Toy Story 4 has me waxing nostalgic about Pixar Animation Studios, even though Pixar is not an inherently nostalgic topic for me. I was already entering my teens when Toy Story debuted back in 1995. By the time Pixar’s fifth feature arrived I was in college and not really paying that much attention to the studio’s output any longer. The creation of Blu Ray is actually what got me interested in Pixar once more as the studio’s films looked wonderful in high definition. I began to collect them and before long I was reminded just how wonderful the studio is.
Back in 2013, I ranked what I considered to be the Top 10 Films of Pixar. Monsters University had just hit theaters and was one of four films I had not ranked. It was also the third film in four tries to be yet another sequel, something Pixar had avoided during its early days, but was turning into a staple for the studio. That period may have been the studio’s worst, as following Monsters University was…nothing. Pixar had released a film annually beginning with Cars in 2006, but problems arising with the development of The Good Dinosaur caused the studio to miss out on 2014 entirely. Since then the studio has been a juggernaut, releasing two films in 2015 and 2017 each with individual films in every other year in that time frame up until now. And as of this writing, there are two films slated for 2020 so the studio is showing no signs of slowing down in regards to its output.
Pixar has a pretty incredible track record with almost every movie the studio has put earning near universal praise. Cars 2 was the studio’s first true dud, and while it has added at least one other since, largely the films of Pixar have continued to be well-received. And we may be in the midst of another epict run as the last few years have been pretty great. Hopefully at least one of the films of 2020 continues that trend.
Now feels like a great time to rank these things once again though. Toy Story 4 is Pixar’s 21st feature film and its 8th sequel/prequel. Twenty-One films in twenty-four years, the majority of which have been original, is pretty damn incredible especially because computer animated films were a new artform. Pixar obviously had lots of practice making animated shorts and doing computer sequences in other films, but doing a feature utilizing this technology was still uncharted territory.
It should go without saying that ranking these films is an exercise in futility. While the first few were easy enough, it quickly became difficult. By the time I hit the top 10 of this list I was really scratching my head at arranging these films because they’re all just so good. And some of them I have seen more times than I can count due to my own children falling in love with them. For the ones I included in my top 10 six years ago, I’ll include where I placed them. Some moved due to new films entering the picture, while there were a few I dropped down a few spots due in large part to either fatigue or in just having a new appreciation for another film. I ranked these ones first, then revisited my past rankings and I was surprised at a few. Then I looked at the films surrounding those few surprises and I was less surprised because these things are just that hard to rank. Ratatouille, for example, is a film I absolutely adore and yet it couldn’t crack the top 5! For films I didn’t rank, I’ll include an “NR” distinction and for films not yet released “NA.” And lastly, before we begin I want to post a “SPOILERS” warning. A lot of these films are older so it may not seem important to warn folks about spoilers, but this is an examination of the films so some plot points will be discussed. In particular, the recently released Toy Story 4 so if you haven’t seen it maybe skip that write-up. That said, let’s get to the easy part, the worst of Pixar, and get on with this thing.
21. Cars 2 (2011) – Previous Ranking: NR
Cars 2 has the dubious honor of being Pixar’s worst film. It followed 2006’s Cars and largely feels like a sequel mandated by sales. Toys and merchandise based on the films are easy to conceive (they’re just Hot Wheels but with faces) and it was a real hit with kids. Then studio head John Lasseter also loved the project and it was basically his new baby following Toy Story, and when the guy in charge loves a franchise then you’re getting more from that franchise. The problem with this movie is that it makes the cardinal sin of taking a well-received side character from the first film and making him the main character in the sequel when the character was never suited for that role. In this case, it’s Mater who’s put into the starring role and his dim-witted nature just can’t carry a film. He was fine in the first film and occasionally funny, but here the schtick runs dry after 20 minutes. The rest of the film unfolds like a spy film, but it can’t decide if it wants to make an earnest run at being a spy movie or if it’s a spoof. Your kids might like it, but you probably won’t.
