15 Jun The definitive Pixar ranking countdown – From ‘Toy Story’ to ‘Onward’
After changing the entire animation landscape with their groundbreaking debut 1995 film Toy Story, Pixar have continued to dazzle audiences for the last two decades with their knack for impeccable visuals, stellar storytelling skills, and the innate ability to deliver an emotional impact like few other film animation studios.
Their arrival came at a time when animation was beginning to lose the public’s interest. Disney was still continuing down its well-worn path of flashy musicals and princess fairytales with mixed results, both commercially and artistically. Pixar’s unique vision for bold and interesting stories was precisely what this industry needed. Their films refused to exist just to entertain young audiences, creating pieces of cinema adults were equally enthralled by. Thus began the most incredible streak of masterful films cinema has ever seen. These weren’t just great animated films. Or even just great kids movies. They were great films, period.
Naturally, it hasn’t all been stellar. The inevitable disappointments and missteps arrived eventually, albeit much later than anyone anticipated. However, despite some films shining brighter than others, Pixar have still yet to make a “bad” film. Even their lower efforts still look masterful compared to the majority of animated fare out there. When they make a great film, it’s nothing short of a breathtaking masterpiece. The fact they’ve achieved that very greatness numerous times in such a short time frame is wildly impressive.
The top five films in my ranking are what I genuinely consider to be perfect and flawless films. Attempting to rank the 22 films in their catalogue is a rather arduous and difficult task, especially those final five. And, undoubtedly, there will be plenty of conjecture between my ranking and yours. But films are subjective and we’re never going to agree on a list like this. I’m sure there’s at least one person out there with each one of these films at the top of their own list…okay, maybe not Cars 2, but surely everything else.
So, without further ado, here is The Jam Report’s definitive ranking countdown of the films of Pixar Animation Studios.
22. Cars 2 (2011)
As with any ranking, there has to be a bottom, and Pixar served up their worst effort back in 2011 with the bloated and hollow mess that was Cars 2. Seemingly only existing to expand the billion-dollar merchandise juggernaut the property had become, there’s really nothing here but a truckload of disappointment. Moving supporting player Mater to the forefront is the film’s fatal mistake. The character was fine in small doses in the first film. By placing Mater in the co-lead spot in the sequel, he quickly became gratingly annoying.
The film is overloaded with dizzying spectacles and frenetic action, forgetting to give its audience any semblance of anything remotely engaging and enjoyable. What it attempts plot-wise is horribly complicated but still entirely dull and pointless. The quaint charm and warmth of the original film vanish the moment the action leaves Radiator Springs, leaving us yearning for Lightning McQueen and co. to just hurry up and get the hell out of Europe. Sadly, the action stays there for almost the entire film.
A disappointing example of bigger not equalling better, Cars 2 proved Pixar weren’t as flawless as we had long believed they were. They could indeed make a bad film, or, in this case, a downright terrible one.
21. The Good Dinosaur (2015)
Suffering all sorts of pre-production hell (including the original directors being fired, the story being completely revised, the original voice actors being re-cast, and the release date pushed back by two years), The Good Dinosaur clearly should have been totally abandoned. It didn’t help it was released just a few months after the masterpiece that was Inside Out. By comparison, this Pixar effort just didn’t match up. And the public showed their lack of enthusiasm, with the film still standing as the lowest-grossing Pixar film of all time. (UPDATE – Onward now inherits this mantle for reasons out of its control).
While the visuals are absolutely stunning, especially the breathtaking photorealistic backgrounds, the character design work is an absolute disaster. Placing silly, cartoonish-looking dinosaurs and creatures on meticulously crafted backdrops is a garishly jarring sight. This decision really makes no sense. Disney knew how to create realistic-looking dinosaurs 15-years earlier in their underrated Dinosaur. Perhaps Pixar wanted to differentiate themselves from this earlier work. Whatever the reason, the result is rather awful.
Their heart was clearly in the right place on this project. And kudos have to be given for at least getting the film finished, despite numerous setbacks. The narrative of one little-lost apatosaurus is still entirely entertaining and endearing, but the character becomes fairly insufferable as the film plods along. The Good Dinosaur is not a terrible film, but it’s not far from it.
