November 22nd marked the twenty year anniversary of Toy Story‘s release, Pixar’s first feature film. On November 25th they released their sixteenth feature, The Good Dinosaur. Pixar is, quite simply, the most constant film studio in Hollywood. Maybe ever. What their artists and storytellers have been able to do over the last 20 years is nothing short of remarkable. They change the medium with Toy Story and then continued to ensure that no one could ever match their work, releasing masterpiece after masterpiece for years. They’ve had a few misfires, sure, but you can feel pretty safe popping in any Pixar film and not only expecting to be entertained but there’s also a safe bet you will be moved to tears. No film makers are more synonymous with the “adult cry” than Pixar and for good reason– they tell profoundly human and incredibly moving stories whether their characters are toys, dinosaurs, rats, or superheroes. In this post I will rank all the Pixar movies from worst to best.
I’ll be up front and say that this list is incredibly difficult and highly subjective. No one may argue my pick for #16 (and if you did you’d be wrong) but how does one rank Finding Nemo and Monster’s Inc, two close-to-perfect films in every respect? What order do you put the Toy Story movies in? Do you have to put Toy Story at #1 just because it changed the entire medium (and was an incredible film on top of that)? These are questions I will attempt to answer. Here we go.
16. Cars 2 (2011)
No one who’s seen this film and any other Pixar film can argue it’s placing. It is Pixar’s only uninspired film (so far) and was clearly just made as an excuse to sell more toys. Taking the bumbling hick Mater and making him an international spy was a big misfire. Yes it provided some comedy, but it was stretching the already shaky plausibility to breaking. Watching stupid characters make stupid choices in an attempt to be funny is something we’ve come to expect from an Adam Sandler movie, not from a Pixar movie.
15. Cars (2006)
While my derision is positively dripping off of its sequel, I actually don’t have that much of an issue with Cars. Yes, it’s the 15th best Pixar movie, but that’s simply due to each of the other films bringing more to the table. The story of Lightning McQueen’s self discovery due to his time in a small town with good country folk is one I feel I’ve seen endlessly. So much so that the reveal in the middle of the film about Doc Hudson’s identity wasn’t surprising, it was down right expected. Still the scenery is absolutely beautiful and you can never go wrong with Bonnie Hunt voicing one of your characters.
14. A Bug’s Life (1998)
This is one of Pixar’s more forgotten films. It came out between the mega hits Toy Story and Toy Story 2 and never really took off in the same way. Rewatching it you’re reminded that even with their second feature, the Pixar team had a good handle on their wonderful sense of humor and confidence as storytellers. Bonus points for more Bonnie Hunt!
13. Brave (2012)
Pixar’s first princess movie already ranks among the all time great princesses. Merida is a fiery haired and fiery personalitied Scottish princess who prefers archery and rock climbing to dress wearing. Half Arya Stark and half Katniss Everdeen, Merida was the perfect princess for modern girls to emulate and idolize. If only the film itself were as interesting and revelatory. The mother/daughter aspects are well done and certainly the highlight along with the breathtaking visuals, but the plot is one of Pixar’s weaker.
12. The Good Dinosaur (2015)
Speaking of breath taking visuals they have never been more stunning than in The Good Dinosaur. The cinematography is so stunning, in fact, that they are campaigning for a Best Cinematography Oscar nomination, a feat no animated film has ever accomplished. It would be deserving, this movie is a visual feast. The story is one of the weaker points. It’s certainly one we’ve seen before and doesn’t offer much in the way or originality or surprises. The Pixar team works their magic, however because in spite of that I was still very moved by the story and loved the characters.
11. Monster’s University (2013)
Pixar’s first prequel is, in my opinion, the best prequel I’ve ever seen. The idea to go back and see Mike and Sully back in college sounded like an idea that was motivated by money, not story but I was very surprised and impressed with how well they executed it. The story never felt like it was reliant on the original, instead it felt like it stood on its own two (or six) legs– which is one of the highest compliments I can pay a sequel/prequel. The message of the film was something else Pixar hit out of the park. “Someday, you may realize you can’t do what you’ve always wanted” is a bold and important message to have in a kids film and they execute it with aplomb.
10. Toy Story 2 (1999)
From here on out it gets hard. Very hard. Beyond this point basically every film is a masterpiece and I’m just ranking them based on tiny justifications and minute reactions. 2-10 can pretty much be interchanged in any order and you still have a solid and accurate list. I put Toy Story 2 here because, while it is an absolutely incredible sequel, (one of the best in the history of cinema) it doesn’t have quite the emotional heft of 3 or the groundbreaking originality of 1. This is where we first glimpsed Pixar’s power over our emotions, however. Jessie’s song about her and Emily’s loving and tragic relationship is still as potent today as it was as a kid.
