Ranking the Pixar Films
Or: what I do to justify my Disney+ subscription
Note: I will be updating this ranking with each new Pixar movie that comes out. As of this issue, I’ve just seen Luca, in June 2021.
Around this time last year, as I was getting settled into perpetual lockdown, I decided to fire up Disney+ and rewatch all the films of the Disney Renaissance — that is, the 10 animated feature films the studio produced after 1989, often considered to be some of the best work they’ve ever made. To make it fun (or my version of fun), I created a ranking system, a way to categorize them from worst to best. Sure, I can love a film, but what do I love about it? Does it have a good story, music, style? Did I enjoy the characters? Do any of these hold up?
The experience was illuminating and interesting (I plan on writing about it here so, for the time being, I won’t get into details), and I immediately thought “I should do the same with Pixar movies!”
Then I saw that there were over 20 Pixar movies, and that I didn’t have that sort of dedication. I was still working, and still hopeful that, within a month or so, the pandemic would have waned and I wouldn’t need the distraction.
Now I’m not working and lockdown is close to ending. No time, I realized, but the present.
Pixar is an interesting topic to cover when it comes to ranking films. The studio has made a collection of beloved and admired films, as important to family entertainment as the Disney renaissance films that they more or less usurped (Toy Story came out in 1996, the same year as The Hunchback of Notre Dame, when Disney’s magic was starting to wane). Pixar films dominated the family box office in the early 2000s, punctured by the occasional Shrek film, taking up the space that Disney would leave abandoned until they regained some momentum with Tangled in 2010 that turned into a full-fledged explosion in 2013 with Frozen. Two Pixar films have been nominated by the Academy for Best Picture, seven for best original screenplay. WALL-E’s omission from the Best Picture running in 2008 was one of the reasons that the category was expanded from five films to ten: in short, Pixar films have a sheen of prestige to them (of course, not like the prestige given to international animated films from places like Studio Ghibli or directors like Sylvain Chomet, or in smaller, more artistic animation studios such as Laika; Pixar is mainstream prestige), something that creatively subverts the idea of more common animated films. These aren’t pithy princess films, but imaginative exploits with male protagonists, caring less about magic and royalty, instead creating lush stories within the mundane world of toys, bugs, the monsters in the closet.
I think there’s a longer conversation there, by the by: it’s telling that at the end of the post-feminist/Girl Power 1990s, family entertainment shifted into narratives that focused less on female protagonists or “girly” stories and into the realm of, well, boy stories: the toys in Toy Story are owned by a boy who loves cowboys and space rangers, it took Pixar 11 more films to have a story about a girl — and yes, I love Brave, but Merida is arguably an NLOG with her aversion to table manners and love of archery. Still, the male protagonists of Pixar aren’t toxically masculine, for the most part: they learn important lessons about hubris and pride, they show love and fondness for other characters, they’re vulnerable, they often cry.
So, if I was going to watch these films, I would need a similar rubric as when I watched the renaissance films, and that meant that I needed to figure out the components of what we expect from a Pixar movie. I settled on six categories, which would add up to a possible 100 points: Story (30), Animation (20), Originality (20), Voice Acting (10), Music (10), and Cry Factor (10). After watching the films, I’m not sure this was really the best rubric, but looking at the list it produced, I feel confident. In short, I was looking for films that had a compelling narrative (including elements that bolstered it, such as comedy and action setpieces), looked gorgeous, and was boldly original, dealing in the realm of the unexpected. I wanted something that was well cast, scored with unforgettable music, and that tugged at my heartstrings. Surely this is what most folks would expect from Pixar’s canon, right?
So, without further ado, let’s begin. From worst to best:
23. Cars 2 (21 points)
I’ll just go ahead and tell you now: the bottom three films on this list are from the Cars franchise.
Five minutes into Cars 2, a spy car named Finn McMissile watches as his enemies display the dead body of his associate — as a car crushed into a cube. I do not know why this happens. I can venture a guess that it’s meant to be cute, or funny, or campy, in a haha look this is how cars would do death and torture? In any case, this is the inciting incident for one of the two interweaving plots of a movie that does not need to exist. It is 106 minutes long. Its artistic direction seems to go no further than “make the things that aren’t cars in the shape of cars, so that people watching will know that it’s Cars.”