20. Monsters University (2013)
As fans continued to cry out for sequels to Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, Pixar made the rather surprising decision to instead give a prequel to another of their classics no one was really asking for. As beloved as Monsters, Inc. was and still is, the need to journey back to learn how these two met in college wasn’t really something anyone particularly wanted. Monsters University is really the Solo: A Star Wars Story of the Pixar universe. Its very existence seems entirely unnecessary.
Of course, it was delightful to see Mike and Sulley again on the big screen. The chemistry between Billy Crystal and John Goodman was an absolute dream in the predecessor. Naturally, it’s on display again in the prequel, even if they’re not BFFs from the get-go. There’s still plenty of laughs and entertainment to be found in Monsters University, but it’s hardly groundbreaking, original stuff. There’s nothing really here that wasn’t already present in the original.
The whole exercise feels completely safe and uninspired. There’s a terrible lack of effort to try anything bold or adventurous, which are both elements which made the original such a brilliant film. And there are some glaring continuity problems too, particularly one line from Mike in the original film about the pair being friends since the fourth grade. Huh?! Monsters University is adequate and decent enough, but far from the greatness Pixar is known for.
19. Cars 3 (2017)
After the disastrous sequel, expectations were in the gutter for Cars 3. After Cars 2 somehow made half a billion dollars, it wasn’t a surprise to see the greenlighting of a third film. And the gargantuan Cars merchandise cash cow kept giving, making it painfully obvious another chapter was nothing more than another grab for toy sales. The end result was certainly an improvement on the second film. Given that was Pixar’s low point, that’s hardly saying much.
At least they listened to the public’s reaction to the Mater-heavy sequel and moved him way, way back in the third film. In his place, we were gifted a wonderful new addition to the crew in Cruz Ramirez, which finally gave the franchise a much-needed female protagonist. And a potential spin-off in the future. Thematically, there was a concerted attempt to deliver something deeper, with its narrative concerned with the idea of Lightning McQueen’s time in the sun coming to an end and passing his legacy on to the next generation. It’s rather touching for an adult viewer, but it’s probably lost on the younger viewer.
In rather lazy fashion, Cars 3 shamelessly follows many of the same tropes as the original, ultimately feeling like something we’ve seen and experienced before. Even the wonderfully animated race sequences seem all too familiar, even if they’re really there to keep your kids entertained. While nowhere near as disappointing as the second film, it was still far from anything spectacular. If it is the end of this franchise, it went out with somewhat of a sputter than a roar.
18. Brave (2012)
For some inexplicable reason, I can barely recall Brave, despite seeing the film at least three times. Perhaps it’s just me, but there’s something so terribly unmemorable about this film. While it was refreshing to see Pixar finally craft a film around a female protagonist, the end result is ultimately rather flat and uninspired. They reached for the stars with their twist on the classic Disney fairy tale formula but got lost with trying to twist the genre too far.
From all accounts, the original story was far more concerned with Merida’s journey of self-discovery and connection with her mother, sounding much like the fare Pixar does best. Sadly, halfway through production, they fired original director Brenda Chapman (their first and only female director, thus far) and reworked the plot into something far too concerned with pointless slapstick humour. Sorry for the spoilers but the big bear twist that occurs in the film’s middle act turns Brave into something rather dreadful and messy.
That being said, the animation is sublime, capturing the dazzling beauty and majesty of the Scottish Highlands. And Merida, now officially a “Disney Princess,” certainly looks nothing like any of her glamourous royal counterparts. But she’s a heroine who deserved better than this. Poor Merida is plonked into a film which she feels entirely out of place within. The fact Brave beat the brilliant Wreck-It Ralph and the underrated Frankenweenie for Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards is utterly absurd, proving the Academy could award something on studio name alone.
