Surely There Will Be No Disagreements.
Director(s): Pete Docter; Kemp Powers
It would be fair to describe Soul as something of a mess.
It skews so heavily towards adult concerns (What if I die before I achieve what I want to? What if I get what I want most and it turns out to not be enough?) and the most cerebral, philosophical material that Pixar has ever tilted at, only to whipsaw into some of the basest humor they’ve ever put forward with the body-swap material that dominates ActII.
And let’s not even get into the way Soul fits into the off-puttingly prolific subgenre of non-Spider-Verse animated films where Black leads don’t get to stay Black.
If that messiness keeps Soul out of the very upper echelons of this list, it’s worth it for how spectacular, and how spectacularly moving, the film is when all its disparate pieces gel.
There are many, many films about how even the most insignificant-seeming life is important because of what it may add to the world around it. But Soul goes the extra, stunning step and declares that every life has value because every life has value, full stop. You don’t matter because of what you might accomplish, you matter because you matter.
Docter and Powers build their case out of the countless cursory glories we encounter each and every day, made all the more radiant by the astonishing animation on display. Soul maybe can’t fully live up to its ambitions, but just the pursuit is miracle enough.
Director: Dan Scanlon
Onward finds Pixar on very familiar ground with the basic shape of its story. That familiarity extends to the leads, as Tom Holland and Chris Pratt are very safely ensconced in their standard personas as a squeaky-voiced softboy and affable man-child doofus, respectively.
This also has to be the flimsiest universe Pixar has created since the Cars movies had a Popemobile INSIDE OF ANOTHER POPEMOBILE. ARE YOU TELLING ME THAT THE CARS HAVE DEVELOPED CATHOLICISM? TO WHAT END WOULD THE CARS HAVE—sorry, I’m still traumatized. If you poke at any of the interior logic of the fantasy realm in which Onward plays out, the entire thing collapses like a sand castle in a hurricane.
But Onward nonetheless succeeds by skipping over the parts of the formula that have become played out. From the pointed lack of a villain to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s mom character getting an entire chunk of the movie devoted to her own subplot, Onward knows when to play the hits and when to veer into new and intriguing directions. Coupled with a screenplay that seems loose and shambling before snapping into focus and revealing itself to be as rigorously assembled as any of the films from the lean-and-mean early days, Onward proves to be an unassuming delight.
9) Toy Story
Director: John Lasseter
What’s striking about Toy Story now is how intimate it is. Not intimate like an episode of Euphoria or something, but intimate in the scope of the story told. The film barely leaves Andy’s room during the first half hour (which accounts for well over 30% of Toy Story’s 81 minutes with credits run time). And when Woody and Buzz do leave Andy’s bedroom, they then spend most of the rest of the movie traveling to…a series of other bedrooms.
For all that Toy Story is an obvious relic of long-surpassed technology, it remains a masterclass in how to work around, and with, limitations in pursuit of your art. You got technology that can only make surfaces that look like plastic? Make a movie about plastic people! With Toy Story, the team of artists and engineers at Pixar turned their weaknesses into strengths, and made their strengths as strong as possible. The writing and performances in Toy Story remain immaculate, while Pixar’s exemplary sense of timing, staging, and visual humor were already firmly in place as well.
Some classics are classics because of their influence, and because of where they fit on the timeline in the evolution of a medium or genre. But for all their influence, there’s not much intrinsic value in the thing itself beyond its given historical importance. Even if Toy Story had been a total one-off, a dead-end footnote in animation’s progress into the twenty-first century, it would still be a hilarious, moving, wildly entertaining treasure.
Director: Enrico Casarosa
Enrico Casarosa’s Luca has the aesthetics of Laika Animation stop motion movies and the breezy, naturalistic vibe of a Studio Ghibli joint. For a full hour, Luca treats plot as someone else’s problem, instead contenting itself with hanging out with an amiable cast as they goof around, ride bikes, eat ice cream and pasta, daydream, and enjoy some truly bewitching Italian scenery.
Even when a plot does have to kick in, it’s largely predicated on a villain so obviously laughable that the threat barely registers. The real story is the feeling of endless summer bliss that Luca conjures, and the real threats are the too-human insecurities and weaknesses that drive wedges between friends and family members alike.
With its dreamy atmosphere and laconic pacing, Luca finds Pixar flexing all kinds of new muscles, with a look and vibe unlike any of the rest of the studio’s output. If this film is a portent of what the next era of Pixar will look like as new voices begin to declare themselves, then we have so much to be excited about.