The story is a mess, but the essential conflict is that many characters believe that a character named Tow Mater is inappropriate and embarrassing, which is true. Mater is selfish, insensitive, loutish, thoughtless, and clumsy. He is voiced by Larry the Cable Guy. He actually says “get ‘er done!” and “now that there’s funny!” He is the butt of several jokes that take turns being scatological and culturally insensitive —not as in “simplified Disney representation that missies the mark” sort of insensitive, but as in “car geishas in Japan.” What’s the lesson, then, of the story? That Mater’s actions are just how he is, and that it’s up to everyone else to accept him, to loosen up and take the joke, that his inappropriate behavior is a good thing, actually (that this was the last Pixar film directed by John Lasseter, who left Pixar after extensive reports of inappropriate behavior towards his colleagues, only makes that message so much worse).
22. Cars 3 (29 points)
Cars 3 is blessedly short on Mater content, relegating nobody’s favorite tow truck to the sidelines, instead focusing the story on the first film’s protagonist, Lightning McQueen, who has (as we are told dozens of times) become outdated.
At the time it came out, this film was considered a sort of return-to-form for Cars, eschewing the crassness of Cars 2 for a more grounded story, albeit a shockingly dull one, a seemingly endless montage of training sessions and conversations about whether or not which car is fast, or the fastest, or will win, or will lose. It’s plodding and competent, saved mostly by Cristela Alonzo’s bright performance as Lightning’s new trainer who — gasp — learns that, to paraphrase Max Bialystock, there’s more to her than there is to her.
21. Cars (33 points)
Now that I’ve gotten the sequels out of the way, I can talk about how I feel about Cars as a franchise and as a film, as all of the problems with these movies, minus the ridiculous James Bond subplot of its sequel, stem from this.
Nobody prepared me for Cars. Sure, I’d heard that it was “more of a kids movie,” that it was far too beholden to car racing, a sport I’ve never been interested in. I knew that Cars wasn’t made for me, so I just let it be. I even enjoyed Cars Land in Disneyland California Adventure, which is a beautifully put together area with a really great ride. Cool design, I thought. But it’s more of a kids movie. And yes, I’d seen the memes: how do their bodies work? Where is their brain? Why do they have tongues? So I thought, with all this knowledge of how silly the Cars movies were, that I was prepared.
I wasn’t. I’ve watched all three of these movies, and I still don’t think I am. Watching Cars makes watching Cats look as straightforward as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I was alone, watching this movie on my own television, and screaming at it: do the cars fuck? How do they know about iPhones? Are only vehicles sentient? Why do they need to sleep? Why is there a reference to Jimi Hendrix? Are they saying there was a Jimi Hendrix car? Why are the only animals, insects, also cars? When someone sees a Volkswagen Beetle, do they think it looks like an actual insect? What about when they get insects on their windshield, are they just little squished cars? What about all these manufacturers, anyway? How does that work?
Cars suffers because, unless you are a middle-aged man who just loves the nostalgia of Route 66 and NASCAR or are a child that just hasn’t learned to think critically yet, it makes no sense. It jumps the shark for creative Pixar settings (what if it’s about toys! Bugs! Monsters! Fish!) and completely forgets to forge any sort of semblance to how a society of man-made vehicles would work, what its rules are, what its purpose is. Instead, the world is built of puns and design references; a drive-in theater showing “The Incredimobiles” (get it?), a Monument Valley made of buttes that all look like old jalopies (what did it look like before those cars existed, though? Did cars evolve? Why? What happens when car parts get replaced?), etc.
The story, which is just Doc Hollywood with cars, relies on not only suspending one’s disbelief when it comes to the cars themselves, but the idea that its characters — the aforementioned Mater, the cocksure Lightning McQueen, and their companions — many voiced by baby boomer icons like Paul Newman and George Carlin and Cheech Marin — are realized beings with full lives and not just vehicles (I’m sorry) for bad jokes and John Lasseter’s own fetish for highway culture. Why do people think this was made for children, when clearly this was made for middle-aged men? Do children care about Cheech Marin, who OF COURSE voices a Volkswagen Bus and OF COURSE makes “organic” motor oil? Are they delighted by a Jay Leno cameo named Jay Limo? Did John Lasseter see Shark Take and think “I should do that, but with cars!”?