17. A Bug’s Life (1998)
Released in the early days of Pixar, at a time where they were clearly still finding their bearings, it’s a little unfair to demonise A Bug’s Life. After changing the game with Toy Story, it was almost impossible for the studio to match that success again so quickly. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this film. It’s entirely charming and entertaining. But it’s really just a kids-only film and little else. It’s one of Pixar’s forgotten films for being much too similar to the generic fare pumped out by other animation studios. Obviously, it didn’t help to have DreamWorks’ Antz arrive around the same time.
As with all Pixar films, the characters are beautifully crafted and voiced, particularly the now-iconic caterpillar Heimlich. There is still something engaging about its narrative. The lovable ragtag bunch of misfit bugs being mistaken for a daring group of vigilantes who are called upon to defend a beleaguered colony of ants still worked enormously well. But it lacked the finesse and magic we would later come to expect from this studio. There’s nothing particularly deep beneath its plot, which highlighted the studio’s need to focus more on their screenplays instead of the visuals.
A Bug’s Life is a perfectly fine little film. That’s really all you can say about it. It’s not a bad film. It’s decent enough. But decent is a word we would soon rarely associated with Pixar, so, naturally, this entry has to fall down the list. Of their first seven films, it’s the only title without a sequel or prequel. That’s clearly very telling.
We all wanted to love Finding Dory as much as Finding Nemo. After waiting 13 years for this sequel, the anticipation was positively feverish. Maybe it was never able to meet those lofty expectations. Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t a horrendous disaster like Cars 2. Far from it. The sequel really suffers from a lack of the originality and spark which made its predecessor such a success. Everything here is rather expected. That’s both a good and a bad thing. You get entirely what you came for, but, sadly, very little extra.
It was undoubtedly a wise idea to spin the sequel to take Dory’s point of view, as she sets off on her quest to find her long-lost parents, and, in the process find herself too. See. The film’s title works on two levels. Typical Pixar subversive intelligence, right there. Finding Dory is loaded with everything we love about Pixar movies. Lots of humour, a few tears, and lashings of entertaining setpieces. The film’s highway escape finale is utterly brilliant. And the new additions to the cast are all wonderfully formed characters, particularly Ed O’Neill’s gruff but lovable anti-hero Hank.
Again, the message of what makes us unique is what makes us strong is charming and inspiring, but it’s really just the same message found in the original and ultimately feels a little repetitive. And that’s the real issue here. Finding Dory doesn’t quite stand on its own two feet, feeling more like a rehash of Finding Nemo than a fully-formed follow-up. Each Toy Story film delivered something fresh and unique. The same can’t be said here.
15. Onward (2020)
Returning to a wholly original narrative for the first time in three years, Onward carried a hefty weight of expectation. After some lacklustre trailers, those expectations were significantly diminished, and, for better or worse, Onward meets those rather low standards. By virtue of unfortunate comparison to other original masterpieces in Pixar’s back catalogue, it’s a film that simply doesn’t reach the high bar the studio inherently sets for itself.
All the familiar ingredients are here, but, somehow, the end result is somewhat subpar. With its enormously entertaining and wildly endearing narrative, Onward still delivers plenty of fun and more than a few tears, particularly in its gut-wrenching finale. But the film ultimately fails to fully take advantage of its promising premise, leaving us with a predictable and formulaic piece of cinema that isn’t up to the standard of Pixar’s best.
What ultimately saves Onward from its narrative misgivings is the wonderful ensemble cast, led by Chris Pratt and Tom Holland who have terrific brotherly chemistry together. After initially flirting with the relevant thematic idea that magic, creativity, and personal connectivity are being lost by way of society’s reliance on modern technology, Onward frustratingly fails to fully explore the promise of this premise. his could have been something truly mind-blowing. Instead, it ultimately feels far too safe and ordinary; qualities rarely associated with the work of Pixar’s geniuses.
14. Cars (2006)
I feel like I’m in the minority here, but I actually kinda love the original Cars film. It’s why the two sequels are so frustratingly disappointing. In my humble opinion, the first film is utterly delightful. Chalk it up to a case of overexposure, thanks to the endless merchandise line. The hatred this film is often subjected to seems terribly unfair. Sure, it doesn’t have the daring originality of the films ranked higher. A bunch of talking cars doesn’t exactly lend itself to cinematic magic. But there’s something so gorgeously quaint about a tale concerned with the simple realisation that sometimes you need to slow down to appreciate life.
