If it feels like trying to rank all 15 Pixar films in order of quality is like trying to rank your children by how much you love them, that is probably by design. Whatever your thoughts about Pixar’s films — particularly the last five years’ worth, which have broken the studio's perfect critically beloved streak — no one believes they’re not deeply cared for: Even the misguided ones feel endlessly fussed-over. No one ever accuses Pixar of not feeling.
It is worth noting, then, that none of these movies is bad. But when you’ve made 15 films, one of them has to be No. 15 and one of them has to be No. 1. We tried to keep context in mind — Toy Story had an ability to blow your mind in 1995 the way nothing could in 2015 — and also ambition: In the world of children’s entertainment, nothing has set Pixar apart more than its burning desire not to coast or mail it in. Some of these movies work better than others, but all of them were trying to do something special. But some are more special than others. Here’s our ranking.
15. Cars 2 (2011)
Larry the Cable Guy was Cars’ secret weapon, lending his blue-collar earthiness to a character whose regular-folks demeanor had real pathos and sweetness. But that didn’t mean we wanted to see Tow Mater in a James Bond spoof. Give Cars 2 points for audacity: The follow-up shifts away from the original’s small-town, homespun charm to become a sleek, globetrotting action-thriller focusing on Lightning McQueen’s country-bumpkin sidekick. And then take away those points because Cars 2 proves that even the mighty Pixar can't transcend the central problem with sequels: You can make everything bigger, but you can rarely replicate what was novel and charming about the original.
14. Brave (2012)
Pixar finally set out to fix its lack-of-female-protagonists problem — but unfortunately, it did it with an undercooked story that feels more like a response to criticism than a well-thought-out Pixar adventure. This is a textbook Idiot Plot movie, in which the whole dreadful second half could have been eliminated if (spoilers here) Merida — who is beloved in the kingdom and would have little reason to be doubted — just said, “Hey, my mom was just transformed into this bear, everybody chill.” (Heck, her mom could have even written her name in the ground with her claw to prove it, were anyone to ask.) This is also the first Pixar movie whose comedic tone is entirely out of whack; it’s dumb slapstick that reminds you of some subpar early Dreamworks movies. (We wouldn’t have thought Pixar was capable of making irritating, un-cute children, but here they are.) They would finally come up with a terrific female lead three years later, but Brave was the first time you thought, Wait, have they really lost something?
13. Monsters University (2013)
How many of us had been clamoring to see how Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) became friends in college? Anyone? One of the sizable faults with Monsters University is that it’s a prequel that doesn’t have much need to exist — just do a short before one of the studio’s features and be done with it — but there’s enough heart and humor to make this cash-grab amusing enough. Still, Monsters University uncomfortably sums up Pixar’s post-Toy Story 3 era: It’s pleasantly entertaining just so long as you will yourself to forget the inspired storytelling and freewheeling imagination that used to be the studio’s trademarks.
12. A Bug’s Life (1998)
We might be in the minority preferring that year’s Antz — which was famously part of a race between Dreamworks and Pixar to make computer-animated insect movies — but this is still a charming, ultimately harmless little tale that basically has the same plot as Antz but is aimed more squarely at children. As the years went by, Pixar became unusually skilled at making movies as appealing to adults as they were to kids, but the scale is still being balanced here: This is not one adults will rewatch, like The Incredibles or Toy Story. It still wins big points for having the queen of an ant colony voiced by Phyllis Diller.
11. Cars (2006)
By 2006, Pixar had been making features for more than a decade, and so a backlash was inevitable; perhaps overdue. Into that awaiting storm walked Cars, a sweet, modest family comedy. Essentially Doc Hollywood starring a cocky stock car, the film imagined a world ruled by living automobiles, wringing laughs from a hot-rod-out-of-water scenario in which ultracompetitive racer Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) gets stuck in a Podunk filled with ordinary folks like good-ol’-boy tow-truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). Cars is Pixar’s most nostalgic work, lamenting the sleepy communities and small-town values lost to the endless march of progress, which may explain why the movie feels so recycled, drawing from different genres without the studio’s usual freshness. Still, it’s consistently amusing — and for a whole generation of car-loving boys who grew up on it, Cars is as important as Star Wars or Batman.
10. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
The placement of Monsters, Inc. on any Pixar list depends on one question: How much of Billy Crystal’s shtick can you stand? If Aladdin is Robin Williams Unbound, this buddy comedy gave the Oscar host his chance to go full Catskills, voicing Mike Wazowski, the insecure, long-suffering, wisecracking partner to the lovable James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman), who travels to the human world to give sleeping kids nightmares. The first of Pete Docter’s directorial efforts — he’d go on to make Up and Inside Out — Monsters, Inc. argues that you can never go wrong pairing exasperated adult characters with an impossibly cute kid (Boo, voiced by Mary Gibbs, who was only 5 when the movie came out). Mike’s kvetching gets tiresome, but the movie zooms along with whiplash speed. (The third-act chase set in the Monsters, Inc. conveyor belt of doors thrills.) And c’mon, Sulley's final reaction shot is just beautiful.
9. Up (2009)
All right, all right: We know this is lower than you think it should be. But take a step back and try to remember what comes to your mind when you first think of this movie. Yes, the wondrous image of the balloon raising the house into the air, and yes, maybe the cute dog that keeps being distracted by squirrels. But plot-wise, this whole film is completely overshadowed by the heartbreaking preamble, in which we learn the crushing story of Carl and Ellie’s life together. Yes, this will make you cry — just watching it again choked us up — but in retrospect, the rest of the movie is your fairly standard cute-kid, cute-dog, central-casting villain story. We’re not sure the whole movie should have been as powerful as those opening minutes — we might still be weeping — but take that away and this movie is a lot thinner than you remember. Sorry.