I could go on about the absolute embarrassment that Cars should be to the Pixar company. I already have. The truth is that, of the 23 films on this list, Cars 1–3 are the only ones that I can categorically say are terrible, from their confusing plots to their godawful soundtracks full of pop-country covers that should bring shame to both pop and country music. I know there are some people who feel these movies speak to them, and I am willing to cop to my own ignorance as to why. But even if you dig deep into these movies and try to squeeze at their very heart, you’ll come back with nothing but disappointment and an oil stain.
20. A Bug’s Life (51 points)
I watched these films in chronological order, meaning that A Bug’s Life was only the second film on the list. It stands as more of a proof-of-concept than a great film, which makes sense: the “Pixar formula” wasn’t yet a well-known idea, the studio was yet to really make their mark as a creative force. All that A Bug’s Life had to do was be a fine movie that made good use of its medium, and it did just that.
Where it faltered, though, is in the story it chose to tell: the fable of the ant and the grasshopper with a little more drama, with the grasshoppers exploiting the ants for their food in exchange for protection, and the ants eventually seizing the means of production. Aside from the story, though, the movie does so little, hardly dramatic or funny enough to entertain. Then, of course, there’s the characters, the purple-for-some-reason ants and their associates, a circus act that includes a variety of bugs, one of whom is named, er, a slur, another whom is Heimlich the caterpillar, which is the closest that any non-Cars movie could ever get to Tow Mater in terms of unsettlingly awful and abrasive.
It’s not, by any stretch, a bad movie; it’s just poorly thought out and simply wrought. A decent showing for its time, sure, but hardly in the caliber of many of the other films on this list.
19. Onward (65 points)
One thing that great Pixar films do well is take an ambitious concept and ground it, making something as far-fetched as monsters or post-apocalyptic trash robots or anthropomorphized emotions seem, well, mundane.
Onward is an obvious attempt at this: a mystical world where magic has been replaced with smartphones and cars, high fantasy made rote. It succeeds at this better, by the way, than Bright, a film that is unfairly used to malign Onward as being completely contrived. And Onward is certainly contrived: in a post-Shrek world, it’s hard to show things like, say, a medieval tavern that’s also a TGI-Friday’s-esque family restaurant without coming off as derivative. The characters, too, seem die-cut: Chris Pratt’s Barley is Andy Dwyer obsessed with D&D, while Tom Holland voices Ian: Peter Parker gifted with a wizard’s staff instead of a radioactive spider bite. The two set off on a quest to magically reunite with their deceased father, and though the story is easy to follow and extremely fun at times, it fails to move the needle in its style or animation, falling flat where it should expand. All in all, it feels closer in family relation to a Disney movie like Zootopia, instead of the more experimental world of Pixar.
18. Toy Story 2 (66 points)
This was the first big surprise of my viewing experience: I love this movie. I had for years! I loved how it built on the world of the original, I loved the background it gave to Woody’s character, I loved the jokes it contained. But I wanted to watch these movies as objectively as possible, without pressing my thumb on the scale for the sake of nostalgia. And, well… Toy Story 2 is a bit of a mess.
What saves this movie from being lower on the list is its characters; just like its predecessor, I gave Toy Story 2 a 10/10 for voice acting. Tom Hanks and Tim Allen are still doing great, but Joan Cusack’s Jessie is such a perfectly realized protagonist that I wish the film had been told from her perspective. In fact, everything to do with Jessie, Bullseye, and Woody still holds up, especially as toy collecting has become a comically large industry. However, the second act sequence in Al’s Toy Barn — the source of most of the film’s humor — didn’t age with me the way that I’d hoped. The plot is full of contrivances, it seems, to tell certain jokes: put the toys in a car so that Rex can do a Jurassic Park gag! Have there be more Buzz Lightyears so that we can do the Buzz Lightyear jokes from the last movie! Have Buzz fight Emporer Zurg so that we can tell a few Star Wars gags!
It’s unfortunate, of course, since the Toy Story franchise seems to be such a lucrative well for the Pixar team. luckily, this is the only one that suffers from mediocrity.