At the end of the day, Cars is just a sweet, unassuming little film. It’s a nostalgic look at the past and the loss of America’s great rural towns. Life has quite literally passed Radiator Springs by, leaving the town and its residents stuck in a time-warp. We get to discover how charming this place still is and, rather devastatingly, how glorious it once was. If you didn’t shed a tear during the “Our Town” montage, you have no soul. It’s an ode to a time gone by. To values and ideals lost to progress. And serves as a reminder that life in the fast lane is not always such a great way to live.
Lightning McQueen is a wonderfully written and crafted protagonist. He’s immediately unlikeable, with his brash attitude and misplaced confidence, leaving him with room to blossom and grow over the course of the film, as he learns some valuable life lessons and harsh realities. Surrounding him is a wonderful cast of supporting players, particularly the late Paul Newman as Doc Hudson. And, yes, Mater was still fun here. This is the one Pixar film I beg people to give a second chance. Ignore the mayhem and merchandise which followed it and try to discover the hidden joy found in Cars.
Perhaps Pixar’s least kid-friendly film, Ratatouille is certainly one of their most original and daring pieces of cinema. A tribute to art and the pursuit of creativity, it’s easily one of their most mature films. Sure, there are still some elements to entertain the little ones. Remy is awfully cute and the film features some glorious slapstick comedy that will make the kids giggle. But its narrative is decidedly deeper than most other offerings, with a deep message of chasing your dreams, no matter how big they may be.
A rat who longs to be a chef in Paris sounds utterly absurd, but somehow Pixar found a way to make Ratatouille a roaring success. We immediately empathise with this adorable rodent, finding ourselves rooting for him like any other Pixar protagonist. That’s largely thanks to the terrific voice work by Patton Oswalt, who instils such endearing qualities into an animal we would normally shriek at. The film looks and sounds utterly sublime, with sumptuous animation design and Michael Giacchino’s brilliant French-inspired score. And the food looks downright delicious, particularly the titular dish.
A beautiful ode to culture, food, and life itself, Ratatouille is uplifting, inspiring, and downright wonderful. There’s a monologue in the film’s climax about the inherent nature of critics which is the aptest description of any form of art criticism you’ll ever hear. Yes, it hit homes for someone who likes to critique films. Gulp. Ratatouille often fails to receive the credit it deserves, despite the startling fact it made $620 million worldwide – more than Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., and Cars 2. For a decidedly artsy movie to earn such an impressive box-office result shows the deep impact it made.
The one that started it all. The film that genuinely changed the landscape of animated film. At a time when Disney was struggling to match the success of their late 1980s/early 1990s renaissance period, Pixar delivered something that both looked and felt entirely new and exciting. Toy Story was a gamechanger. A film that was over five years in the making with an end result unlike anything we’d ever seen before. The world’s first feature-length computer-animated film, Toy Story was a landmark moment in the history of cinema. Perhaps for that reason alone, it should be #1 by default.
By today’s standards, the animation in Toy Story is nowhere near as impressive as it once was. But, in 1995, it was genuinely groundbreaking. And the response was overwhelming. Audiences instantly fell in love with Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and all of Andy’s crew of toys. They are now some of the most iconic animated characters in the history of film. That’s largely thanks to the sublime voiceover work of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. But, mostly, it’s due to the film’s brilliant (and Oscar-nominated) screenplay.
Filled with delicious wit and sly sarcasm, the screenplay is an absolute dream. Toy Story touches the heart with its nostalgic themes of your childhood and the toys you loved. It dreams of a world where they experience their own complex and complicated lives when you’re not in the room. But these toys never forget their devotion to their beloved owner, and therein lies this film’s magic heart. Toy Story spawned Pixar’s greatest franchise and launched the studio into the colossal juggernaut they are today. We owe this film everything.
