In 1995 an unknown animation studio, with a name playing on the word ‘pixel’, released a little movie called Toy Story and changed the way that movie viewers regarded animation. No longer was computer generation reserved for blockbusters' special effects. Instead, within a decade it had almost entirely supplanted the traditional 2D animation, the hand-drawn sort that had dominated the industry since a man named Walter Disney brought Mickey Mouse into the world seventy years earlier.
Which is not, of course, to say that this revolution has been necessarily a good thing. Putting aside the issue of computer versus traditional animation artistically, CG (like any other tool in the industry) has been used to turn out a lot of crap. I saw Barnyard. But the granddaddy of the trend, the seemingly venerable Pixar, has been remarkably successful. In the 16 or so years subsequent to Toy Story they’ve released ten more movies, all of which have been more than profitable. It’s a remarkable streak by industry standards, but perhaps even more astonishing is the sustained quality. Sixteen years and ten movies later, Pixar has yet to release a movie that’s even mediocre, let alone bad. And so, in honor of the American movie studio with the highest batting average, here’s a ranking of all eleven Pixar films, from least good to best.
The closest that Pixar has come to an average movie, the fact that Cars is widely considered a disappointment is testament to the absurd standards that the studio regularly reaches. It’s intentionally low-key, and serves as a sort of homage to small-town America. The movie features some charming secondary characters, a likeable if mildly bland lead (voiced by Owen Wilson), and some typically lush and vivid animation and scenery. But the low-key approach comes with a price, and the movie is rarely compelling. It also lacks the emotional core that fuels Pixar’s best work, and the humour is hit and miss.
It’s good, but it just isn’t Pixar good.
A Bug’s Life
The studio’s sophomore feature, A Bug’s Life perhaps bites off more than it can chew. While I can only speculate as to the amount of meddling that came from Disney after Toy Story took off, the movie’s awkward marriage of traditional Disney motifs (spunky princess, young male adventurer in a coming of age story) to a fairly ambitious arthropoidal riff on The Seven Samurai seems a little suspicious. Also, it’s easily the most straightforward Pixar movie, and there is very little going on subtextually. That isn’t always a bad thing (and indeed, it is done quite well here), but in this case it does make the movie
suffer some in comparison to its siblings.
All that said, A Bug’s Life is still a very entertaining movie. That it works as well as it does speaks volumes about the skill of the then-fledgling studio.
While I certainly enjoy food, it is really only the part where you eat it that I'm interested in. As a result, some of this movie—which, at its heart, serves as a paean to the art of food—is lost on me. So although some of the movie’s soul doesn’t really resonate, just about everything else worked well. Ratatouille is probably Pixar’s most blatant crack at making an underdog/outsider story, and they pull it off quite well.
If I were to describe it in one word, I’d call Ratatouille “endearing”. No less, but also no more.
Perhaps it isn’t as sophisticated as Pixar’s real upper tier (you could read parts as satire of big business, but more than a mild interpretation seems like a stretch), but the movie is satisfying in just about every way. It has a fun universe, a genuinely interesting story, good characters, great voice acting (especially by Billy Crystal), creative animation that still holds up, and a good dose of Pixar Pathos.
This movie’s squandered potential still makes me a little mad. The first two-thirds or so—and especially an incredible ten-minute prologue—are fantastic, as good as anything else the studio has ever done. It's exciting, very funny (squirrel!), and more than a little moving. For a while, I was ready to declare it the best movie of the year. Then Pixar decided the movie needed a villain.
The result is poorly integrated and downright silly. While I wouldn’t say it ruins the movie, it certainly tries. But the beginning is so strong that I still really
like the movie as a whole, even with the disappointing bits. Oh well.
The 2000s was chock full of superhero movies, most based on classic DC or Marvel characters and stories. And yet, in a development that shouldn’t really have been surprising by then, one of the best was Pixar’s The Incredibles, which combined mildly deconstructive elements (there is more than one nod to Watchmen, if you watch closely. Of course, it’s affectionate enough that by the end the movie could arguably be seen as a reconstruction) with a great story and surprisingly three dimensional characters. The Incredibles is immensely entertaining, and may be Pixar’s most rewatchable movie.
Pixar’s first truly great film (both chronologically and on this list), Finding Nemo impresses in every possible way. The way that the movie combines humour, pathos, narrative, animation, and characterization is breathtaking. The beginning is almost shockingly bleak for a “kid’s movie” (a term I reject for something like this), and there is an undercurrent of maturity and introspective sophistication that winds through the whole running length. And yet, it is also fun, breathtakingly beautiful, and very, very funny. Finding Nemo is many critics’ (and laypeople’s) favorite Pixar movie, and that’s a tough position to dispute.
Alright, so I’m cheating a bit here. Unlike, say, The Lord of the Rings, there isn’t any real compelling reason to group the three Toy Story movies together. And yet, I really do feel that the movies work better together than apart; the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Put together, the three films (which are all individually fantastic too) becomes the story of Andy, as seen through the eyes of his toys. Looking at the trilogy this way, the conclusion of the third film becomes even more touching than it already is. And considering it already rivaled the introduction to Up as two of the most ridiculously well-made and emotional animated scenes of all time, that’s saying something.
The original Toy Story kicked off the CG boom when it arrived on the scene, and fifteen years later the story concluded in the most satisfying way imaginable.
(Also, for the record: if I wasn’t allowed to combine the three Toy Story movies, I’d put them all between The Incredibles and Finding Nemo in some order.)
A tour de force in minimalist storytelling, Pixar’s magnum opus is, simply, exceptional. Quirky, innovative, touching, exciting, and so much more, what’s even more impressive is that Pixar manages to accomplish all of this with two lead characters who essentially can’t talk. Watch the first 40 minutes again sometime; there is essentially no dialogue. The skill that went into every aspect of Wall-E continues to amaze me, two and a half years and three viewing since initially being bowled over in summer 2008.
One last note, since I need to move on or I’ll gush over the movie all day. I’d like to give Pixar credit for the fairly substantial risk it took with this movie. Besides the obvious risk they took with the dialogue and other fairly sophisticated formatting (in a “kids movie” especially), they also took a gamble being so strident with the film's themes. Not everyone is going to respond well to an openly and surprisingly harsh environmental and anti-consumerist message, and film doesn’t pull its punches. Considering its nine-figure budget, the wide audience they aim at, and the fact that the Pixar brand was established enough that they could have played it safe, it’s a laudable move.
And here's to you Pixar. May you keep impressing us for many years to come