I try to avoid making too many pop-culture related lists, for my own health and that of those around me. But I had a special request from a friend to provide my ranked list, with brief commentary, on every Pixar film. In this day and age, it isn't too surprising to have seen all of Pixar's output, especially since they only release one film a year and have enough cultural cachet to be considered an event studio. Still, I have seen them all; well, almost. Here now, without further ado, is a full ranking.
Not Ranked: Cars 2
As I said: almost all. I've actually heard a few dissenting voices from people whose taste I generally trust, but it hasn't been enough to motivate me to check out what almost everyone else considers to be the worst Pixar film. One of these days I'll get around to it, for the sake of completion, but... not yet. (I have seen a staggeringly awful shorts compilation called "Mater's Tall Tales" which I think counts as adequate penance for my sin of omission).
Tier 4 - Take 'Em or Leave 'Em
16. The Incredibles
Consider the gauntlet thrown down. I know many people who rate this among Pixar's best, but it has always left me cold. Sure, it has great voice work (it's never a bad idea to have Holly Hunter around) but, honestly, the whole thing feels a bit by the book. It's fun, but not much else. And director Brad Bird already directed his superhero masterpiece five years earlier, with the far superior (and much less slick) The Iron Giant.
Is there anything notable about this film other than it continuing the fine tradition of having great actors play their last roles in animated films? In that category, Paul Newman's turn here is a good bit above Orson Welles in the Transformers movie, but a good bit below Jimmy Stewart's classic turn as Wylie Burp in Fievel Goes West. Again, an uninspired story can't be overcome by good voice acting. Though it is far, far superior to its recent remake, the bland Robert Downey, Jr. dramedy The Judge. (Seriously: I can in no way advocate you watching The Judge, but if someone forces you at gunpoint, pay attention to how it's a subpar ripoff of Cars).
14. Finding Dory
Sadly Pixar's most recent effort is one of their (wait for it) most forgettable. I really wanted to get invested in Dory's search for her parents, but the whole movie felt shoddily constructed by Pixar standards; shaggy, but not in a charming way. I don't generally buy the charge that Pixar wrings cheap emotion from its films by preying on the insecurities of parents, but yeah, that fits the bill here.
People seemed really disappointed in this one when it came out, perhaps because the weight of expectations on it as the first Pixar film with a female protagonist were so great. Sure, the film's troubled production history leads to some unevenness, but it's definitely not a bad film, and it takes more chances than the films I've ranked below it. The real problem comes in comparing it (unfairly, I know) against other vaguely Celtic/Hibernian animated films that had come out around the same time. Compared to Tom Moore's The Secret of Kells, to choose the best of the bunch, Brave feels singularly uninspired.
Tier 3 - The Good
12. The Good Dinosaur
For some reason this film failed to connect to audiences when it came out, and while it's not a masterpiece, I think its relative failure is a bit unfair, and thus it stands in my mind as one of the most underrated of Pixar's films. Sure, the story beats are fairly familiar, with a father son relationship at its core, but the film zags where many zig, and includes some of the strangest scenes Pixar has ever put on film. Plus - and I know this isn't everything - the film is stunningly gorgeous.
Let's get this out of the way first: Up has the most moving, heartbreaking opening 10 minutes of any animated film, ever. It's a masterclass in compressed storytelling, one that will endure as one of Pixar's high points for a long, long time. But that doesn't excuse the rest of the film, which fails to live up to that opening. It's amusing and diverting, and sometimes touching, but it also involves too much flab and folderol to be one of Pixar's best.
10. Toy Story 3
The third and lowest ranked entry in the Toy Story saga suffers from the reverse problem that afflicts Up. The film wanders through some amusing hijinks but then, out of nowhere, takes a dark, brilliant turn and becomes a meditation on mortality, featuring talking toys. It's quite a transformation, and saves the film from being a forgettable mediocrity.
Tier 2 - The Really Good
9. Monsters, Inc.
Every film remaining on this list is one I would recommend without reservations, anytime, anywhere. They have a little something extra that elevates them above what's come before. In the case of Monsters, Inc., that could be one of several things. It could be the killer chemistry between John Goodman and Billy Crystal (who for once uses his extremely punchably persona for good, not evil). It could be the sneaky-great emotional core of the film, the friendship between Goodman's Sulley and Boo, the young girl he befriends. It could even be Randy Newman's crackling score. At any rate, Monsters, Inc. manages to be one of Pixar's more entertaining films while still hitting the emotions hard.