7) Toy Story 4
Director: Josh Cooley
I really didn’t think there was any point in making another Toy Story.
And after they went ahead and made the damn thing, I still didn’t have any enthusiasm to ever watch it. 3’s ending was such a seemingly perfect capstone on the journey of Buzz and Woody that going back to the well promised to be diminishing returns at best, an aggravating cash-in at worst. And when every piece of marketing played up the emotional torture porn element of another dose of Toy Story, the whole enterprise just left me exhausted and sour.
So imagine my surprise when I watched the movie and realized it was not just good, but actually outstanding. That it was not just a good continuation, but a necessary one. A conclusion so good, it retroactively makes the entire series stronger.
Toy Story 4 takes wild risks, whether in the existential freak out involving newcomer Forky (Tony Hale), or in the new corners of the toy world that get explored, or with the way the film’s arc challenges every self-sacrificing ideal that Woody preached across the previous films.
It’s also just brutally, unbelievably funny throughout. For all the hoopla over what an emotional apocalypse it was going to be, Toy Story 4 is an absolute riot with Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, and Keanu Reeves individually and collectively stealing every scene that isn’t nailed down.
Yup, Toy Story 4 is a perfect ending and a perfect Toy Story movie. It just can’t be the best Toy Story movie because the best one has to be—
6) Toy Story 2
Director(s): John Lasseter; Ash Brannon; Lee Unkrich
—because it’s simply the platonic ideal. Every character here is their best, most iconic self. Every performer is locked in and delivering pure fire. Every choice that went into the film is the exact right choice.
“When She Loved Me” was the first true Pixar sucker punch to your soul’s solar plexus, and it has lost none of its haunting potency.
The third feature from the studio, Toy Story 2 is where you can really see the Pixar animators start to strut as they deliver casual miracles with such confidence that they don’t even need to underline how many concurrent miracles they’ egot going. From Jessie’s yarn hair to the different textures of skin on the various kinds of toys and their human counterparts, to the sheer tonnage of jokes and pop culture references, it all adds up to a singularly assured viewing experience.
Endlessly rewatchable, ever delightful, it just does not get any better than this.
Anyway, now for five films better than this!
5) The Incredibles
Director: Brad Bird
In 2004, two accomplished filmmakers of roughly the same age brought the still-nascent superhero movie into full form, using cutting edge technology to realize Silver Age dreams of impossible heroes performing impossible feats. In both cases, oddly enough, this involved a sequence wherein said superhero caught an out-of-control elevated train.
Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 and Brad Bird’s The Incredibles represent the coming of age of the modern superhero film after thirty years of false starts and one-offs. Both movies remain nearly peerless in the genre, even as more and more entries hit every year. With Michael Giacchino’s John Barry-esque score as its symphonic pulse, The Incredibles out fantastic’d the Fantastic Four and did Bond better than Bond, James Bond.
We can debate forever whether The Incredibles is a sincere Randian polemic about how the mediocre stifle the exceptional, or if it’s a feature-length piss-take on that worldview and those who hold it, and I’m not sure we’ll ever arrive at a clear conclusion. Whereas the Pixar films leading up to this one are as laser-focused and straightforward as possible, The Incredibles is messy and nuanced and—and this will come up in the next Brad Bird entry—adult.
All this time, and all those superheroes later, and it still feels ahead of the curve.
Director: Andrew Stanton
I would (and will, and am currently about to) argue that the first 40 minutes of WALL-E are an unparalleled achievement in the history of American animation. The love story between two robots on a desolated, empty Earth, a love that grows without a single word of spoken dialogue, is an awe-inspiring feat of sound design (thanks Ben Burtt!), visual design, and economic visual storytelling. You believe that this tiny cube with goggle-eyes has intelligence, has a soul, and you believe in his capacity to love and be loved, just as you believe that the shiny, oval iPod could love him back.
This material is so daring, so thrilling, so beyond anything contemporaneous in mainstream animation (not to mention adding new features to the language of CG animation, like Stanton’s use of synthetic handheld camera movements, or the incorporation of live action actors like the late, great Fred Willard) that when WALL-E and EVE jet to space and find themselves on a busy station where Stanton can fall back onto familiar Pixar tropes and tricks, it is something of a disappointing retreat.