17. The Good Dinosaur (68 points)
This might be the closest thing to a Laika film that Pixar has made: visually stunning with so-so storytelling. It’s a simple plot: a young allosaurus is lost in the wilderness and must travel home, along with a human child that he finds along the way, hero’s-journey style. That’s hardly enough for a great film, but the stunning visuals of the American wilderness and beautifully rendered elements of earth and water glued me to every second of it (I’m not kidding: there’s a moment where water pours off of a dinosaur’s body that made my jaw hit the floor). The animators have somehow managed to make an environment that is both hyperrealistic and fantastical, a world constantly bathed in golden daylight and crisp blue night, with soaring peaks and endless plains.
There isn’t much else to say about it — a sweet, enthralling, but predictable story set in the most gorgeous environments you’ll see on film. Of all the movies on the mediocre side of this list, The Good Dinosaur is my personal favorite, and one that I recommend to anyone.
16. Monsters University (71 points)
A prequel that nobody asked for, Monsters University still manages to be as bright, imaginative, and colorful as its originator. I read somewhere that a person’s ability to enjoy either of the Monsters movies relies solely on whether or not they enjoy Billy Crystal’s Mike Wazowski, and… I really like him! I’m okay if that isn’t true for everyone!
Monsters University is fast-paced and fun, pushing itself through a somewhat confusing middle act to a satisfying moral at the end. The animation itself is wild and loose, and maintains the creative spirit of its predecessor, culminating in some truly fantastic action sequences and sight gags. All in all, it succeeds where Toy Story 2 and Cars 2 failed: treating its story and characters with integrity instead of simply cashing in on old ideas.
15. Finding Dory (72 points)
You have to give Finding Dory credit for ambition, as it is clearly attempting to thread the needle when it comes to stories about characters with disabilities. Not only does the main character have short-term memory loss, there is Nemo with his physical disability, an octopus with seven legs (and, though it isn’t explained, PTSD regarding physical touch and the ocean), and a whale shark with myopia. There are also, sadly, non-verbal tertiary characters that aren’t given as much depth or empathy, but again — this was an attempt to thread a needle.
So, for the most part, Finding Dory succeeds, and does so in the same beautiful environment that was created for Finding Nemo. Sadly, this means that it lost some points for style — you could play these films back-to-back and barely see the technical differences — and the B-plot with Nemo and Marlin is mostly useless filler. But you can’t fully fault a feel-good film that makes and earnest attempt to tell a marginalized story.
14. Up (73 points)
When people talk about what a great movie this is in the Pixar canon, they are usually referring to the first few minutes of the film: our child hero meets a girl, they grow up and get married, plan on adventures together, life gets in the way, they get old, and just when he buys plane tickets to go see the mythic Venezuelan jungle of their dreams, she gets sick and dies. This isn’t a dig on the first ten minutes of Up: they’re great, I cry every time, etc etc. They’re a great way to set up Ed Asner’s Carl, a crotchety old protagonist who once had an adventurous spirit and now, for all intents and purposes, just wants to fly his house to Venezuela himself so that he can land it on a waterfall and live out whatever time he has left.
But the rest of the film is an animated buddy movie. It’s funny! It’s zany! It’s full of adorable side characters! Were it not for those first few minutes, Up would seem as typical as something like Onward, but with Carl’s backstory the film is given emotional relevance that elevates it — but only just so. There’s still an overlong second act with a shoehorned villain that leads to, I think, a rushed ending. Still, it’s one of the films in Pixar’s golden age (2001–2010), and certainly earns its place there.
13. Incredibles 2 (75 points)
Of all the films that were given sequels, The Incredibles seemed to deserve one the most, though it took 14 years for that potential to come true. No matter, though: the action picks up literally the moment the first movie ended, and hardly lets up from there. I’ll talk more about why I love The Incredibles when I get there, but if there’s one thing I can say about this franchise right now: it’s fun to watch. Brad Bird & co. map out action scenes like chaotic dances, flinging Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) through the city like a rubber band doing parkour.
While Elastigirl fights crime, her husband and children stay home and do battle with mundane life, which spans everything from homework to teenage crushes to a Tex Avery-style fight between a superpowered baby and a raccoon. It’s all fun and fleshed-out, it’s just too bad that the movie has to have a villain. The baddie here has a half-cocked message about how people become complacent with superheroes around to protect them, or something, which doesn’t really work, but that just makes that part of the plot forgettable — for the best, of course, because the ride is so much more fun than the destination.
