UPDATED TO INCLUDE PIXAR’S 13th FILM, BRAVE.
Two of my former students, both fans of Pixar’s films, have recently created ordered lists ranking the 12 movies from first to worst. I don’t think they got their lists right. But, like I said in the title, lists like these are purely, completely subjective. And I would like to begin with this caveat: I am a firm believer that Pixar makes better movies than any studio out there. Their stories are second to none (with one exception), they don’t market their films based on celebrity voices, their attention to detail make every film a wonder to behold. And their 100% hit record (every single one of their films has opened at #1 at the box office) and nearly flawless critical reception prove this. Even their “worst” film is better than 99% of what everyone else puts out. So, Tyler and Kevin, here’s my list:
13. Cars 2A major disappointment, and I’m a fan of the first Cars. Watching the movie, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was funny, witty, and the spy caper was well done, and like any Pixar film, absolutely beautiful. But, unlike every other film in their library, Cars 2 lacks that key ingredient: heart. It’s a beautiful, fun, amazingly-welly done, and ultimately empty film. It’s the first Pixar film that felt it could have been made by another studio. (Ironically, it’s the first Pixar film directed by a former Dreamworks director, who made the abysmal Antz. Rumor is that John Lasseter only stepped in to co-direct at the last minute when the film was losing its way–and the truth is that a huge portion of the film was made in under 10 weeks. Brad Lewis has since left Pixar. I think that says a lot.)
The first 40 minutes or so of Wall*E are some of the greatest minutes in film history. A brilliantly acted and animated celebration of the art of pantomime, it is Chaplin-esque in its wordless robot hero–the last remnant of a human civilization that has destroyed the Earth through consumerism and has escaped to the stars–who falls in love with another robot sent back to look for signs of life. Their wordless romance is cute, charming, and endearing. It’s a brilliant film–until they go back to space and meet up with what’s left of humanity. At that point, the charm is lost in a heavy-handed anti-consumerism, pro-ecology story–but it’s still better than anything else that came out in 2008.
11. The Incredibles
It’s the greatest superhero film ever made. Better than The Dark Knight. Better than Spider-Man 2. Pixar’s 6th film is a tour de force of action, comedy, and every great James Bond moment that should have occurred in a film, but never did. Featuring wonderful voice performances and great insights on what it means to be super (with big implications for contemporary society, which believes that “everyone is special” meaning that nobody is). It’s a family comedy, a deeply emotional reflection on being what we’re created to be. It’s also one of the most thrilling action films of all time. There’s a reason its director, Brad Bird, was hired to direct the upcoming Mission: Impossible film. Extra points for composer Michael Giacchino’s retro-styled, 1960’s Bond film score which made every moment that much better. Sadly, it was ignored by the Academy.
10. Finding Nemo
A pursuit story, a breakout story, a father-son story, and one of the most beautiful films of all time, Finding Nemo was Pixar’s biggest hit when it came out in 2003. Critically acclaimed, it surprised everyone in that a big fish story could find such deeply emotional resonance with audiences of all ages. Gorgeous to look at, featuring hilarious voice performances by Ellen DeGeneres and Albert Brooks as Dori and Marlin, the film’s story is something every parent can relate to. Thomas Newman’s score remains his best work to date and was nominated for an Oscar.
9. Monsters, Inc.
I feel badly ranking such a wonderful film so far down on my list, but it can’t be helped. The advances in Pixar’s animation from Toy Story are amazing in their detail (just watch the way Sulley’s fur moves–it’s details like that that make Pixar the best at their game), and the story is fun, creative, and features the best acting John Goodman and Billy Crystal have ever done. The emotional resonance of Sulley and Boo’s relationship is sweet, but it’s not nearly as strong as the bond between Sulley and Mike–truly one of the great screen duos. The door sequence is a standout, the score by Randy Newman is a jaunty, jazz-inspired bit of fun, and Randall is truly rotten villain. The only good thing about there being a second one is that they won’t ruin one of the greatest film endings of all time–because they’re making it a prequel.
8. Toy Story 2Just watched this this morning. And it is easily one of the best films of all time. A great buddy comedy, a wonderful rumination on getting old and belonging, a hilarious adventure, and the rare sequel that is just as good as (if not better than) the original. So–why not higher on my list? Because I like a few other films by Pixar just a bit more. Everything about Toy Story 2 is pitch perfect, and it’s Pixar at the top of their game. The “When She Loved Me” sequence alone is better than any two hours of a Dreamworks film. And Randy Newman should have won his Oscar for this film. (I must thank John Lassetter for introducing me to the joys of The Riders in the Sky, the cowboy singing group responsible for the “Woody’s Roundup Theme.”) And yes, this does advertise Tom Hanks and Tim Allen in the poster. But nobody went to see this movie because of them. I guarantee it.
Pixar’s first non-contemporary setting and fairy tale, Brave is a beautiful film featuring a firey main character and Pixar’s always-excellent family dynamics. The story of Merida and her struggles with her mother’s plans for her life speak into troubles every child has experienced in their own relationships. Merida wishes for something different from what her parents want for her, but it isn’t until she nearly destroys her relationship with her mother that she realizes the importance of family. Wonderful performances, amazing music by Patrick Doyle, and a lead heroine that is both strong and vulnerable made Brave the biggest animated film of 2012 and another smash hit for Pixar.