9. Ratatouille (2007)
Ratatouille is absolutely one of Pixar’s most original and enjoyable features. The stunning Paris sets. The scrumptious-looking food. The simplistic originality of the story– a rat who wants to become a chef in Paris. It all combines into an absolutely alluring and satisfying dish.
8. The Incredibles (2004)
The Incredibles is at once a super hero movie, a family film, a spy homage and incredibly entertaining in every way. Super heroes going into hiding and becoming bored with the mundaneness of life (a boredom that mirror’s our own as adults) is a masterstroke. Everywhere the story goes after that is exciting and entertaining and really delivers. Even though the family’s powers are basically the reshuffled Fantastic Four, director Brad Bird still finds ways to delight and surprise us.
7. Toy Story (1995)
Well here it is. The first one. The big one. I see a lot of these Pixar rankings that have Toy Story at number one, not just because it’s amazing but because the impact in made on the entire film industry. While I cannot deny the power of its story, I believe that as storytellers Pixar has surpassed the work its done here. But Buzz’s arc discovering he is a toy is incredibly powerful and gracefully executed and a perfect example of what Pixar would become.
6. Up (2009)
I believe that the first 9 minutes of Up are possibly the most incredible 9 minutes Pixar has ever done. Watching the life of Carl and Ellie while the music swells… and then dips. It’s beautiful, funny, life affirming and devastatingly sad within seconds of each other. The rest of the movie is an absolute blast, but it never quite reaches the brilliance of its opening again (and how could it?). Director Pete Doctor gives us the most unlikely pair of action heroes and sends them on a truly original and delightful adventure.
5. Inside Out (2015)
In what was undoubtedly one of their most ambitious and daring films ever, Pixar achieved one of their greatest successes with Inside Out. Setting the film inside the mind of an 11 year old girl with the protagonist being her inner emotions, is simply incredible. Pete Doctor proves he is one of the best film makers working today with this masterpiece of incredibly high concepts, delivered in a way children can understand and learn from. The message at the heart of it about the importance of sadness and its role in our lives is profound and incredibly well executed as well.
4. Toy Story 3 (2010)
An almost perfect cap off to an almost perfect trilogy– arguably the best trilogy in film. Coming back to Woody and Buzz and the gang could have been a mistake or cash grab, but instead it was a profoundly moving meditation on growing up and letting go. The depth of character they’re able to find, even after 11 years, is indicative of the calibre of storytellers we’re working with as well as the vitality of the world they created.
3. Finding Nemo (2003)
Finding Nemo was Pixar’s first mega hit, banking almost a billion dollars at the world wide box office and becoming the highest selling DVD of all time. There’s a reason for that. It’s wildly inventive, fantastically clever, and genuinely hilarious with veteran comics Ellen DeGeneres and Albert Brooks leading the voice cast. At its core it’s simply the story of a father trying to find his son, but director Andrew Stanton fills the world with so many vibrant, lovable characters and makes Marlon’s quest to find Nemo so personal we can’t help but be moved as we are brought along.
2. Monster’s Inc. (2001)
Pixar’s fourth feature is still one of its absolute best. There is something absolutely ingenious about monsters using children’s screams for electricity to power their world. It may still be the best set up for any Pixar film yet. Director Pete Doctor is incredibly creative and wildly imaginative as seen by his later masterpieces Up and Inside Out, but he first showed his talent here with the story of Mike, Sully, and Boo. The last moment in this film is still one of the most moving and powerful moments in any Pixar film to date.
Well here it is. My pick for the masterpiece of all of Pixar’s masterpieces. The brilliance of what director Andrew Stanton and the Pixar team pulled off here is unparalleled – from the first forty minutes that basically features no human dialogue, to the absolutely stunning cinematography and animated camera work. They brought in a film camera and cinematographer to study how it looks when the camera performs different functions (such as pull focus) so they could accurately animate it. It pays off. The look of the film is nothing short of stunning. The film received six Oscar nominations– the most of any Pixar film– and nearly received a Best Picture nomination as well.
There is another reason why WALL*E is the best Pixar film; it is their only love story. Sure familial and friendly love features into all of their stories, and there subplots of romance like Woody and Bo Peep or Carl and Ellie, but this is the only Pixar film where the main plot is driven by romantic love. WALL*E befriends EVE because he’s smitten with her. He follows her because he loves her. And she saves him out of that mutual love. There is almost no scene in all of Pixar’s oeuvre that is more beautiful or heart warming than WALL*E and EVE’s dancing scene in space. While basically all of Pixar’s films are the works of art, few studios in the history of filmmaking can say they made a film as good as WALL*E.
Author: Radcliff Weir, @radcliffweir
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