A Fool’s Errand, Completed Foolishly, by a Fool
Let me preface this article ranking the films of Pixar by stating that ranking the films of Pixar is an idiotic waste of time.
With the exception of the very bottom few entries, these are films that are, at worst, technically immaculate, wonderfully imaginative, and consistently delightful to watch.
So, really, I am begging you to not sweat the rankings that much. You could shuffle the entire top 15 into a different order and I wouldn’t quibble. I honestly thought about punting the ranking portion and just parceling the movies out into vaguely defined groups and going through them alphabetically.
But last year I did this same kind of project for Disney Animation, and it seems wrong to rank those movies but not these ones. This standard is nonsensical, but such are the dictates and structures that run my life.
With the newest Pixar film, Turning Red, debuting next Friday, it seemed like an ideal time to go through the entire library leading up to now.
Let’s dive right in.
24) Cars 2
Director(s): John Lasseter; Bradford Lewis
Don’t blame Larry the Cable Guy for this boondoggle of a turd of a sequel. The Trucker Hatted One has his schtick and he gets paid to do that schtick, and he does exactly what he was paid to do here. Besides, the Cable Guy at least sounds like he’s making an effort, whereas Owen Wilson performs his majorly reduced role with all the enthusiasm of someone reading cue cards at gun point.
Don’t blame Wilson for this disaster, either. His disinterest is merited. The idiotic dialogue and plotting would be shameful from someone who watched other Pixar movies, let alone the guy responsible for making the fucking things. Cars 2 has all the thought and intelligence of the horrific direct-to-video sequels to Disney classics that Michael Eisner pumped out during the dark ages of the late ’90s and early ’00s. Fighting against having that sort of IP-suck performed on Pixar’s movies was part of what drove a wedge between Lasseter and the House of Mouse, and yet here’s Lasseter himself bastardizing his own bastard creation in the name of moving more Mater dolls.
There’s fun to be had in seeing Pixar animators playing out a big, James Bond-esque spy adventure, and turning into the skid of this world’s illogic leads to infinitely baffling ideas and visuals that at least provide distraction from the dopey plot. (Did you know the Cars universe has a Pope? He’s a Popemobile. Who travels around inside of a larger Popemobile.) But even that sort of daffy fun is tempered by how much Cars 2 doubles/triples/quadruples down on the first film’s already discomforting deployment of ethnic stereotypes, along with a narrative that tells children that environmentalists trying to save the world are actually scumbag profiteers that can’t be trusted. Cars 2 is bizarre enough to stave off being a miserable chore to get through, but it’s a near thing.
23) The Good Dinosaur
Director: Peter Sohn
Pixar has put out films that land on a vast spectrum from great to good to lousy, but The Good Dinosaur is their only film to date that feels actually unfinished, as if the production team just gave up at a certain point and animated the storyboards they had, slapped it together into something vaguely movie-shaped, and then dumped it into theaters.
To give a sense of the narrative oddness: Early on, the main dinosaur almost gets washed away by a river. He goes home for a less than three-minute scene and then promptly gets washed away by a different river.
The Good Dinosaur is comprised of potentially interesting choices that go nowhere and make no sense stacked up next to each other. Why push for impossibly photorealistic backgrounds and settings but then amplify the cartoonish features of every character? If the characters are going to look so cartoonish, why is the tone of the movie so relentlessly downbeat and grim? Why all the Western affectations, down to T-rexes running like their legs are horses and their upper halves are riders? Why go through the motions of setting up an alternate historical timeline and then have the entire movie take place in a big empty forest where the protagonists just run into other dinosaurs one by one?
As a visual exercise, The Good Dinosaur can be remarkable. As a movie, it’s odd enough to be fascinating but nowhere close to ever amounting to good (dinosaur…still not sure why they called it that. Must’ve been in the version before they fired everybody and started over).
22) Monsters University
Director: Dan Scanlon
John Goodman and Billy Crystal were perfectly cast in Monsters, Inc. as, respectively, an affable blue-collar John Goodman-type and a motormouthed, wheeling-dealing Billy Crystal type. So please explain to me what is gained by this prequel turning Goodman’s Sully into a lazy, smug, infinitely punch-able trust fund kid, while Crystal’s Mike is now a tooth-achingly sweet goody two-shoes? The two spend the entire movie at each other’s throats, which doesn’t make you curious as to how they’re going to end up best friends—it just makes you want to skip ahead to that other, better movie where the easy chemistry between characters and actors is properly utilized.