12. Toy Story 3 (78 points)
This film came out in 2010, and ever since then, I have been told by many people, over and over, to see it. It’s considered a masterpiece, the best of the Toy Story films, hell, it was one of those two films that were nominated for best picture (the other, by the way, was Up). In fact, this project was inspired by the pressure to see Toy Story 3: I might as well catch up on all of them, right?
So: what is it doing all the way down here, not even in the top 10?
As much as I might not seem to be a fan of the Toy Story films, I love their characters and the potential that they hold. After all, toys are tools for possibility: they’re made for play and pretend. Why, then, would you replay the same tropes with these characters? Why do we need another sequence of “Buzz thinks he’s a space ranger,” something that happened in both of the prior movies? Why is there another character who was abandoned by their child? Do we need to have more conversations about whether or not Andy will always love these toys? These themes have been explored, this existential crisis was had in Toy Story 2. Throw in a few more pop culture reference jokes — look, Ken is here! He has themed outfits and a dream house! — and so much of the film just felt unnecessary.
Then, of course, there’s the last 15 minutes, which save the film in the same way that the first 10 minutes of Up do: the near-death experience, the final time playing with Andy before saying goodbye forever. It turned out not to be the end of the series, but at the time it felt as good a coda as someone could get.
11. Brave (79 points)
There was too much pressure put on Brave: it was the first “princess” story that Pixar would tell, aligning it even more closely with its owner, Disney. It was also the first Pixar movie with a female protagonist. In retrospect, it was doomed to fail; this was a year before Frozen arrived in the world, and princess stories — especially Disney princess stories — were considered to be outdated and uninteresting. Not that cultural bias is completely to blame for Brave’s inconsistencies; but upon rewatch I feel that its dismissal, and subsequent low placement on various “best of Pixar” lists, feels unfair.
Brave is a lovely film. It’s gorgeously animated, with vistas that are only outranked by The Good Dinosaur, and sumptuous attention to detail. The story feels, to me, very 1990s fantasy adventure: a tomboyish princess, obsessed with archery, tries to avoid an arranged marriage and, in the process, accidentally turns her mother into a bear. The story is one about familial respect and understanding, and maturely holds Merida just as responsible for her frustration as her parents are. If this were a list of my personal favorites, Brave would be in my top five… but I can’t overlook the flaws in its messaging, which can be bogged down in platitudes about “changing your fate,” which should have been cut out of the story. Still, I’ve read plenty of critics malign this film for being confusing, and it’s hardly that. If nothing else, this would have been my favorite movie when I was 10 years old, and I hope it’s inspired at least a few girls to be a little wild.
10. Toy Story (80 points)
I said that I was going to remove nostalgia from my grading, and no film suffered more for that than Toy Story. Visually, in 2021, this is a rough film to watch; even though it did change animation forever, CGI does not age as gracefully as 2D animation, especially that of 1995.
Still, it’s a solid film, based in a fantastic cast of characters that, I’m happy to say, scored 10/10 for voice acting. Even if it’s not the tearjerker that great Pixar films can be, it set a high bar for the studio’s approach to storytelling and setting; and though the idea of “toys coming to life” is far from original, Toy Story is its finest conceptualization, motivating its characters by the love of their child, creating a powerful idea of home that is at the heart of the story. About toys. The toy story.
9: Luca (82 points)
In the months leading up to this movie, its trailers — showing young men in shorts gallivanting around the Italian countryside — drew a quick comparison to Call Me By Your Name, and the internet was abuzz with the notion that Luca would tell a queer story, a first for both Pixar and Disney movies.
If you believe in Death of the Author, then, well, this is a queer story — one about difference, fear, acceptance, and found families. Of course, this can also be seen as subtext, or one could argue that these themes don’t belong solely to queer characters.
But let me tell you: I just rewatched another film with a presumed “queer subtext,” Frozen, and reader, I didn’t see it. A main character who is misunderstood by their society does not a queer protagonist make! So I went into Luca thinking that the queer subtext theory was just wishful thinking, as helpful as another Disney’s First Out Gay Character.
