Note: Really, even “the worst” Pixar film is worth seeing, and after I got to about the mid-point of this list I realized I was just ranking different degrees of excellence (the difference between an A- and an A or even an A and an A+). It’s truly remarkable what this studio has accomplished, that an animation studio has a better track record than any other major entertainment division in Hollywood is simply unthinkable except that they’ve been doing it so long we almost take it for granted. Also, just because two movies share the same grade doesn’t mean they’re equally as good (again, it’s about degrees and not all A’s or even B-‘s are created equal).
Cars 3 Note: It didn’t feel right to include it as I’ve seen literally every movie on this list at least three times and some of them (like the notorious “Cars 2”) get much better with repeat viewings, while others (cough, “Nemo,” cough) get worse. Having only seen “Cars 3” once, it wouldn’t be completely fair to include it although if I had I would probably put it towards the middle. Check out my full review of that movie for more.
“The Worst” Pixar film: “Finding Dory”…This completely unnecessary, undesirable, and unappealing sequel takes the best things from the first movie (the gorgeous ocean setting, the prison noir of the colorful dentist’s aquarium fish, the primal pull of a father looking for his son) and deep-sixes them completely. The lush blue majesty of the Pacific Ocean is largely replaced with claustrophic, dank scenes of an Aquatic Observatory that’s like a kid’s film version of “Saw,” all grimy browns and depressed grays. And even if no other reviewer on Earth seemingly agrees with me, Dory is profoundly annoying, and a bad choice for a sidekick to quarterback this overstuffed sequel. Basically, take all the things critics said about “Cars 2,” and you’ve got my thoughts on this other sidekick-driven sequel. Grade: C
16. Brave…I know, I know, some people really, really love this movie, but this is one of the only Pixar films that’s mostly about people, and to me that fundamental sense of magic is missing, ironic given it centers around a magic spell. Unlike her buoyant red curls, Merida never really pops as a character, and the moody, whimsical Irish setting is the kind of thing smaller, 2-D driven studios are better at than Pixar’s more modern animation. Grade: B-
15. Monsters University…A movie so perversely unnecessary you have to wonder if Disney really sold that many Monster plush toys off the first movie. Unlike “Cars” or “Finding Nemo,” I wasn’t a fan of the original, and that makes a prequel (all the fun of the original without the original world, characters, or even the sense of plot momentum sequels have) even worse. Grade: B-
14. Monsters, Inc.…Although there are some great sequences (like the door chase through different environments) this is still a franchise centered around scaring kids and the dopey, schticky buddy sitcom dynamics of Mike and Sully. In this movie, their escaped-kid caper is like a rejected outline for a “Three Men and a Baby” sequel. Grade: B
13. A Bug’s Life…Somewhat underrated given the critical drubbing its taken in recent years. At the time of its release it was seen as a comedown off “Toy Story” (the only Pixar film before it) and completely overshadowed by Woody Allen’s more interesting “Antz.” But it’s a solid fable, an updated take on the ant and the grasshopper in which a gang of grasshoppers extort food from many ants. What follows is a little bit Western (the grasshopper gang lays low in a Mexican town during a great extended gag), a little bit “Seventh Samurai” (the hapless ants get a circus troupe to stand up to the bully grasshoppers), and populated with offbeat circus characters like a macho ladybug or Shakespearean stick bug. A beautiful sequence involves Kevin Spacey’s terrifying lead grasshopper looking like the devil with a fire behind him as the lead ant organizes a “Spartacus” like revolt, before rain comes down like bombs from the sky. The biggest problem may be that the animation isn’t anywhere near as sophisticated as Pixar would become (the ants mostly look like a crappy rough sketch) and the characterizations aren’t “Toy Story”-level strong enough to make up for that. Grade: B+
12. The Good Dinosaur…A sweet kid’s fable that is deceptively straightforward and underrated mostly because it had the misfortune to come out the same year “Inside Out” did. Sure, there’s nothing revolutionary about this tale of a dinosaur trying to get home through scary prehistoric wilderness (although he does have a feral human sidekick for a nice role reversal), but there’s not a thing wrong with its “kids through the woods” simplicity. And certain inspired sequences (a deranged cult of storm-worshipping dinos, a berry-induced acid trip, or Sam Elliott’s rough T-Rex) add to the sometimes funny, sometimes scary, always hallucinatory dream quality. Grade: B+
11. Cars 2…[Note: Usually called “the worst” Pixar film, it actually gets better on repeat viewings, or at least you begin to appreciate its sly, disjointed looseness more.] Suck it, haters, I actually like Mater and even though this overstuffed sequel is a little all over-the-place (racing adventure, spy caper, travelogue fish-out-of water comedy, buddy pick, eco-conspiracy), I maintain that it is as close as Pixar has ever come to capturing a 70’s movie. Just look at the opening oil rig shoot out or the intricate Big Oil conspiracy at the heart: between comedic moments, it’s one of the only Pixar films to flirt with 70’s paranoia, even if the action is usually overblown and scattershot. Oh, and Mater is actually funny unlike more annoying sidekicks such as Dory. I know “Cars 3” thought it was doing a good thing by barely featuring him, but this iconic rube is the 21st Century equivalent of those “Smokey and the Bandit” movies that defined redneck cool. And only “Wall-E” contains a stronger environmental message. Grade: B+