11. The Incredibles (2004)
I’ll probably get grief for this one. Many people would likely place The Incredibles much, much higher. Some may even call it their #1 Pixar film. And I hear you. I know why people love this film. It’s a brilliant film. But I’ve never quite taken to it as many others have. I can’t even give you a valid reason why I don’t share that gushing admiration. I really, really like The Incredibles. But, personally, there are ten films which I love just that little bit more.
That being said, The Incredibles is a wildly entertaining piece of cinema. It’s an action extravaganza that still packs plenty of heart and depth, which are often so lacking from live-action superhero films. The film doesn’t rely on well-known Marvel or DC characters to deliver the thrills. It crafts an entirely new set of characters, which all became instantly iconic. Pixar’s first foray into a film with human characters is an enormous success. The Parr family are all three-dimensional characters, each with their own issues and problems, which prove entirely relative to the film’s audience. Despite being gifted with superpowers, they’re all still human and that’s why we connect so deeply with them.
With its glorious 60s-inspired nostalgic production design and another stellar score from Michael Giacchino, The Incredibles looks and sounds phenomenal. For whatever reason, I can’t find myself loving it as much as some of Pixar’s other films, including this film’s recent sequel. But let that take nothing away from the masterful experience that is one of their finest efforts.
10. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
If there’s one Pixar duo who can rival Woody and Buzz, it’s Mike and Sulley from the brilliant Monsters, Inc. Their earnest, authentic chemistry and connection make this film one of Pixar’s biggest triumphs. After two Toy Story films and the somewhat-disappointment that was A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc. proved they were a studio to watch. It cemented their status as more than just a one-hit-wonder. It showcased their flair for storytelling and character development like no other animation studio. It made animated films more than just something to distract your children with for 90 minutes.
By revealing what really goes on behind your irrational fear of monsters in your closet, Monsters, Inc. invited us to Monstropolis, a world filled with gorgeously designed monsters who really are just doing their day job. The idea that monsters were actually terrified of humans is a masterstroke of genius, gifting the film numerous comedic gags and hilarious scenarios. But the real humour comes from Billy Crystal’s schticky voiceover work as Mike Wazowski. He’s given full reign and runs with the opportunity. As does John Goodman, who creates the most lovable big oaf in Sulley. And it didn’t hurt to throw in an achingly-adorable kid to spice things up.
With a great villain, some thrilling setpieces, and an ending that tugs at all your heartstrings, Monsters, Inc. is a tale about love, friendship, and the most unique of connections. Sulley’s paternal bond with Boo is one of the most heartwarming storylines in Pixar’s canon. The fact it’s between monster and child show the ingenious talents of Pixar. They really can craft anything to make us feel something, and this film is the perfect example of their deft skills.
Oh, yes. You’re reading that correctly. Pixar’s latest film sits rather high in this ranking. Even higher than its predecessor. And, in my opinion, it deserves to. As I said, I really liked The Incredibles, but I absolutely loved Incredibles 2. While the element of surprise and spark of originality is obviously gone, in its place is a film which feels more poignant, self-aware, and sophisticated than the original. And it’s simply more entertaining. It compliments the first film perfectly but wisely stands alone as its own brilliant piece of cinema.
Without the need for any setup, Incredibles 2 is able to hit the ground running, launching straight into the action, fun, and adventure that made the first film such a classic. With its narrative flip of Elastigirl being the real protagonist this time, it’s a wildly different experience to the original. It explores different themes and plot points, while still remaining true to the heart of this franchise – the Parr family. Their familial connection is still the focal point, becoming deeper and more complex than before.
Filled with uproarious action set pieces and designed with the animated flair Pixar does best, Incredibles 2 is a thrill ride you won’t want to end. The production design is just as gorgeously nostalgic as the original and Michael Giacchino’s brassy score is just as perfectly-placed and complementary as his previous efforts. With plenty of laughs, loads of heart, and a spectacular conclusion, Incredibles 2 is the rare sequel to outshine its predecessor and practically begs for a third outing in the future.
8. Coco (2017)
After three years of fairly underwhelming films, Pixar returned to what they do best – creating a brilliant original piece of animated cinema. And it wound up being one of their greatest achievements. Coco is a stunning piece of cinema, both visually and thematically. It’s unlike anything Pixar has crafted before. It takes you to a gorgeously crafted world, which should be dark and macabre, but is somehow full of life and colour. And, in true Pixar style, its emotional impact is deep and unforgettable.