Luca, I am happy to tell you, is delightfully queer. Not in its story on paper — after all, a sea creature longing to be human is pretty de rigueur for animated film — but in the telling of the story, the fascination that Luca has with the human world and expressions of love and affection he finds there, in the physicality of the film itself, the tactile pleasure that Luca and Roberto find in handshakes and hugs and pasta. Queerness, at least from my understanding of it, is more than just stories about “being different,” it’s about finding where your body is meant to be, how your heart is meant to work. Luca isn’t about desire, as its protagonists are children, but it is about experiencing the world through one’s genuine self. Even the low points in the story, the small betrayals and pains between Luca and Roberto, fit into how queer lives can be lived.
It also helps that the film is gorgeous, quiet, funny, and romantic. It’s amazing, too, that 20 or so years after Lasseter’s reign of shouting, gimmicked protagonists, Pixar would invest into a film so quaint and joyful that, finally, the storytelling can breathe.
8. WALL-E (81 points)
I wanted to give WALL-E the highest grade, I really did. It’s a gorgeous film, deeply heartfelt, with one of Pixar’s best protagonists. It’s ambitious, telling its first act in pantomime, starting with a last-robot-on-earth tale and leading into a Chaplin-esque love story, a futuristic City Lights. The “Define dancing” sequence fills me with wide-eyed awe every time I watch it. The love story between WALL-E and EVE feels so earned, so beautifully done, that when it almost falls apart at the end, it’s truly heart-wrenching.
But — I can’t forgive this film’s middle section and the ideas it puts forward. Though completely enamored with its own depiction of malfunctioning robots, WALL-E is downright ableist about its human characters: jettisoned into space for hundreds of years, presumably so dependent on screens and high-fructose corn syrup that they have, presumably by choice, restricted themselves to mobility devices, having grown so fat and atrophied that they can barely walk, looking like toddlers when they try to do so.
The notion that disability is a symptom of laziness or complacency is dangerous and insulting, as is the idea that fatness is an indicator of physical health. I wish so much that WALL-E hadn’t taken this tack; it wasn’t necessary to tell the story. It’s a shame, a sad disservice to an entire community that mars an otherwise incredible film. This isn’t the only Pixar film that has problematic ideas, but no other film makes such ideas so central to its plot and so defining of its (non-robot) characters.
7. Toy Story 4 (82 points)
No, I didn’t expect the best Toy Story movie to be this one! But good lord, is it a stunning thing to watch, succeeding at everything that Toy Story 3 tried and failed at. Using the colorful and gorgeous settings of carnivals and the open road and an antique store, Toy Story 4 is one of the best looking Pixar movies. It’s madcap without being rushed, sentimental yet grounded.
Here, Woody is not trying to return to his child, but to return the new favorite (a sentient spork voiced by Tony Hale, who should get more voice work pronto) to their owner. Along the way he reconnects with an old flame and discovers that there’s more to life than he’s seen. The Toy Story films have always revolved around Woody’s situation and desires, and ending this film with him on a new journey outside of a child’s bedroom is an unexpected yet earned deviation from expectations. And did I mention that it’s visually stunning?
6 (tie) The Incredibles, Monsters Inc. (83 points)
There was a good period of time, starting in 2004, when I was confident that The Incredibles was the best Pixar film of them all. It has everything: the creative mind of Brad Bird, a midcentury aesthetic, character designs that all but obviously echo Bruce Timm’s animated Batman and Superman from the 1990s, and astonishing action scenes. Good grief, the action scenes! One of the best superhero films of all time (and, according to the internet, the only good Fantastic Four movie), the action is so beautifully staged and creative, from Elastigirl needing to navigate her elongated body through a series of automatic doors to a speedster realizing mid-battle that he can run on water. There isn’t a Marvel movie that comes close to being this good.
On the flipside, I wasn’t expecting to rewatch Monsters Inc. and enjoy it as much as I did. I think I remembered the film as being a little more kid-oriented (something that, when I was 13, mattered a lot) and therefore worth shelving. How happy, then, to be completely delighted the second time around. Monstropolis is Sesame Street via The LEGO Movie, overflowing with details that bring a grounded reality to the world, both fantastic and familiar (do you see, Cars? This is how it’s done). John Goodman and Billy Crystal have fantastic chemistry as leads, and the main story — a monster’s growing fondness for a human child — might be the sweetest in the canon, highlighted by the film’s very last heart-shattering frame.
