Pixar Animation Studios is everywhere. Ever since the arrival of their first film Toy Story in 1995, the medium of animation has remained steadily rocked — the dawn of colorful CG animation remains the industry mainstay and Pixar films themselves have remained calendar-marking affairs. We saw that just recently with their latest entry in their filmography, Onward; or at least for the most part, as the film’s box office as plummeted with this pandemic. But with that release still there, I’ve decided to write up my ranking of Pixar’s entire filmography. Here it is!
22. Cars 2 (2011)
While Pixar’s track record isn’t perfect, Cars 2 was the company’s first out-and-out failure. It’s juvenile, devoid of heart and wonder, and it often feels perfunctory. Some of Pixar’s lesser films are often better than most animated films from other studios, but Cars 2 is not one of them. It’s more overtly action-oriented trappings don’t really work, and the film lacks any delving into hefty themes or ideas. The final result being an unfortunate example of the one thing so many other studios’ films aspire to but Pixar films usually seem to transcend without blinking: a somewhat tolerable way to keep the kids mindlessly entertained for a couple of hours.
21. Cars 3 (2017)
Cars 3 isn’t exactly great. It’s not Pixar’s worst, but it’s certainly not Pixar’s best. It’s first half is fairly rote and rather dull as it follows the “comeback story” formula. But the second half still continues a rather tame holding pattern and an attempt at a bittersweet finale about legacy, retirement, and choosing when you go out on your terms (proving that Pixar’s real demographic is likely the parents, or really adults in general, than the U-13s). From it’s rather dull characters to every single one of Mater’s tired quips, Cars 3 plays out like a rival studio’s lukewarm attempt to mimic Pixar’s magic.
20. Cars (2006)
Essentially Doc Hollywood staring a cocky stock car, 2006’s Cars still remains the best of the Cars franchise, though that doesn’t really say much. The large problem with Cars is that it lacks significant stakes, depleting a sense of momentum. Yet, you could pull off that laid-back tone if you had compelling characters, and Cars doesn’t really have that either. And while the scenery is finely crafted, Cars is also 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 ultimately arriving without the studio’s usual freshness.
19. Brave (2012)
Pixar finally set out to fix its lack-of-female-protagonists problem — but unfortunately, they did it with an undercooked story that feels more like a response to criticism than a thought-out Pixar adventure. There are moments of genuine sweetness between our protagonist Merida and her mother, but the film may actually be too ambitious for its own good. And in case of a shaky production, when director Mark Andrews stepped in to replace Brenda Chapman, it feels like he was more interested in blah bombast and slapstick than the mother-daughter aspect. Which isn’t entirely bad — the action sequences are pretty good — but the film feels at odds with itself as it’s reaching for too much all at once. Pixar would finally come up with a terrific female lead three years later, but Brave ultimately struggles to live up to its potential.
18. The Good Dinosaur (2015)
While The Good Dinosaur scored more positive reviews than Cars 2, it still stands as the studio’s lowest grossing film in history by far (though Onward seems to be taking its place). The film went through an incredibly tumultuous production that led to director Bob Peterson’s firing and an entire reworking of the film. First time filmmaker Pete Sohn took the reigns, and while the film’s emotional ambition is admirable and some of the meditative moments work, the conventional narrative can be pretty droopy. From a technical perspective, The Good Dinosaur is gorgeous, yet the decision to juxtapose photo-real settings with cartoonish dinosaur designs is still quite befuddling. And when the finale finally arrives, as admirably earnest as it is, it’s The Good Dinosaur‘s previous path crossed that still holds it up.
17. Finding Dory (2016)
Finding Dory is fine. Very luckily, it doesn’t feel like some shameless cash grab, but it also lacks the vigor and, well, originality that permeates the best of Pixar’s sequels. Co-writer-director Andrew Stanton does a solid job of finding a different angle for its narrative, this time telling the story from Dory’s point of view, one that offers a rather average tale. The film sticks strongly with its thematic throughline of living a full life with a disability, and while Dory’s determined adventuring through a marine life rehabilitation center doesn’t quite have the same magic of Nemo’s open-ocean travels, the sequel manages to stand on its own by diving deep into what makes the thoughtful, forgetful Dory such a truly special fish.
16. Monsters University (2013)
Pixar’s first prequel, Monsters University had the advantage of starting with some of the studio’s most beloved characters and throwing them into a setting Pixar had never tackled before: college. And the results are solid enough. The movie has its funny moments, it is still laden with the tropes of college movies, down to the Revenge of the Nerds underdog-frat storyline, but Monsters University still manages to give the pair’s unlikely friendship the room it needs to grow. A little twist at the end keeps the film from being overly predictable, and the sheer variation and number of monsters populating the world reflect an animation team with a knack for detail. It’s a pleasant enough world to live in, but one that might not come with revisits.
