Along with Walt Disney Animation and Studio Ghibli, Pixar Animation Studios is one of the most powerful animation powerhouses in the history of the medium. Their films have garnered enormous box office, critical acclaim and awards since debuting their first film 'Toy Story' in 1995. With the release of their latest film 'Onward', I took up the challenge of ranking all 22 films in their canon. Some you might agree with, some you'll probably want to yell at me for, but that's the great thing about Pixar - they have something to please the hearts and souls of everyone.
With most of the lower-ranking Pixar films, they only seem lacking in comparison to other Pixar films rather than compared to animated films from other studios. 'Cars 3' is the one exception. It's a dull, lifeless, uninspiring film that feels more unnecessary than any other Pixar sequel. There's a suggestion of a solid conceit at its heart, but the film itself is so lacklustre that this conceit gets lost. All the other films on this list have at least something memorable about them. This one, however, is entirely forgettable.
'Cars 2' is easily the messiest film Pixar have released, an often confused collision of ideas and genres that makes the 'Cars' universe feel even more unstable, but I still found it strangely enjoyable. It's having some fun with its international flavour and embracing the spy film tropes, supported by John Lasseter's innate wit. The problem is, the story is hard to follow and you're still left wondering what on earth these films are supposed to be about.
If any film solidified the fact that Pixar has lost its way, it's 'Onward'. The idea is cute (a buddy comedy between two brothers trying to bring their family back together), but the film offers nothing new to the idea, even with setting it in a fantasy world of monsters and magic. So much of it feels derivative of other (better) films, and their blatant exploitation of emotional manipulation is maybe at its most obvious here. There are some nice moments here and there, but at its worst, it doesn't even feel like a Pixar film. It feels like the formula of one.
It's the Pixar film that gets kicked around the most, but there's something genuine and honest about 'Cars', even if it never lands as well as it should. The animation is gorgeous and the tone of it is well struck, but nestled in amongst films like 'Finding Nemo' and 'The Incredibles', it didn't feel as disciplined and considered as it should have been. Time has been a bit kinder to it, and it certainly has its charm, but 'Cars' doesn't have the horsepower to make itself a classic.
'The Good Dinosaur' feels like a film that lost its way. The central conceit is actually pretty great, and there are large sections of it that are really moving and very beautiful. The problem is, the narrative arc of the film doesn't feel fully developed, and much of it ends up spinning its wheels. It's a pity, because this quiet film about dealing with grief could have been something special.
'Brave' is one of the strangest films in the Pixar canon. So much of it works, but where other films felt like they went in the wrong direction, this one feels like it never had a chance to find out what its direction was. It's certainly one of their more daring films, aiming for a more mature tone and delving into a rich mythological world. The problem is, while the tone and textures of it stick in the mind, the film itself never seems to. Considering all the production issues it had (many of which we may never know the full story of), 'Brave' feels like the most compromised of the Pixar films.
This never felt like a film that needed to be made, and the results proved that, but not in the way you expect. 'Toy Story 4' suggests there is a way to continue the 'Toy Story' universe, by focusing on other characters outside of the central heroes. When the film focuses on Forky it sings, but when the emphasis moves to Woody, relegating every classic character (especially Buzz) to a plot device, the film shockingly loses its way and concludes in a heavy-handed, insincere ending. There are some entertaining moments, but this ultimately feels like the most unnecessary Pixar sequel outside of the 'Cars' series.
Unlike 'Toy Story 4', there was every reason to think that 'Finding Dory' was necessary, and also unlike 'Toy Story 4', it gets much closer to working. All the elements are there, and for the most part it works beautifully, but it never gels together as well as it should. Perhaps it's trying too hard to capture that lighting-in-a-bottle quality that 'Finding Nemo' has, maybe it's too many ideas, maybe it's too many repeated ideas. It's certainly entertaining, but not as satisfying as it should be.
This is the first one in this ranking that's going to get me into trouble. There's no question that 'Coco' is an extraordinary technical achievement, and has a spectacular first act that's as magical and arresting as you could hope for. The second act though meanders and wanders around in circles, muddying the narrative and its intention, before landing on an ending that only affects so much because of how easily manipulative it is. I don't think the film earns its ending, emotionally or thematically, and is maybe one of the clearest recent examples of Pixar putting the emphasis on emotional catharsis rather than narrative cohesion or satisfaction. You cry because it's designed to make you cry, not because it has actually earned the privilege of you crying.
It's not a scratch on the original, but it does something that many of the Pixar sequels don't think to do - come up with a new idea. By relocating Sully and Mike's relationship to a different time and location, and essentially inverting their relationship, it gives more room for the characters to develop and opens up the 'Monsters' universe in a really exciting way. It doesn't all work, but I find so much charm and joy in 'Monsters University', and it stuck with me much more than most of the Pixar films from its period.
This is where things really start to improve, because 'Incredibles 2' is fabulous. Brad Bird sets himself an insane amount of character and narrative challenges and rises to most of them with great aplomb, especially by approaching Bob's transition to a stay-at-home dad with respect, patience and care. The action may not entirely land, but the action in these films was always secondary to the family dynamics, and they're ultimately the most successful part of 'Incredibles 2'. I know not everyone agrees with me, but I still think it was worth the wait.