5. Finding Nemo (84 points)
On the heels of Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo was the first Pixar film to deal with, well, heavier subject matter. The grief and tragedy in the first few minutes drives the motivation — and growth — of Marlin, the clownfish protagonist in search of his lost son, Nemo. The film is about trust and fear in the face of adventure, and is a gorgeous ride throughout. Pixar’s great achievement with this film was creating a realistic underwater environment, and it works, especially in the colorful setting of the Great Barrier Reef where it begins.
The real revelation of the film, though, was Ellen DeGeneres’s performance as Dory, a sidekick so full of life and joy and happiness in spite of every situation that I can distinctly remember “just keep swimming” as a mantra my family adopted in the year it came out. This was the first truly great Pixar film, and holds up to this day.
4. Soul (85 points)
Is it strange for Pixar’s most recent film to crack the top 5? Yes. Does it have its flaws? Of course. But it’s also Pixar’s most ambitious film, one of its most visually stunning and, for a viewer who longs to create great art, a solid kick in the chest.
Everything about this film shimmers, from its illustrations of modern-day New York City to the language of music to the bright light of death to the pastel dreamworld (or a “hypothetical,” as one character calls it) of the Great Before. There’s something so unexpected about a major animation studio making a movie about a middle aged jazz musician trying to escape death via a realm of disembodied souls, and before the film came out I was prepared for it to be entirely tasteless. And yet Soul stuck the landing with an unexpected message about the purpose of life and, beautifully, the acceptance of death.
3. Ratatouille (89 points)
Despite being about a rat, Ratatouille might be the least Pixar of all the Pixar films: there are no sentient objects, no mystical powers or abilities, just a rat with a great sense of taste and the desire to be a chef.
If you asked my favorite Pixar movie, I would say Ratatouille. Like one of Remy’s dishes, it’s a complex film, layered with fleshed-out and sympathetic characters, plots that strongly weave together, difficult conflict between friends and family that is resolved through respect and understanding (and yes, one of those conflicts is between a human and a rat who cannot speak to each other). The film’s idealized Paris glistens with freshly-fallen rainwater and lights, the food in Gusteau’s kitchen is sumptuous and mouthwatering. Ratatouille is, I think, the only Pixar film that is neither allegorical or “what if we told this story, but with [non-human characters].” In that way, it doesn’t strive to be anything grand — and yet, in its climactic moment, shows that grandiosity can come from something as humble as a perfect vegetable dish.
2. Inside Out (91 points)
This was the only film to score a perfect 10 in the “cry factor” category. That’s not to say that the entirety of Inside Out is tragic and tearful — it’s full of hilarious, imaginative, and bright moments — but that when it does bring you to tears, the tears feel completely earned and full of truth. A whimsical, inventive, astonishing film, Inside Out set a bar for story ambition that was only barely crossed by Soul…and both films were directed by Pete Docter. Inside Out also got a perfect 10 for its voice cast, somehow managing to land the perfect cast of emotions for Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). Poehler and Smith anchor the movie, using the backdrop of a girl’s changing life to meditate on how we should remember our lives, and how emotions — even the more difficult ones — help us to fully understand ourselves. It’s a resonant, lovely, hopeful movie, and exhibits the best of what Pixar can do.
1. Coco (92 points)
It’s so interesting that, at least in this moment in time, the two best Pixar films on my list would be about memory, and the dangers of it being lost.
Coco embodies everything that makes these films great: stunning visuals, a compelling story, a solid voice cast, incredible music, emotional resonance. It all comes together in a film that is so soft and loving, so colorful and bold, that it stands above anything else that Pixar (and, at least in the last 20 years, Disney) has ever created.
The story of a boy who, in defiance of his family, accidentally travels to the Land of the Dead on Dia de los Muertos and seeks to return before he is permanently trapped opens into a story of generational pain, ambition, art, and forgiveness. Miguel’s journey is astonishing, swirling with marigold leaves and neon Alebrijes, a realm pulsing with Mexican folk art with echoes of Metropolis. For once, the third act twist doesn’t contrive the plot so much as it adds even more urgency. And all throughout there is music, compelling and simple and lovely. It’s a multigenerational story of family that soars joyfully off the screen. And it does so flawlessly.