15. Incredibles 2 (2018)
This sequel may take place immediately after the events of The Incredibles, but for audiences, the movie world has changed immensely since the first film blasted into theaters fourteen years previous. For one thing, a superhero film is no longer a novelty — it’s now a Hollywood staple — but in a more general sense, Brad Bird’s original vision of a rollicking, action-packed animated family film has been duplicated by Pixar’s competitors. So naturally, Incredibles 2 can’t match what was startlingly innovative about the 2004 film, but it’s still a pretty nifty piece of high-quality, kinetic entertainment, full of a mixture of domestic misadventures and comic-book heroics. Like a lot of recent Pixar films, Incredibles 2 mostly reminds you of the company’s once-formidable talents, but gets the job done fine enough.
14. Onward (2020)
Pixar has shown time and again that it really loves the “buddy movie” formula, and with Onward they come back to it again, with fine results. While the story finds two brothers going on a magical quest to resurrect their father for one day, it’s really a movie about siblings, and when it focuses on that it’s at its best. When it doesn’t it can feel half-baked and too-neat with its plotting. But when it arrives at its finale, and the film offers an unlikely unintuitive vantage on the cathartic moment of truth, it’s there where Onward finds that old Pixar intersection of the magical and touching.
13. A Bug’s Life (1998)
Pixar’s second feature-length film and a kinda-sorta remake of Seven Samurai, but starring bugs, A Bug’s Life clearly is the studio feeling out its process, which makes for a solid yet not impeccable adventure. Still, A Bug’s Life boasts one of Pixar’s most invigorating ensemble casts, with each performance finding a lane to make their characters memorable in their own rights. The central adventure, as familiar as it is on the surface, finds a compelling enough world and characters that neatly converge and combust for gags and emotional resonance that ultimately pay off.
12. Coco (2017)
Family is often a theme in Pixar films, but it’s rarely been explored so deeply as it is in Coco, which tells the story of Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), a twelve-year-old boy who wants nothing more than to be a singer and guitarist. And we soon, through magical realism and an array of traditional folk songs, follow Miguel on journey into the Land of the Dead in search of solving why his family has forbidden music. Delving into Mexican culture, Coco is effortlessly transporting and can be pretty moving in its quest-like tale about redemption, compassion, and forgiveness that come as familiar to the Pixar fans.
11. Toy Story 4 (2019)
You can understand why so many were fretting about Toy Story 4. Pixar sequels have led to diminishing returns in recent years, and Toy Story 3 capped it so perfectly. Why even risk the most beloved animated franchise of the last two decades? Turns out: We should’ve worried. Toy Story 4 may not reach the emotional heights of the third installment, and it might not have the simple perfection of the first one, but it’ll still knock you over. Focusing more intently on Woody this time, with the overarching theme of what it means to love and be loved is as foregrounded as it has ever been; these remain the most generous and good-hearted of all the Pixar films. While quite possibly being the funniest film in the franchise, Toy Story 4 does struggle with its familiar antagonist and juggling of threads and might make you ask, “Did they need to make a fourth one?” And they probably didn’t. But you’ll be delighted they did, and maybe more trustful of Pixar, if they ever decide to make a fifth.
10. Up (2009)
All right, I know. For some, this is lower than you think it should be. But lets take a step back and try to remember what comes to your mind when you first think of this movie. Yes, the wonderous image of a house carried away in the air by a slew of balloons, and yes, maybe Doug, the cute dog that keeps being distracted by squirrels. But as a whole, the film is completely overshadowed by the heartbreaking preamble, in which we learn the crushing story of Carl and Ellie’s life together. Yes, it will make you cry and, yes, Michael Giacchino’s score is phenomenal, but in retrospect, the rest of the movie is your fairly standard cute-kid, cute-dog, central-casting villain story. I’m not sure the whole movie should have been as powerful as those opening minutes but outside of that things are a lot thinner than you may remember. Sorry.
9. The Incredibles (2004)
It was obvious, in retrospect, that director Brad Bird would move on to making live-action blockbusters: The Incredibles is as exciting and riveting an action film as we’ve seen in American animation. If all blockbusters were like this one, I’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. And throw in some absolutely, magnificent 60s-inspired production design, a wonderful jazzy score by Michael Giacchino, and the highest stakes of any Pixar film yet, and the result is a kinetic blast.
8. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
By 2001, Pixar had tackled the world of toys and bugs, but now it was time for them to go somewhere a bit more adventurous: a world that doesn’t exist. And with that comes Billy Crystal going full Catskills, voicing Mike Wazowski, the insecure, long-suffering, wisecracking partner to the loveable James P. “Sully” Sullivan (John Goodman), who travels to the human world to give sleeping kids nightmares. The first of Peter Doctor’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 five when the movie came out). With its fantastic leads chemistry and whiplash speed, the film really flies. And c’mon, that final shot, though.
7. 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. Moreover, the “When Somebody Loved Me” sequence laid the foundation for the emotionally tough territory that Pixar would continue to mine in its subsequent efforts.
6. 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 dive into the importance of letting your children live their lives is 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.
5. WALL-E (2008)
Up there as one of Pixar’s most original and ambitious movies, WALL-E is an impressive accomplishment. Its first half-hour is remarkable, essentially telling the story of the destruction of the planet and the devolution of the human race without a single line of dialogue, and establishing your protagonist to be a trash-collecting robot, it’s perfection; almost Kubrickian in its attention to detail and perspective, though not as cold or ungenerous. While WALL-E deeply critiques the apathy and wastefulness that plagues our current society, it still is a romance at its heart. And it still finds ways to subvert expectations, as WALL-E is neither a reluctant hero nor someone who’s always aspired to greatness. WALL-E is a kind, gentle soul who’s simply in love. He’s just been doing what he was built to do all these years on Earth, collecting things he finds interesting along the way and dreaming of companionship. He becomes the film’s hero in the end not out of confidence or a desire to win the heart of his partner — he becomes a hero because he’s altruistic; because he’s kind. It’s a deceptively simple idea executed oh-so well.
4. Inside Out (2015)
At the time of its release Inside Out had a lot riding on it. Pixar hadn’t had a universally beloved film in five years, and if any film had the potential to be a “return to form,” it was the next feature from Pete Doctor. And it’s safe to say he delivered. What makes Inside Out special is the thing that makes the best Pixar movies special: it’s tackling mature subject matter with a high degree of emotional intelligence, not talking down to kids or simply feeding folks a giant bowl of sugar (likely because, again, this is largely a film for adults). To tell kids that all emotions make us who we are, and that there isn’t any “bad” emotions is some hefty stuff, even for some adults. To explain the value of sadness instead of offering a “turn it off”-like suggestion to just be happy instead is bold, and its that type of ambition that has been missing in some of the studios work of late.
3. Toy Story (1995)
Coming on twenty-five years since Toy Story‘s release, sure, the once-cutting-edge animation looks rudimentary. But outside of that, one of the best comedies of the ’90s remains perfect. Pixar’s first feature is still the template for every great movie the studio has made since: earned emotions; ripping action sequences; insights into human nature; and lots of witty, silly laughs. Toy Story is so funny because deep down, it’s actually a very melancholic film. Woody and Buzz’s battle for Andy’s love speaks to everyone’s fear of being replaced, as well as our shared recognition that the innocence of childhood cannot last. As for the voice cast, they remain, and will always be, impeccable.
2. Toy Story 3 (2010)
Ranking the Toy Story movies (in particularly the first three), all of which are wonderful, can be pretty impossible. You can’t really go wrong with any of them, but for me, I’ve put the third installment at the top. Addressing issues as dark as mortality, the passing of time, broken relationships, retirement, and leaving your old life behind, while also really going with its villain (i.e. no redemption arc), Toy Story 3 does a lot under the guise of being an animated sequel. Pixar and director Lee Unkrich refused to play if safe, and that decision pays off tremendously, as the film builds to not one but two emotional climaxes that each rip your heart out. These toys aren’t simply coworkers; they’re friends who’ve been to hell and back together, and Toy Story 3 bares its soul showing that. And it’s also hilarious, with Mr. Tortilla Head being one of Pixar’s finest ideas/gags.
1. Ratatouille (2007)
As close as Pixar will get to an art film (likely playing into my love for it), Ratatouille‘s story of a rat who is secretly the greatest chef in all of Paris is an utter 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 viscerally thrilling as some other Pixar films; it’s as soft, smooth, and lush as a nice Soufflé. It’s funny and deeply loveable. It’s another one of Pixar’s “grown up” movies, in that you don’t often hear kids clamoring for Ratatouille toys and merch. It’s a film that, just like one of its central themes, is not afraid to stand out in a crowd. Seemingly everything in Ratatouille is perfectly realized, from the “anyone can cook” theme, the marrying of the two subsets of characters, to each popping moment; from Remy’s first adventure in combining one type of food with another (a bit of cheese with a strawberry) to harsh, deeply suspicious food critic Anton Ego’s revelatory moment of the true impact that great art can make. It’s that same feeling that leaps off the screen while watching Ratatouille, and why its my top pick of Pixar’s menu.