8. Ratatouille (2007)
As close as Pixar will get to an art movie, this story of a rat who is secretly the greatest chef in all of Paris is a delight, owing largely to a generous heart, a witty, Richard Dreyfuss–esque vocal performance from Patton Oswalt, and some legitimately democratizing notions about art and the act of creation. It’s not quite as viscerally thrilling as some other Pixar films — the main setpiece is about impressing a food critic — but it is funny and almost compulsively likable. After this film — which, we repeat, is a comedy about art and food and rats in Paris — became a huge hit and won an Oscar, it seemed as though Pixar could do no wrong.
7. Inside Out (2015)
Those going through Parks & Rec withdrawal, rejoice: Amy Poehler’s adorable Inside Out character Joy isn’t that far removed from her hyperpositive, smilingly pushy Leslie Knope, running the emotional headquarters inside the brain of a happy tween like it’s her own little sunny fiefdom. Inside Out can get bogged down a bit in plot busyness — Joy and Sadness (a terrifically gloomy turn from The Office’s Phyllis Smith) have to find a way back to HQ after being sucked into the girl’s mind — but this is the cleverest, most emotionally pure Pixar film in years, offering plenty of teachable moments for both parents and kids about the need to embrace all of life’s emotions. And Bing Bong is going to break your heart.
6. Toy Story 3 (2010)
Ranking the three Toy Story films, all of which are wonderful, is nearly impossible, and there was much disagreement even among the two of us. (One of us had this as his best movie of 2010, after all.) You really can’t go wrong with any of them, but we’ve got this one third if only because the Great Escape–type plot feels more familiar than we’re used to from these movies, and because the ending resembles some sort of cruel Disney-funded Pepsi Challenge to see if grown adults can keep from sobbing in the company of their children. Also: It’s not fair, but the fact that they’re making a Toy Story 4 does, in fact, hurt a bit of the finality of this one that made it so powerful.
5. The Incredibles (2004)
It was obvious, in retrospect, that director Brad Bird would move on to making live-action blockbusters: This is as exciting and riveting an action film as we’ve seen in American animation. If all blockbusters were like this one, we’d never object to a fifth Transformers movie. The key to The Incredibles’ success is its economy of action: We are introduced to an entirely new universe, meet and empathize with a likable and close-knit family, discover the parents’ quiet dissatisfaction with what their lives have become, and then watch as everyone unites to overcome an evil force that wants to destroy the planet. It does all this in under two hours and never seems to be rushing or cramming anything in. Take note, Marvel: You can create a world, balance a huge cast of characters, and still wow your audience without making them look up everything on Wikipedia afterward.
4. Toy Story 2 (1999)
Toy Story 2 should have been a disaster. Designed to be a straight-to-DVD feature but then slotted for a theatrical release by Pixar’s Disney bosses, who were much happier with the in-progress film than the Pixar brain trust were, the sequel had to be reconceived on the fly and rushed to completion, grabbing story beats that had been rejected from the original film. Miraculously, Toy Story 2 shows no signs of the panic that went into making it. Expanding Woody and Buzz’s universe without losing focus on the characters, laughs, or sentiment, this follow-up deepens the themes of the original while keeping a wistful eye on childhood’s end. Joan Cusack is the MVP as the rootin’-tootin’ cowgirl Jessie, and her “When She Loved Me” flashback sequence remains one of the great cries in Pixar’s rich history of tearjerking moments.
3. Finding Nemo (2003)
Director Andrew Stanton wanted to make a movie set in the ocean, but he also wanted to address his own guilty memories of being an overprotective father to his young son. So he made this emotional, exciting, visually gorgeous story about a nervous clownfish (voiced by Albert Brooks) on a desperate search to find his lost son Nemo (Alexander Gould) with the help of a lovably loopy blue tang (Ellen DeGeneres). Finding Nemo’s lessons about the importance of letting our children live their own lives are only strengthened by how scary this movie can be. Stanton and his animators load the film with plenty of terrors — the opening remains a nerve-shredder — and yet still insist that we have to learn that rather than smothering those we love, we need to release them into the scary world if they’re going to survive on their own.
2. Toy Story (1995)
Twenty years after Toy Story’s release, some of Randy Newman’s songs come across as creaky, and the once-cutting-edge animation looks rudimentary. Otherwise, though, the best comedy of the 1990s remains perfect. Pixar’s first feature is still the template for every great movie the studio has made since: earned emotions; ripping action sequences; dead-on insights into human nature; and lots of giddy, witty, silly laughs. Toy Story is so funny because deep down, it’s actually a very melancholy film. Woody and Buzz’s battle for Andy’s love speaks to everyone’s fear of being replaced, our shared recognition that the innocence of childhood cannot last. As for the voice cast, they’re impeccable: Tim Allen was never better, and even though Tom Hanks has won two Oscars, it is very likely (and completely appropriate) that Woody will be the role that immortalizes him.
1. WALL-E (2008)
We went back-and-forth on the top two here, but we ultimately had to go with this one, the most original and ambitious of all the Pixar movies. The first half-hour, which basically tells the story of the destruction of the planet and the devolution of the human race without a single line of dialogue, is total perfection: It’s almost Kubrickian in its attention to detail and perspective, though it never feels cold or ungenerous. Then we get to know WALL-E himself and realize that he sees humanity for so much more than it has become, and what it can become again. WALL-E is an unprecedented achievement, the absolute pinnacle of what Pixar can do. And not for nothing, but WALL-E also happens to feature Pixar’s greatest love story. They’ve never been better. This is our pick.
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