The world of Monsters, Inc. does not benefit from expanded lore or explanations of its interior logic, nor does it ever sit right that the various likable characters spend a full feature film learning to be better at something that the first film demonstrated was an amoral abomination that needed to be stopped immediately. The majority of the film is geared around parodying classic campus comedies, material that is entire generations removed from the target audience (unless there’s a bunch of pubescents out there still jonesing for more Revenge of the Nerds riffs). And University does this with jokes that have already been beaten into dust by decades of Animation Domination sitcoms. There’s messy, interesting thematic material relating to Mike having to accept that he will never be able achieve his dream, no matter how badly he wants it or how hard he works, but the movie around those ideas is too handcuffed to an IP mandate to flesh it out in any real, meaningful way.
Director(s): John Lasseter; Joe Ranft
Jeffery Katzenberg famously almost killed Pixar in its infancy with his demands on the original Toy Story, especially his obsession with adding “edge” to Woody. When Pixar screened this first version for Katzenberg and other Disney execs, Woody had become so irredeemably awful and the resultant film so disastrous that even the famously tyrannical Katzenberg admitted his mistake and let Lasseter and team go back to their preferred version of the character. Katzenberg got his cynical animated movie with a nasty, edgy protagonist half a decade later when he triumphed with Shrek. Since then, nothing Jeffery Katzenberg has put his name on would lead you to question his judgement.
I bring all this up because knowing how close Lasseter came to disaster with that first film only makes him taking a running leap into the flaming vortex of suck that is Cars all the more baffling. Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is everything Katzenberg tried to foist onto Woody, but there is no foisting to be blamed for the excruciating irritant that is the main character of this movie. Wilson is usually eminently likable on screen, but he needs to be actually physically on the damn screen for that to play.
The rest of the movie around that colonoscopy-with-a-face of a protagonist is dull but mostly competent, with interest only sporadically sparking thanks to the frankly psychotic worldbuilding of this cars-based reality. The humor is weirdly crass and smutty, with a streak of casual racism that was out of date in 2006 and is positively skin-crawling in 2022.
Watching these movies for this project, it becomes clear that every Lasseter movie is about the tension between old and new, between tradition and innovation, between fear and excitement that comes with the progress vs. the familiarity and safety of the past argument. Cowboys vs. Spacemen, dig? But the Cars films, which may very well be his final efforts as a director, find Lasseter offering full-throated adulation to the past. Progress, his two Carses tell us, is a mistake. Better to cling to golden, perfect nostalgia and reject modernity outright. Given what was waiting for Lasseter once his disgusting, abusive behaviors came to light, no wonder he felt safer in yesterday.
20) Cars 3
Director: Brian Fee
Three movies in, the Cars franchise finally put out a perfectly good movie! If at first you don’t succeed, keep cranking out billions of dollars in merchandise and then you’ll get enough bites at the apple to finally…bite…the apple. Goddamnit I don’t understand this metaphor, move past it.
Cars 3 is genuinely, truly, surprisingly a totally enjoyable film, even if it can’t fully outpace all the attendant weirdness that comes with this series. Then again, maybe it’s just a byproduct of being totally psychologically broken from the other two films, but by now the Cars-verse barely even registers as weird anymore.
Director Brian Fee at least has some fun with this odd universe, including a demolition derby sequence that is as close as Pixar will probably ever get to Fury Road-style mayhem.
The more reflective material relating to aging, legacy, and knowing when it’s time to pass the torch is largely handled with the same deft touch we’ll discuss later with the Toy Story sequels. If Cars 3 doesn’t measure up to those films, it’s more due to the shortcomings of the legacy material it inherited than anything with the film itself. It helps that, like the characters in this film, I also spend a portion of every day staring into the sunset thinking wistfully about how much I miss Paul Newman. Existing Newman affection aside, Cars 3 finally gives this automated universe something resembling a real soul.
19) A Bug’s Life
Director(s): John Lasseter; Andrew Stanton
It’s wrong to describe A Bug’s Life as a sophomore slump. When you compare it to the original Toy Story, the increase in scope and ambition is stunning. Toy Story takes place primarily in two bedrooms; Bug’s Life has multiple massive insect communities packed with hundreds of moving characters of dozens of different species, not to mention being set almost entirely outdoors and making use of wind and rain and different shades of the sun striking leaves and grass…look it’s all very impressive when you watch these films in close succession.
And it’s not like Bug’s Life is just a neat demo reel for Pixar’s tech or a who’s-who of ’90s sitcom talent. The ol’ Seven Samurai/Three Amigos set-up still has plenty of juice in it, creating bountiful opportunities for laughs, thrills, and heart(s).
A Bug’s Life’s problem, relative to other Pixar films, is that all those strong qualities are built around what Roger Ebert used to call The Idiot Plot. The movie demands the ensemble make one stupid decision after another, misunderstanding things in the most convoluted and nonsensical manner imaginable, just to get the narrative gears turning.