Bursting off the screen with some of Pixar’s most dazzling visual work to date, Coco brings to life Mexico’s Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebrations with the most dazzling and vibrant of colour palettes. With deep respect for the Mexican culture and its traditions, the film stands as a beautiful tribute to this annual commemoration. The result is simply stunning. It’s the kind of animated film you really need to pause and take in. It’s a breathtaking visual masterpiece.
But visuals are only part of the success of Coco. The mark of Pixar greatest films is refusing to rely on just looking great. The true success of Coco lies with its heart, and the film is beautifully tender and downright moving, with a deep message about the importance of family and respecting your elders. It’s also an emotional lesson on respecting the past, embracing the present, and seeing death as a part of life not to be feared. This may be one of Pixar’s deepest works to date. If your eyes are not filled with tears during its “Remember Me” conclusion, you must not be human. It’s an enduring and emotional film that proved Pixar still has it.
7. Toy Story 2 (1999)
In all seriousness, it’s a minor miracle Toy Story 2 was such a terrific film. With nowhere near as much pre-production time as the original, the film underwent numerous late changes and was ultimately an extremely rushed effort. Clearly, sometimes that kind of think-on-your-feet mentality can create works of wonder. And that’s exactly what this sequel is. It’s stood as a huge test for Pixar, and they passed with flying colours.
Just the thought of attempting a sequel to a groundbreaking and game-changing film like Toy Story must have made Pixar enormously anxious. Perhaps that’s why they originally planned this to be a simple straight-to-DVD release, which would avoid the hype and expectation of a big-scale theatrical film. But Toy Story 2 does what all great sequels do best by expanding on the best aspects of the original and taking the narrative to even higher plains. Its expansion of the world of toys felt completely authentic and earned.
With just as many laughs and excitement as its predecessor, Toy Story 2 is a more rounded and engaging experience. It’s ridiculously fun for audiences of any age. Adding rootin’-tootin’ cowgirl Jessie to the mix proves to be an extremely lively addition to the franchise, and she gets to have the big emotional moment, with the tearjerking “When She Loved Me” sequence leaving audiences in puddles of tears. This was the first moment Pixar proved they could make adults cry, which has become a hallmark of almost all Pixar films which followed.
6. Finding Nemo (2003)
Outside the Toy Story franchise, there are few films in Pixar’s catalogue that have captured the cultural zeitgeist like Finding Nemo. At one point, it was the highest-grossing animated film in the history of cinema (it was dethroned a year after taking the title by Shrek 2, of all things). Dory became a pop culture phenomenon. Clownfish sales went through the roof. With only their fifth film, Pixar had created a genuine sensation, and rightly so. It’s a stone-cold masterpiece.
In a visual sense, it’s absolutely stunning. The initial underwater worlds the genius Pixar artists created were reportedly so lifelike, they were asked to scale it back to make it look more cartoon-like. Given the final product we’re gifted with, that’s almost unfathomable. Finding Nemo looks utterly sublime, with its neverending expanses of dazzling coral reefs and colourful aquatic characters. Every scene bursts to life with spectacular flair, making a film which is still used to highlight televisions in department stores.
But its the narrative of Finding Nemo that really pulls you in, with its enchanting tale of a father’s relentless search for his lost son. It features an important lesson on allowing your children to make mistakes and live their own lives because that’s simply the journey of life. And this film’s journey is filled with unforgettable characters, wonderful set pieces, and an ending to leave a huge lump in your throat. It’s a film which set a new benchmark for Pixar. A benchmark many thought would never be beaten. We now know their best was still to come, but Finding Nemo was one of the first films to show what this studio was really made of.
5. Toy Story 4 (2019)
Nobody wanted another Toy Story film. After the first three sublime chapters created one of the greatest film trilogies in history, the necessity for a fourth film just wasn’t there. When you end a series on such a spectacular high, why risk ruining the magic? But this is Pixar, and if anyone could reach the impossible bar of perfection, they sure as hell can. And while the debate is still raging if they actually matched the previous adventures, it sure hit the mark for me…and then some.