Even in this safer environ, though, WALL-E contains moments of both lyrical grace (WALL-E and EVE dancing in the stars) and some of the angriest, most lacerating satire you’ll find this side of an Iannucci movie. As our culture increasingly dramatizes our evolving understanding of both our impact on the world and the artificial lifeforms that may very well replace us someday, WALL-E remains a remarkable touchstone of that shifting dialogue. To paraphrase a different, less child-friendly movie about a machine revolution, if two robots can learn the value of love and nature, maybe we can too.
3) Finding Nemo
Director(s): Andrew Stanton; Lee Unkrich
More than either preceding Toy Story, more than Monsters Inc., more than A Bug’s Life, this is the Pixar movie. Elements of the formula had been part of the mix all along, but Nemo is where that formula is crystallized and perfected to a degree it never had been before, and maybe never quite equaled again.
You got your mismatched buddies on a road trip, you got your closed ecosystem of easily merchandisable quirky personalities) an ecosystem that a plucky newcomer can’t help but disrupt) and you got your prerequisite Act III emotional devastation followed by a big action set piece to give ya all the catharsis you need before credits roll.
What’s astonishing about Finding Nemo now is that even though itsstructure has been replicated and ripped off ad infinitum, even though it has been sequel-ized with the latest cutting edge technology, none of that dilutes the beauty of its craft or the emotional immediacy of its story.
It’s the definitive Pixar movie because it is the best of the classic Pixar movies. Anchored (natch) by an extraordinary pair of performances by Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres, Finding Nemo is everything you could ever want from all-ages entertainment. It so perfectly embodies the studio’s traditional structure, Pixar only topped it by breaking from the formula completely.
Director: Brad Bird
The strangest, messiest, most adult-skewing masterpiece in the Pixar canon, Ratatouille should not work. At all. The premise is bizarre, the subject matter is esoteric, the production was a flaming trainwreck of a nightmare of a shit-show, and Brad Bird seems to have been less interested in making something entertaining than he was in creating a manifesto on the will towards artistic greatness and the stultifying forces of commerce and criticism arrayed against the artist.
But, you know, for kids.
For all its lofty thematic aims, and despite its tortured, labyrinthine development process, the finished Ratatouille feels lighter than air. It juggles all its odd component parts with an effervescent ease that recalls the classic screwball comedies of early Hollywood.
Ratatouille doesn’t have the exacting narrative tidiness we expect from Pixar films. It’s shaggy and misshapen, refusing to cohere to any recognizable structure. In illustrating the life of an artist (even if said artist is a rat who likes gourmet cooking fuck this movie is weird), Bird luxuriates in the winding road of experiments and failures and crises that eventually bring the true artist to understanding their identity, their voice, and their capacity for greatness.
It’s a perfect, galvanizing call to go forth and create, whatever your medium of expression, a call that still sounds with crystal clarity.
1) Inside Out
Director(s): Pete Docter; Ronnie del Carmen
You could say that Inside Out’s strengths lie in how it refines the Pixar approach down to its purest form. Mismatched buddies don’t come more elementally composed than the avatars of Joy and Sadness. And no road trip could present a larger canvas for that mismatched duo to explore than a journey through the limitless expanses of the unconscious mind. The air tight system of set-up/payoff, the techie instinct to introduce all manner of rules and networks to govern a magical world, that “give a thing that doesn’t have feelings a bunch of feelings” high concept—it’s all material we can recognize from earlier films, but now distilled into the most immediately effective delivery imaginable.
But you could equally say that Inside Out is so special for all the ways that it breaks from anything else the studio had ever done to that point. For all the gee whiz energy that permeates most every Pixar film, Inside Out stands out for its ease with quiet, with melancholy, with the messy complications of life that have no simple solution.
There are no life or death stakes at play in Inside Out, at least not for any non-imaginary figures. What hangs in the balance is a young girl’s emotional well-being, and somehow that is so infinitely more compelling than a thousand movies about needing to turn off a sky-portal that’s going to destroy the world. This is a film at peace with quiet, with melancholy, a film that refuses to offer pat resolutions. The “happy” ending is learning to be at peace with the truth that happiness is fleeting and that growing up means that the happiness you do experience will always be tempered, but also bettered, by sadness.
And for all that, it’s still a hilarious, invigorating watch, replete with breathtaking animation that becomes actually hypnotic the more you focus in on details like Joy’s fairy-dust skin or the cotton-candy texture of Bing-Bong (too pure to persevere on this cursed world).
Inside Out is the final crowning achievement of one generation of Pixar, and it laid the groundwork for the next generation of this studio, as the old formulas began to fall away and new voices honored what had come before as they took their stories in territory that is messy and strange and incredibly exciting to watch.