There’s fun to be had once it gets moving. Lots of fun! Oodles of fun! But the contrivances and shortcuts were glaring on the heels of Toy Story, and have only grown more glaring the more the studio honed its mastery of a particular form of ruthlessly efficient storytelling.
18) Finding Dory
Director(s): Andrew Stanton; Angus MacLane
Generally, when Pixar does sequels, the move is to place the familiar characters into a totally new genre. Cars did a spy movie, Monsters, Inc. did a college movie, and even the Toy Story sequels plugged the gang into prison breaks and heists.
Finding Dory is the rare example of Pixar opting for the much more familiar sequel approach of “same shit, different day.” If you saw the first movie, you’ve mostly seen this one. Every major element is gets redone, albeit remixed and reversed enough that it doesn’t feel like a total retread.
(Except for Marlin being an overprotective nuisance who needs to learn to loosen up. That, that’s just getting repeated. The arc so nice they hit copy-paste and did it again.)
That said, Stanton is too consummate a professional to turn out inferior work, even in a cash-in sequel. Dory may hit every single expected beat, but it hits each one perfectly.
Finding Dory played worse when it first came out, as it hit at a moment when we could be reasonably concerned that Pixar had forsaken originality and ambition and would now churn out pleasing, milquetoast content with beloved characters. As the studio has embraced new voices and idiosyncratic, challenging projects, it is easier to enjoy Dory for what it is: a harmless, exceedingly well-done retread of past glories.
17) Monsters, Inc.
Director(s): Pete Docter; David Silverman; Lee Unkrich
In some ways, Monsters, Inc. has aged worse than any other Pixar film from that first mythic decade. The huge, empty industrial interiors are painfully drab and ugly, and the facial animation on the various monstrous characters represents a major step backwards from Toy Story 2 only a few years before. I remember what a huge breakthrough Sully’s fur and the other skin and scale textures represented when Monsters, Inc. first hit, but now the film looks older and more primitive than even the earlier CG animated movies.
And when you compare Monsters, Inc. to other Docter efforts, the amount of bold-faced exposition and leaden world-building feels so much more laborious than the magic tricks he would eventually pull off.
For all that, Monsters, Inc. still has plenty of magic all of its own. Mike and Sully are an endlessly appealing duo (that they are the only Pixar odd couple who begin the movie as friends helps an awful lot), and the world of monsters is one of the more elastic sandboxes that the Pixar animators ever gave themselves license to play in. And Sully and Boo, the little lost human girl, form one of the strongest central spines in any Pixar movie, with a resolution that remains a striking, elegant grace note.
16) Toy Story 3
Director: Lee Unkrich
Let me begin this entry by affirming that, as a human being with a soul, yes, I cry at the last ten minutes of Toy Story 3. It gets me. It gets all of us, and credit must be given to how successfully Toy Story 3 pushes all our collective buttons.
That. Being. Said.
Toy Story 3 is the weakest film in the series, which really just goes to show you how ludicrously good this series is if this is low point. If Toy Story 3 is last among equals, it is largely because it adds very little new to the series, instead recycling story beats and emotional threads already done to perfection by the earlier films. When Buzz gets mind-wiped so we can again have a long stretch with the other toys being annoyed by the deluded space ranger, it just underlines that this creative team was out of ideas for these characters.
(And the less said about the painfully unfunny gay panic jokes centered around Michael Keaton’s Ken doll, the better.)
Toy Story 3 stands most fully on its own in those moments when the passing of time is deeply felt, as if the decade between movies is an unseen character in its own right. If it weren’t for Toy Story 4 doing all this better, while also expanding and experimenting on what a Toy Story movie can do, I’d probably rank 3 even higher. Then again I really do fucking hate almost everything involving the Ken doll, so let’s let this one lie where it is.
Director(s): Lee Unkrich; Adrian Molina
Just to re-affirm: Human being. Have soul. Cry at end.
But as effective as Coco’s infamous home-stretch truly is, something about it has always rubbed me the wrong way. There’s a slick, calculated feeling to this movie, as if the creative team fed every previous Pixar movie into an algorithm and then just animated what the machine spat out. That sense of calculation gets my hackles up and makes me resent the big swells of emotion rather than experience the intended catharsis.
Maybe this is just a byproduct of watching these movies in close succession, but it’s impossible to watch Coco and not note how much it is stitched together from component parts of other, better movies the studio has put out while adding very few new ingredients of its own.