While Toy Story 4 begins with all the nostalgia feels we knew Pixar would serve up, the narrative takes a daring new path by separating Woody from the rest of the toys, pushing our beloved cowboy to the forefront, as he struggles with what his uncertain future holds. Some may be disappointed this change in focus leaves a few franchise favourites languishing in the background. However, in their place, we’re given a treasure trove of brilliant new characters, each with their own endearing quirks and traits.
From Duke Caboom, whose ego is a mask for some deep-seated pain, to Gabby Gabby, whose antagonistic qualities are just one layer of her remarkably complex psyche, and the adorable Ducky and Bunny, whose fluffy exterior is nothing compared to their rather twisted souls. And then there’s Forky, a plastic disposable spork who suffers an existential crisis over his unwanted newfound status as a sentient being. You have to remind yourself sometimes we’re talking about toys here, given Pixar has blessed them with such complicated human emotions.
Throw in a total re-write of once-forgotten character Bo Peep, a terrifically fun narrative that’s endlessly entertaining, and an emotional core that will ultimately leave you in a mess of tears, and it’s a film that had no right being this damn good. It’s unfathomable Pixar delivered something so joyous, devastating, and downright beautiful for the fourth time in a row. How foolish we were to ever doubt them.
4. Up (2009)
You know what I’m going to mention first about the beautiful and majestic film that is Up. Those first 12 minutes. Frankly, the film could have ended there and it still would have made it to #3 on this list. It may well be the most perfect opening to a film of all time. The montage of how Carl and Ellie met as children, fell madly in love, suffered a crushing setback, and happily grew old together is the most wonderful and heartbreaking portrait of married life cinema has ever known. It’s made all the more emotional by Michael Giacchino’s utterly exquisite score, which rightly won him an Academy Award, a Grammy, a BAFTA, and a Golden Globe.
This sequence plays without the need for dialogue. The imagery is universal enough to exist without words. It’s a genuine masterpiece in itself. It’s the kind of sequence to make you sob uncontrollably, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. All one needs to do is listen to Giacchino’s “Married Life” track, and the tears will come. That’s the impact of this one flawless segment of cinema. And this all occurs before the real crux of the narrative kicks in. We still have a wild journey ahead of us. And, sure, when you start out a film on such a magnificent high, everything that follows is obviously somewhat downhill. That’s rather unavoidable, and Pixar knew it.
Thankfully, the rest of Up is so wonderfully entertaining, it’s impossible to care the film never matches the emotional wallop of its opening moments, although the ending certainly brings back all those Ellie feels again. As Carl and the adorable Russell head off to South America in their balloon-driven house, we’re treated to a wild ride of thrills, laughs, and sensational adventure. The animation is sublime. The character design is stunning, particularly a multi-coloured endangered bird Russell nicknames Kevin. The buddy comedy between a cantankerous old man and a plucky young boy is superb. And the overall result is utterly delightful.
3. Toy Story 3 (2010)
It’s an almost impossible task to rank the three Toy Story films. Part of me considered listing them as one complete entity, given they’re all so wonderful and create perhaps the greatest trilogy in cinema history. But, if one has to sit higher than the others, there’s simply no other choice than the final (at the time, at least) chapter in this saga. Toy Story 3 perfectly brought this series to a close with a gloriously entertaining film and an ending that hit you in all the feels. Just thinking of that “So long, partner” final shot makes me want to burst into tears. Yep, my eyes are welling up. Damn you, Pixar!
After two smashing films, it seemed all but impossible Pixar could do it a third time. Why did we ever doubt them? They were never going to end this trilogy with a disappointment. They knew what was riding on this, and they had to get this right. But what they ultimately delivered was as close to cinematic perfection as it comes. Toy Story 3 stands on its own with a completely unique narrative to the first two films, yet still builds on everything put down before it and perfectly wraps up this beautiful saga.