20. The Good Dinosaur (2015) – Previous ranking: NA
The Good Dinosaur was a supremely troubled picture, even though it had a fairly simple premise: what if the asteroid that caused all of the dinosaurs on Earth to go extinct missed? What happened is dinosaurs flourished, learned how to become farmers, and eventually would have to learn how to live alongside humans. The film takes place though in the early years of humanity, so seeing humans and dinosaurs interact isn’t particularly interesting. The main character, Arlo, is likable enough, but the movie unfolds like a series of clichés and sequences ripped from past Disney flicks. It’s a very manipulative picture, and its somewhat original premise feels like its only original thought. On the plus side though, it looks pretty good and modern kids may be more accepting of it than The Land Before Time on account of its presentation, despite being an inferior picture.
19. Monsters University (2013) – Previous ranking: NR
Monsters University stands as Pixar’s lone prequel. Apparently wanting to do something with titular characters Mike and Sully again, but not seeing much promise in the new world setup by Monsters, Inc., we end up with a story of how the two met in college. It’s mostly fine, but also pretty forgettable. It’s not particularly fun to see the two start as enemies, especially when we know how they’re going to end up. The story of Mike wanting to be a scarer adds a bit of dimension to the character, but it’s also something that’s not even remotely hinted at in the previous film so it feels forced. The film focuses far too much on that aspect, because we know how it’s going to turn out the stakes don’t feel particularly high. The film also fails to create any new, memorable, characters and it drags on for too long. Still, it’s okay and I mostly had fun with that first viewing, I’ve just never really wanted to revisit it.
18. A Bug’s Life (1998) – Previous ranking: NR
This is the point of the list where I feel like we’ve left the poor or merely adequate features behind and entered into what makes Pixar special. A Bug’s Life is largely hampered by the fact that it was the studio’s second ever feature when things were still being ironed out. The visuals are not as striking as they once were, and the story is a bit derivative of other works. It even felt derivative of Toy Story as it was another look at a much smaller world, only instead of toys we have bugs. Flick is a good lead though and Hopper makes for a convincing villain. Ants vs Grasshoppers isn’t a story I ever needed to be told, but it proved captivating enough. It’s just a film that has been topped many times over.
17. Cars (2006) – Previous ranking: NR
Cars is a film I’ve actually come to appreciate a bit more over time. I still don’t think it’s great, but I find it entertaining enough. Which is good because my kid went through a phase where he wanted to watch this one a lot. Lightning McQueen is a fish out of water, a conceited race car who winds up in hick-ville. He’s unlikeable and he’s supposed to be, but he comes around and the journey is fairly organic rather than forced, even if you know that’s where the story needs to head. What has never sold me on the film, and franchise, is the need for it to exist. Personified cars just aren’t that interesting. They just act like humans, only their world makes no sense because of humanity’s absence even though signs of humanity are literally everywhere. Making the cars the characters did at least let Pixar off the hook in terms of having to animate humans, which was something of a weak point the studio was still figuring out. Otherwise, I’m just not charmed by the premise. Ultimately, the film is fine entertainment that’s just lacking that something extra that makes Pixar films truly special.
16. Brave (2012) – Previous ranking: 10
Brave has the distinction of being the first Pixar film directed by a woman. One of the studio’s few black marks has been its inclusion of women. Few women have been writers on Pixar features and few have been allowed to sit in the director’s chair. Director Brenda Chapman did not have a great experience as she was to be the sole director, but clashes with Lasseter over the project got her demoted to co-director with Mark Andrews, who basically finished the picture. She has expressed no desire to return to Pixar and was very critical of the leadership there, and she was probably one of the many celebrating Lasseter’s exit when more voices came forward to denounce his behavior towards women. As a result, I wonder how Brave would have turned out had Chapman been allowed to make the film she wanted to make. It’s a mother/daughter picture in which the relationship and conflict between the two feels very authentic, even when the mother turns into a bear. The film has a strong start, but then it sort of meanders a bit and I always find myself losing interest the further in I go. It’s a good, solid, film though and it wouldn’t disappoint me if Merida were given another chance to lead a feature. Since Lasseter was replaced, Chapman has actually returned to Disney as a writer on The Lion King remake set to open soon, so maybe there’s still a chance she could return to the director’s chair for the company in the future. Never say never.