Here's another controversial opinion, I'm afraid, and I preface this by saying that I think 'Up!' is a pretty terrific film. The opening sequence is one of the great achievements in not just animation but cinema itself, so perfect that it leaves me just as much in awe as heartbroken. It's then followed by an absolutely sublime first act, never once putting a foot wrong. Once it reaches the jungle though, and even with the addition of Dug, the film begins to unravel, leading to a third act that only just saves itself at the last minute. The magnificence of the opening of 'Up!' is also, I think, the film's greatest weakness. No matter what, the rest of the film cannot possibly live up to it, even if as a whole it still ranks amongst the studio's best.
In my retrospective on the 'Toy Story' Trilogy, I wrote about how the darker elements of 'Toy Story 3' suggested a dangerous self-awareness from Pixar of their ability to emotionally manipulate their audiences, and how certain moments edged towards being way too far. Those problems stick out because everything else is frankly spectacular. All the new characters, the heist narrative, the balance in the relationships in the classic characters, the danger and tension in the escape, it's all so beautifully executed, and culminates in one of the most beautiful of endings. It's kind of a miracle that 'Toy Story 3', a film that didn't feel entirely necessary, turned out to be not just necessary, but absolutely vital.
Nestled between the first two 'Toy Story' films is this remarkable little masterpiece, an epic of miniature proportions, a staggering technical achievement even today, a perfectly plotted and beautifully conceived story of community and adversity and the power of the individual to make social change. It might also be the biggest scale animated film ever made. What we understand as Pixar is being perfected in this film, one that deserves to be counted amongst their greatest work.
Time has done due justice to 'Ratatouille'. Mostly dismissed upon release, even by Pixar's distributing partner Disney, it's now hailed as the remarkable film it is. In a way, it's ridiculous that a film about a rat who wants to be a chef should be as refreshing and exhilarating and genuinely moving as this is, but 'Ratatouille' is one of those delicate gems that only gets better the more times you watch it. It's a sensory experience, a feast to feed the heart and soul, a quiet dream of a film.
We often speak academically of 'Toy Story' for its historical significance, maybe as an excuse for what we assume is a film that has aged into nostalgia, but nothing about 'Toy Story' has aged. It's an immaculate film, spectacularly written, created on the edge of a frontier and bolstered by the energy of discovery and daring. From the moment it begins you are enraptured by it, enthralled by it, thrilled by it. Nostalgia will never get its muddy hands on this one. It has and always will be a pretty much perfect film.
As great as 'Toy Story' and 'A Bug's Life' are, 'Toy Story 2' is the Rosetta Stone of Pixar. It improves on its already perfect predecessor in every single way, with even sharper wit, more impressive set pieces and a refusal to repeat any of the past successes. Most of all though, it hits you directly in the heart with honesty and gentleness. 'Jessie's Song' (even just writing that name gave me goosebumps) may be its triumph, but even Woody discovering his past has a power you don't see coming. Even with the emotional wallop at the end of 'Toy Story 3', 'Toy Story 2' is the true masterpiece of the series.
Pete Doctor is Pixar's finest director, and that was even evident from his first feature, this giddying wonder set in a perfectly realised world, with two of the best characters in the Pixar canon. To be honest, the power of 'Monsters Inc.' is still a mystery to me - how it can be so funny and so thrilling and so awesome, and then with a gentle breath, reduce you to tears. Any lesser filmmaker would have milked the final moment for all its worth. Doctor keeps it simple, lets it be gentle, leads with honesty and takes your breath away. For a film about monsters, it's amongst Pixar's most humane films.
Their most recent masterpiece, and I don't see how anything could possibly better it. A complex idea executed with great care and specificity, acknowledging the emotional intelligence of children and gently reminding adults of the terror and complexity of a child's mind and emotions. Not a moment isn't considered, not a beat is wasted, and while the rest of Pixar's work since 'Toy Story 3' has peddled a troubling awareness of emotional manipulation, nothing about 'Inside Out' is a manipulation. Its ending is inevitable, its sentiment is earned, its destination is terrifying, its honesty is overwhelming. A film of rare and precious beauty.
To put it simply, this is the greatest action film ever made. End of story. It never puts a foot wrong, has lost none of its urgency or energy, it has one of the great scores of this century, and has some of the best action sequences - not just in animation, but in cinema full stop. Everything about this film makes it a classic.
The relationship between fathers and sons is a complex thing. You grapple to understand how to show affection for one another while staring at a mirror of yourself, whether into your past or future. It's a relationship that exists on a knife-edge, threatening to topple at the slightest push. I don't think any film has captured that as honestly as 'Finding Nemo'. It's a film about knowing where you belong, who you belong to, how to belong to yourself. It also represents a shift in Pixar - one started with 'Monsters Inc.' - towards films with not just thematic maturity, but cinematic maturity. It's a film of great emotional and visual scale that, even in the memory, fills your heart to the brim.
The first time I saw 'WALL-E', I cried from the moment it began until half an hour after it had finished. Not only do I think this is Pixar's finest film, I think it is one of the greatest animated films ever made, as monumental as 'Spirited Away' or 'Beauty And The Beast' or 'Fantasia'. It is a miracle, a true work of art, a romance of immense power, an ode to love and dreams and the human spirit, even if that spirit is in a small trash-collecting robot. It is everything animation can be and more, beautiful beyond description, and no matter how often I watch it, it still reduces me to tears. There are many masterpieces in the Pixar canon, but 'WALL-E' is the best of them all.