10. Finding Nemo…I know it might strike some as blasphemy to put the beloved “Nemo” only one notch above the hated “Cars 2,” but things get tough to rank from here. After “Cars 2” we’re kind-of entering a different terrain altogether, and it says something that the entire Top 10 could easily be interchangeable. That being said, to me, “Nemo” is the worst of the best upon repeat viewings mostly because you realize how emotionally manipulative the film truly is—the ending includes one too many three-hankie fake-outs—and I didn’t really care for the main characters: Dory is annoying, and Albert Brooks’ Marlin doesn’t really have a second-gear beyond hoarse-voiced, hysterical desperation. I know the primal terror of a missing child would cause anyone to go nuts (especially after Marlin lost hundreds of his other babies, emotional manipulation alert!), but this “find the missing kid” tale doesn’t have much resonance or allegorical weight. Although the vivid ocean blues and animation is some of the best in any Pixar film, and the aquarium prison noir that unfolds with William Dafoe’s tropical fish is hilarious. Grade: B+
9. Toy Story 2…It says something great about the studio that this fantastic film is ranked ninth best of any Pixar movie. The “worst” Toy Story movie is one of the best sequels ever made, and even though they keep trying (and failing), Pixar still can’t craft a sequel that comes close to the “Toy Story” trilogy. The themes of obsolence and encroaching life changes that this film introduced is still being readily explored in everything from “Cars 3” to “Inside Out.” Grade: A-
This is where things get really tough, the next four movies are so interchangeable that the rankings almost don’t matter…
8. The Incredibles…Feelings of middle-aged mediocrity factor heavy in the first film Pixar made that directly addressed human concerns, albeit superhuman. This nuclear family (get it?) has superpowers they have to keep hidden in an age that prizes mediocrity over excellence—if an Ayn Rand capable of compassion ever wrote a kid’s book, this surely would be it—and this film touched a raw nerve with parents that may feel their own super single identities slipped away into anonymity to take care of kids. This began Pixar’s transition into more allegorical films that work as metaphors for aging like “Up” or “Inside Out.” Although, to me, this movie comes off a little bit slicker and less fully felt than the other two. Grade: A
7. Up…To me, this is the most visually beautiful film Pixar has made. Everything we’re seeing—colorful tropical birds, a sepia-toned opening montage showcasing a life, desolate island landscapes, that amazing sequence where an ordinary house lifts off to vibrant balloons—gives us such a diverse feast for the eyes that it just about kills me to rank this film as low as it is. But despite so many fantastic sequences—what other movie has dog pilots chasing after a boy dangling from the garden hose of a floating house?—I don’t think the movie’s villain or the central conflict that fuels the third act really works. [What would be so bad about just letting an old adventurer take a prized bird to civilization?] Still, for the inventive “old man fight” on a blimp, that perfect tearjerker of an opening montage (so simple you realize how manipulative the “Finding” movies are), and for the breathtaking shot of an old man carrying his house through a stark sunset (perfect allegory for the things we carry with us through life), this film is excellent, if not actually perfect. Grade: A
6. Inside Out…A film of rambunctious, pinballing force that—like most of the best Pixar films—comes from a perfect allegory: a preteen girl transitioning into adulthood has emotions that are literally out of control. I can imagine bewildered Sex Education teachers (like the clueless coach that taught my class) beginning the semester by just playing this movie. If you don’t tear up at least once while watching this, you are dead inside. If you are engaged to a fiancee who doesn’t cry while watching this, don’t marry them. And needless to say, if you haven’t seen this movie, go ahead and take my “Psychopath Litmus Test” and try it out. Grade: A
5. Ratatouille…Most Pixar movies (and kid’s movies in general) are about finding yourself, but even that very internal search is usually framed inside an action movie like “The Incredibles” or an adventure film like “Up.” Even “Inside Out” has dazzling chase sequences, although they’re inside someone. But “Ratatouille” is something simpler, arguably more original, and undeniably moving. It’s really about the creation process—it’s a food movie set in Paris, but could apply to painting in Texas, photography in the Himalayas, or writing in the Sahara—and the thrill of doing something you were meant to be doing, and getting great at it, which could also be said of Pixar itself. Perhaps uncoincidentally, this also started the critically adored quartet of films (including “Up,” “Wall-E,” and “Toy Story 3”) that would get some of the studios best ever reviews. The scene where critic snob-God Anton Ego is reduced to boyhood innocence with a bite of food is the perfect allegory for Pixar films themselves, the open-secret being that they’re really made for adults and hoping to transport them to an earlier time when you believed anything from Toys to Cars to Monsters to foodie rats could do anything. Grade: A
4. Cars…Even if I won most picky readers over with that “Ratatouille” description, I surely lost them here with the puzzling decision to rank the usually scoffed-at “Cars” over artistic triumphs like “Up,” “Inside Out,” and “The Incredibles.” That’s because this severely underrated film is so much more than the “selling toys” merchandising machine it’s been labeled. If you watch the movie—and I mean really watch it—you see a lot more than car-puns (Jay Leno is Jay Limo, Bob Costas is Bob Cutlass) and throwaway scenes between marketing of new toys. You can see that this is clearly Pixar honcho John Lasseter’s most personal film and has been lovingly crafted in nearly every frame. The shine, the dents, the rust, the detailing on these cars isn’t just eye-candy exquisite it’s a love letter through character design.
