmen are kind of annoying, I still love Up for just how high it’s highs manage to get.
2. The IncrediblesHow great is The Incredibles? It’s got everything. A memorable, unique ensemble cast, including a wide variety of complex and funny female characters. A distinct, stylish art style that borrows from pulp sci-fi novels, film noir, and James Bond. Hilarious jokes that stick in your head for days and in the popular culture for years. An interesting mystery that manages to do a pretty decent PG adaption of Watchmen. Powers and costumes that do a pretty decent animated adaptation of the Fantastic Four. Pulse pounding, visceral action scenes. And that’s pretty much just scratching the surface of what a tightly constructed, beautifully realized, and downright exciting movie The Incredibles is.
Does it center Director Brad Bird’s weird philosophy about society holding “special” people back and “normal” people needing to get out of their way? Yes, but minute by minute, punch for punch, The Incredibles is so good that none of that really matters. What could be better than that?
1. Inside OutAgain, there isn’t much to say about Inside Out that hasn’t already been said in a hundred reviews (here’s my favourite, by Siddhant Adlakha). So it’s hard to figure out what to say about it. I’ve differed to Mr. Adlakha, but hos about another guy who knows a lot about this movie, director Peter Docter .
In an interview with Vulture, he described the changes in his daughter that inspired the film:
“[She was] full of energy and goofiness and then yeah, Eleven. “ It was pretty quick — like, Oh, she’s really different now.”
So faced with his changing daughter, and his changing relationship with her, Docter made Inside Out, to help understand his daughter, and perhaps himself, better. For me, this is why the film works so well. When Riley decides to open up to her family, and her father opens up right back, Docter is not only extending a metaphorical helping hand to his daughter, he’s also extending to the audience.
Inside Out is the rare children’s film that shows sadness as not only a part of life, but a necessary and important one. Just like Toy Story 3 tried to help ease a teenage audience into adulthood, Inside Out aims to ease it’s younger viewers into adolescence, and help out those of us who never learned this particular lesson. There’s a million great things about this movie, but my favorite is what an unapologetically compassionate movie it is, one that goes a long way in justifying how often Pixar attempts to make us cry.
It’s the most direct exploration of emotion in children’s entertainment this side of Mr. Rogers, and it’s my favourite Pixar film of all time.