All that being said, there’s no disputing that that ending does land like a ton of bricks, and it wouldn’t land if the movie didn’t at least somewhat earn it. The story does grab you, the characters do compel you, and the humor and heartbreak all deliver as needed. I would also argue that “Remember Me” is the single best contribution to the Disney song catalogue yet from the great team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez. An impossibly elastic earworm, “Remember Me” is perfection as both an overwrought torch ballad and as a half-whispered lullaby, and all the permutations in between.
Director(s): Mark Andrews; Brenda Chapman; Steve Purcell
There have been countless fairy tale films about the struggle between a beautiful young princess and a wicked stepmother—or mother, or grandmother, or Other Mother, or any number of clutching maternal monsters. But Brave, Pixar’s first and only fairy tale to date, isn’t about defeating a wicked queen. It’s about the queen and the princess coming to empathize with and understand each other as people, depicting with warmth and at times startling frankness the communication divide between a mother and a teenage girl. And while Merida (Kelly MacDonald) has all the signifiers of the empty Future-is-Female, easily monetized girl power that pop culture offers as a placeholder in place of actual structural and cultural change, Brave goes several steps beyond that. It dares to examine the selfish, short-sightedness of a person who demands freedom for themselves at the expense of all others, coupled with an actually thoughtful meditation on differing faces and aspects of feminine power.
But how is it as a movie? Pretty dang good! Underrated! Brave has an earthy, ominous visual palette that sets it apart from the studio’s other fare, and is at its best when it wanders into territory of lore and myth while keeping the tale of Merida and her mother (Emma Thompson) as a guiding star. Because that material is so interesting and so different, the wackier, more comfortably Pixar-ian fare feels wedged in and more than a little distracting.
When I compare Brave to Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, I mean it as a compliment. Both films are beautiful and messy near-misses, wondrous efforts to expand the territory of the form, unable to shake off the anchors of the studios that produced them. I wish we could see the Brave that Brenda Chapman envisioned, but this final version is almost as beautiful and bewitching. Almost.
13) [The] Incredibles 2
Director: Brad Bird
Let’s get one thing straight: Incredibles 2 is maybe the best looking movie that Pixar has ever put out. With this film, CG animation has achieved a lushness and elasticity that allows for a level of expression that finally matches the capabilities of great hand-drawn animation. Incredibles 2 looks like how you remember the first film before a rewatch reveals that in 2004, Pixar-ian people still looked like melted plastic and suburban exteriors still looked like Clip Art.
Incredibles 2 has another leg up on the Pixar films around it: It’s not a huge goddamn bummer. Bird, always more reserved and less of a bleeding heart than his peers, never tries for any emotional sledgehammers. Instead, Incredibles 2 is satisfied with being a wild romp from start to finish, with a relentless stream of gags and eye-poppingly perfect superhero set pieces. The third act plays like a high octane slamming door farce as Bird lets loose a seemingly infinite reserve of superpowered slapstick. And that’s not even mentioning Jack-Jack vs. the raccoon, a crescendo of cartoon violence that’s laugh-till-you-choke genius.
The already messy thematic underpinnings of The Incredibles only get messier with this sequel, as the finished film often comes across like Bird never tried to pull together his disparate musings on superheroes, exceptionalism, and our screen-obsessed mass culture into any sort of coherent whole. There’s an “old man yells at cloud” energy pervading the entire film, but at least the old man doing all the yelling has the good grace to be damn entertaining about it.
Director(s): Pete Docter; Bob Peterson
I feel like the reputation of Up among the film critic folks I follow is that the first ten minutes are unimpeachable, but then the movie kind of blows it. Maybe, if they’re being generous, they’ll extend that unimpeachable mantle over the entire first act, up through that indelible moment of casually surreal majesty when Carl (Ed Asner) sets his house loose into the sky via a massive flock of balloons, the rippling colors of the sun through nylon painting bland city blocks with shimmering rainbows too luminous to linger.
I’ll go so far as to say that for really the entire first hour, Up is as good as anything Pixar ever put out. Maybe it can’t live up to the stunning, intimate immediacy of those first ten minutes but honestly, what the hell ever could? Even if it’s a slight step back, the whimsical tale still works wonders, especially since Docter cross-pollinates his whimsy with raw, painful human reality. He’d take this combination even further with some films that we’ll get to shortly.
It’s only at the one hour mark that Up actually, truly, fully blows it. This gentle, humanistic adventure doesn’t need a villain, and certainly not the irredeemable, cackling monster that exists solely to gin up a grand action climax and then be dispatched guilt-free by our heroes. It doesn’t help that Muntz (Christopher Plummer) is a drab riff on a villain type that Pixar has reused to the point of total exhaustion.
Later Docter efforts would build off the most compelling elements of Up, leading to films that are stronger overall. That shouldn’t diminish Up, though, and all the odd, imperfect beauty it has to offer.
Tune in Monday for Part 2!