Lasseter is writing a romance novel about that fabled “Lost America” here symbolized literally through the ghost town of Radiator Springs—in one of the movie’s best scenes it’s explained that Route 66 went the way of the Dodo after the interstate system, and a whole lot of Middle America was passed over in the process—and just try not to tear up during “Our Town,” one of the best songs ever written about fading small towns. For those that call “Cars 2” too frantic and surface, that might largely be a reaction to critics who thought the first film was, ironically, too slow and character obsessed (besides the beginning and ending races, the middle of the movie is mostly made up of dialogue-heavy character scenes). Paul Newman’s last great performance was voicing the gravelly race car legend Doc Hudson, and the movie’s “winning isn’t everything” ending is the rare time a kid’s film’s message is actually supported by the movie that came before it. While most kid’s movies are about the important path to finding yourself, “Cars” does something a little more unique by imploring people to find a community. Unlike “Cars 3,” Lightning McQueen pretty much starts the film already as the best racer in America, but it’s not until the end that anyone but him truly cares. Grade: A [This movie is so underrated it lost the “Best Animated Film” Oscar to the cover band-crapfest that is “Happy Feet,” one of the worst big-hit animated movies in the last fifteen years. I implore people to give “Cars” a real shot.]
[Tie] 2. Toy Story and Toy Story 3…Both of these movies are so good, it feels almost a shame to pick which is technically “better.” The original “Toy Story” is usually listed as the Best Pixar film ever made and for great reason: it can transport even the most cynical adults into the magic of make-believe. The power of imagination is a tricky thing for movies to try to externalize, but “Toy Story” defines that space better than any movie that’s come along since. Except possibly its own sequel “Toy Story 3,” a movie about obsolence and the dreaded “end” that is so universal, I sometimes forget I’m watching a movie about toys. I think “Toy Story 3” is such a fitting ending to the trilogy, that I really wish they hadn’t began making a “Toy Story 4.” After our beloved plastic heroes have been jettisoned, left for dead in a preschool prison (run by a very uncuddly teddy bear that is arguably the best villain in Pixar history), and reborn into a new house, what more is left to do that won’t feel like a letdown? Birth, death, and rebirth is a heady cycle for a movie about a plastic spaceman and toy cowboy. Grade: A+
Best Pixar Film: Wall-E…If I asked ten people what the best Pixar film is, I might get 10 different answers. [Although I bet the most common one will be “I really don’t know, they’re all good.”] I understand if people say “Toy Story,” “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille,” or “Inside Out,” but to me the answer is “Wall-E,” one of the best films ever made, and I don’t just mean animated.
The first third of the movie is nearly wordless as we watch a lonely compactor robot clearing away trash for the return of a human population that has forgotten they were supposed to return. It’s also the most unlikely riveting romance between Wall-E and Eve, a high tech “girl” robot that’s the stand-in for every “you’re better than me, but I’m chasing you anyway” romantic comedy, and a nice allegory for every guy’s dream woman that feels literally from a different world and time (new meaning to the phrase “out of your league”). Eventually, the sweet romance powers a thrilling chase through a space colony that’s a different kind-of wasteland: an all-consuming “entertainment” culture of people too fat to move or even know the human connection they’re missing. This is nervy, ambitious stuff for a kid’s movie, and Wall-E (with its “Infinite Jest” warning about the dangers of escape culture made literal and fantastically alarming environmental awareness) is the most political film Pixar has ever made, all soothed behind layers of a narrative that is as classic as a silent film. Grade: A+
Which Pixar movie do you think is the best?