I think it counts as a huge plus in Wall-E's favor that I've only seen it once - when it first came out - but I've still ranked it this high. In many ways Wall-E feels daring, from its wordless opening half hour to its willingness to imagine a society bent out of shape, almost irredeemably, by human greed. In my memory the social commentary gets a little heavy handed in the second half of the film, which keeps it from climbing higher on this list, but it's still an achievement well worth celebrating.
7. A Bug's Life
Chances are good that you don't remember much about A Bug's Life. Sandwiched in between the first two Toy Story films, Pixar's second film has been unjustly lost to history. A clever retelling of Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, A Bug's Life shows Pixar's early potential for taking weird premises and having fun with them. The insect world gives the film an endlessly fascinating palette to work with, and the studio uses this to great effect. I might be a little biased in its favor due to the presence of Dave Foley, but this is one that's well worth a re-watch if you haven't seen it in awhile.
6. Toy Story
Ah, the one that started it all. Having rewatched Toy Story not too long ago, it's really remarkable how much of Pixar's future success lies in the blueprint of this film. Strong emotional relationships (here both vertical, between toy and owner, and horizontal, between toys); moments that capture the sad wonder of childhood; and of course lots and lots of humor that hits its mark. Though the studio would go on to make better films, their first one still feels special.
5. Monsters University
If putting The Incredibles last is my most controversial low ranking, I suspect this will be my controversial high ranking. I'll just go ahead and say it: Monsters University is Pixar's most underrated film, and in some ways their most grown up. People seem to have gotten distracted by its genre trappings (oh no, a campus comedy!) and ignored the ways in which the film digs beneath the cliches of that genre to make a startlingly adult film about failure. The basic lesson (not everyone can succeed at some things, no matter how hard they try) is deeply counter-cultural, and utterly refreshing. Huge plus thanks to Randy Newman's peppy marching band score.
Tier 1 - The All Timers
4. Finding Nemo
Ok, maybe I am predisposed to have this film wreck me in ways that others aren't. As a father of three small, precious children, and a natural worrier, I immediately connect to Marlin's anxieties about his son. But beyond this emotional center, there's a whole lot to love about Finding Nemo. One of Finding Dory's biggest mistakes was to move largely away from the ocean setting (opting instead for a marine preserve). But exploring the ocean lets the animators' imaginations run wild, and cook up some of the most fun set pieces in any Pixar film. The whole movie feels infused with a sense of wonder at the vastness of the world.
3. Inside Out
I'm not a fan of the "Pixar slump" theory, the idea that in the last decade or so the studio has been largely down on its luck (relatively speaking), with films that are fine but nothing special. However, it's easy to believe that narrative when the "bounce back" film is as good as Inside Out. By exploring the inside of a human person, Pixar came up with one of the few spaces vast and mysterious enough to rival the ocean as a playground. The film plays its combination of emotions for many laughs, but also argues for the essential need for sadness in human life. Combined with Monsters University it's almost as if Pixar was working as an agent of good against the shiny personal-improvement-industrial-complex. All to the good, I say.
Now here's a surprise. The first time I saw Ratatouille, I thought it was pretty good, but nothing special. Only on multiple rewatches has the film unfolded for me and revealed its intricate layers (like a good croissant). In some ways Pixar's most meta film (all about the joys and struggles of creating art), the film tackles criticism, pleasure, and natural ability with verve and gusto. It provides endless sensory delights, from the colors to the lovingly designed shots of food to Michael Giacchino's flawless score. Set your jaw firm and do your best to resist, and I bet you'll still walk away feeling refreshed about life.
1. Toy Story 2
Well, here it is. It seems inevitable in some ways - a safe, boring choice for the best Pixar film. But what can you do when the obvious choice happens to be the best? Not only the greatest Pixar film, but probably the greatest sequel ever, it improves on the initial film in every way. It manages to be a thrilling adventure film while never sacrificing the emotional weight (seriously, the scene where Jesse the Cowgirl sings about her old owner will wring tears from any but the most heartless monster). The central choice Woody faces - to be safe, or to be loved - is one of the most basic questions about human existence. And all this from a film that was originally supposed to be a cheapo, direct to video sequel. Sometimes life goes contra the plan, and thank goodness for that.