The “Married Life” sequence which opens Up are the best 10 minutes of any film ever. And its 10 minutes is better than any other movie that opened in 2009. That Pixar could make a movie so deeply resonant with what it means to love somebody (the end is just as strong, when Carl realizes what Ellie really wanted him to do), what it means to hold on to a dream, and what it means to let go is not surprising. What’s surprising is that it’s a “kids” movie about life and death. It’s a little sad. But it’s also fun, witty, and beautiful. What kid–what adult–wouldn’t want to join Carl’s adventure in balloons? Who hasn’t dreamed about just going “up”? The voice performances are spot on, the story is heartfelt and never imitative. And the score, by Michael Giacchino, justifiably won the Academy Award. This is the movie that should have won Best Picture of 2009. Not The Hurt Locker. “I am Doug. I just met you and I love you.”
This is easily the most controversial placement in my list. That Cars, which is Pixar’s 2nd worst-reviewed film (after its sequel), would place in a top 5 list is probably unforgivable to some people. But like I said, this is a subjective list. And my passion for Cars stems not just from the film, but from what it says and what it means to me and my family. The film was released in 2006. That same summer, my family took a 6,000 mile road trip across the American West. We got off the major interstates and took the small highways connecting small towns through Nebraska, Wyoming, Texas, Arizona, and the like. We spent a good portion of our road trip driving through towns like Radiator Springs and stopped as often as we could along old Route 66. We love getting in our car and driving–not to get somewhere in a hurry, but to see where we end up. And that message is Cars greatest strength to me. It’s why the song “Our Town” makes me cry every time I see it, and why Doc Hudson, Sally, and the rest of the characters in this film mean so much to me. So yes, Cars may not be the masterpiece that Toy Story 2 or Up is, but in my life, it has had much greater meaning. And the soundtrack is one of the best for any Pixar film ever.
4. A Bug’s Life
Pixar’s 2nd film is easily one of their best. It suffered from a horrible bit of backstabbing from Dreamworks, whose Jeffery Katzenberg basically stole the concept before jumping ship from Disney. Their horrible, similarly-styled film, Antz, opened shortly before A Bug’s Life, and stole some of its thunder. Of course, another problem was that people wanted more Toy Story. The brilliance of A Bug’s Life is that Pixar refused to make a bug’s version of their first film and created a wonderful parable inspired by the old “Grasshopper and the Ants” story. Centered by two great performances by Dave Foley and Kevin Spacey (as Flik and Hopper), the film is a beautifully translucent world of light and color, wonderful supporting characters (Slim, Francis, and Heimlich would be the main characters in many other studio’s films, they are so good), and a heartfelt story, it is an underrated masterpiece. The Americana-inspired score by Randy Newman is a personal favorite.
The second film by Pixar to have another director step in and “fix” it, Brad Bird took Jan Pinkava’s original story about a French cuisine loving rat and turned it into a celebration of food and cooking that even someone not passion about great food could love. The film is a masterpiece of visual delight–the copper kettles shine, the aroma from the saucepans is practically sniffable–and the characters, story, design, music–everything–is top notch. It may not be the merchandising bonanza of a Cars or Toy Story, but it is a passionate, wonderfully made film about being true to your art. This is another film with a personal connection–we watched it at Disney’s El Capitan Theatre while on vacation in 2007. Coming in the midst of a rough personal year, this vacation and the memories associated with it–including going to the Disney Soda Fountain and Studio Store next door after the movie–help place this movie high on my list.
2. Toy Story 3
It’s a perfect film. That’s all there is to it. The culmination of everything that Pixar had learned and perfected over the years since the first film was unveiled in 1995, 2010’s Toy Story 3 is one of the biggest movies of all time–and easily the greatest film of 2010. Far better than The Social Network and easily a greater film than The King’s Speech. Providing an emotional catharsis that most audiences didn’t realize they needed, the story is a buddy picture, a prison escape film, a hilarious comedy, and a truly epic tale of the power of childhood and saying goodbye. No film trilogy, not even the great ones like The Lord of the Rings or Star Wars (the original, not the crappy prequels) has ever been as perfect in providing a complete since of time, place, and closure. Saying goodbye to Woody and Buzz wasn’t easy for Andy–but this film made it much easier for the audiences around the world who had loved them for 15 years. And please, please, please Pixar, let Tom Hanks be wrong. Do not make another one.
1. Toy Story
1995 was the year Disney released Pocahontas. As a special preview to that film, Disney previewed a two minute sequence from a new film being advertised as “the world’s first computer-animated film.” What the world watched in June 1995 was a preview for a film opening that November, a film that would change the way the world looked at animation, bring a new studio to the forefront of cinema’s great storytellers, create a merchandising nightmare at Christmas, and forever alter what animation would look like at Disney–and everywhere else.
That film, of course, was Toy Story. A brilliantly written buddy comedy about a toy cowboy and his resentment at being replaced by a cooler and newer toy spaceman, it broke new grounds in animation, doing things people had never seen before. Today, 16 years later, you can see the great strides Pixar and others have made in animating humans, but the toys look as amazing now as they did then. It doesn’t mind having a hero who is a complete jerk (Woody is actually quite unlikable through a lot of the film, acting like a petulant child toward Buzz), it doesn’t mind being filled with angst (the toys’ terror at Sid’s “playtime,” the worry about being lost, what it means to belong to someone)–while at the same time being populated by wonderful characters (and great voice acting), having the songs brilliantly advance the story (“I Will Go Sailing No More” is a great character moment and a powerful song about discovering you aren’t exactly what you thought you were). Both Woody and Buzz grow and change by the end of the film, but it’s Woody’s story. And ultimately, while we may all wish we had a Buzz to play with, most of us would choose to have Woody as our best friend. You’ve got a friend, indeed.
So…there you have it. My completely subjective ranking of Pixar’s films. Discuss. And give me the reasons why you agree–or disagree–with my rankings!