With a whole host of great new characters, particularly the wonderfully menacing antagonist Lots-o’-Huggin’ Bear, Toy Story 3 is a joyous and entertaining blast, with a deep heart and beautiful warmth you cannot resist. There are plenty of laughs and giddy thrills. But it wisely delivers a hefty dose of darker elements too, especially Lotso’s rather bleak backstory and one gripping sequence where it looks like the genuine end for our beloved toys. It all moves towards a satisfying conclusion which is devastating but necessary.
2. Inside Out (2015)
After a five-year run of genuinely disappointing films, many were starting to wonder if Pixar had finally run out of steam. Luckily, they had one of their finest films up their sleeve. In what stands as their most original and unique film to date, Inside Out is a masterwork of not only animation but cinema in general. It’s complex and layered. It’s hilarious and entertaining. It’s deeply moving and powerful. And the importance of its morals and messages are unlike anything else Pixar have delivered.
Taking a look inside our brains at how our emotions control our daily lives, Inside Out is a decidedly strange setup for a “kids film.” But, somehow, it works. The film deftly tackles some pretty serious issues, particularly in its deep message of how all emotions, including the unfortunate ones, have value in our lives, as they consistently work in harmony to make us who we really are. As difficult a lesson it is to learn, Inside Out teaches us that we simply can’t have the joy without the sadness. Sometimes, it’s okay to not be okay. Life is not always great and that’s perfectly fine. The idea that misery needs to be confronted rather than ignored is perhaps the most poetic and important message of any Pixar film to date. Can we just stop and admire the fact a film aimed at children is tackling an issue like this?
But beyond its deep and meaningful themes, Inside Out is just as entertaining and fun as any other Pixar film. The five emotion characters are all wonderfully design and voiced, particularly Amy Poehler’s impeccable efforts as Joy and Phyllis Smith’s gorgeous work as Sadness. Bing Bong is a marvellous creation, even if he ultimately partakes in another of Pixar’s most devastating moments. The world design is glorious. The score by Michael Giacchino (there’s that name again) is a triumph. Inside Out is a deeply, deeply special film that will touch your heart, expand your mind, and leave you feeling better for having seen it.
1. WALL·E (2008)
And then there was one. For me, there was only one choice for the top spot. Nothing comes close to the perfection that is WALL·E, and it’s highly unlikely anything ever will. It’s their greatest achievement in a list of great achievements. It’s a film that defies all logic, yet somehow works perfectly. It’s Pixar’s most ambitious work which resulted in their finest glory. For a film aimed at children to begin with half an hour of action devoid of dialogue is unspeakably insane. But to then have an audience follow the love story of two robots who can barely utter more than each other’s name is downright nuts. Just imagine pitching this film and attempting to convince a studio executive that it will work. Unsurprisingly, Pixar made it work like only they could.
You can’t help but fall in love with the adorable little robot-that-could WALL·E. His gorgeously expressive eyes tell you everything you need to know about this character. He’s one of Pixar’s finest creations. He doesn’t need dialogue. His emotions radiate through his every move. His affection for EVE is evident without the need for gushy declarations of love. We understand this kind and gentle soul from the moment we meet him. We cheer for him. We follow him wherever he goes. And we want nothing for him but the love we know he deserves. The fact we’re speaking like this about a trash-collecting robot shows how masterful WALL·E really is.
With its powerful narrative deftly commenting on devastating environmental issues and the wasteful nature of the human race, WALL·E clearly has something to say. It serves as a warning. A red flag to our future. But it never feels obnoxious or preachy about its message. It’s wrapped up in the most glorious love story of any Pixar film, making the film work on multiple levels. It’s a bold film that breaks all the conventions of the animated genre. It subverts all tropes we know of this kind of cinema. It’s an unrivalled masterpiece. It’s an extraordinary work of art. It’s a film that will define this studio for decades to come. It’s a travesty the Academy failed to nominate WALL·E for Best Picture. It’s Pixar’s greatest offering and one of the greatest films of all time. Case closed.
So there it is, folks. My take on the films of Pixar Animation Studios. What a sensational 25 years it has been, and, hopefully, there are many, many wonderful years to come of further Pixar brilliance.