15. Cars 3 (2017) – Previous ranking: NA
It took three tries, but Cars 3 finally made the Cars franchise feel like it belonged at Pixar. After struggling to find an emotional hook in the first film, and basically not trying in the second, Cars 3 returned Lightning McQueen to the starring role and gave him a story that made him sympathetic. That story was for Lightning to confront his age and try to hang on as a top racer in his sport. In that respect, it feels similar to Toy Story 3 as those characters battle time in their own way. Cars 3 manages to surprise in how it handles the story while also providing a proper send-off for Paul Newman’s Doc Hudson character, who was basically written out of Cars 2. Cars 3 was the conclusion to a trilogy few wanted to see completed, but it proved worthwhile. Hopefully, Pixar knows well-enough to leave it be and resists the temptation of a Cars 4. Considering Cars was Lasseter’s baby, I think we may be in the clear.
14. Incredibles 2 (2018) – Previous ranking: NA
Incredibles 2 is the sequel we all knew was going to happen. Being a super hero film, it was the easiest sequel to craft. All one needs is a new villain for the heroes to battle and a plausible setup. Incredibles 2 surprised by playing it safer than expected. It essentially took the setup of the first film and flipped the roles of Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl. Mr. Incredible is the stay-at-home parent this time while Elastigirl gets to enjoy some adventuring. All of your favorites from the first film come back, and everything is still fine and charming. It’s just really long, like the first film, and since I didn’t love that one I found little to love here. It’s well-made and I think most fans enjoyed it. As sequels go, it’s pretty good, but I also expected more.
13. Finding Dory (2016) – Previous ranking: NA
Finding Dory could have easily wound up being as bad as Cars 2. It takes the former sidekick, Dory, and puts the focus on her. It also rehashes the plot of the first film, but just moves some pieces around. And yet, the film works and in some respects I think it should be the benchmark for future Pixar sequels. If the studio isn’t confident its next sequel is as good or better than Finding Dory, then it shouldn’t make it. Dory does get a little grating, but her memory is allowed to gradually improve which helps make her more tolerable as the film moves along. Newcomer Hank is also a worthwhile addition to the cast, and there are some happy, teary-eyed, moments in this one. It’s also a tad manipulative, especially the flashbacks which include the impossibly cute baby Dory, so the emotional moments aren’t as earned as they are in other films. This one is still better than it had any right to be, and it’s more than okay that it exists even if it isn’t as good as Finding Nemo.
12. The Incredibles (2004) – Previous ranking: 9
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, this film largely just didn’t work for me. I thought I was going to love it, so maybe I had a problem with expectations going in, but numerous re-watches over the years have further convinced me it just isn’t for me. I find The Incredibles to just be too long, and too slow. It’s not hard to see where the plot wants to take the characters, so the slow pace just feels so unnecessary. And like Cars 2, it seems to have an identity crisis where it can’t decide if it’s an earnest take on a super hero film or if it’s a parody. Nonetheless, the characters are charming and well-developed and there’s still a lot to like. My feelings towards it though are my explanation for why it’s ranked here, and not in the top 10 where I feel a lot of fans seem to place this one.
11. Toy Story 4 (2019) – Previous ranking: NA
The newest film from Pixar proved to be a hard one to rank. I knew I liked the other three Toy Story films just a bit more, but figuring out how to rank it relative to the non-Toy Story films was a challenge. There’s a lot to like in this one from the gorgeous visuals to the humor, largely thanks to newcomer Forky. Selling the audience on its resolution was the hardest part. Did audiences care enough about Bo Peep to want her to return, let alone to have her serve as the catalyst for Woody essentially abandoning the purpose he once clung to so dearly? I feel like the response to Woody’s decision at the end of the film to leave his friends, and Bonnie, behind to live a life beside Bo Peep will determine how most people receive this film. And yet, I was largely fine with it, but I’m still ranking the film outside the top 10. That says less about this film and more about how fantastic the 10 films to come truly are.
10. WALL-E (2008) – Previous ranking: 5
WALL-E is one of our biggest fallers from the previous ranking. Some of that is due to some newcomers joining the fray, but mostly it’s due to my opinion on the film changing slightly. I still love WALL-E, I just don’t find it as engrossing as I once did. That’s largely due to the film’s second half in space, which fails to match the spectacle of the early part of the film when it occurs on Earth. It’s still funny though and I love the film’s message and how charming these unspeaking robot leads are. WALL-E is one of my favorite leads of any Pixar film and his success is a wonderful tribute to how good Pixar’s animators are. He says so much, and yet he says almost nothing at all throughout the whole movie. I may not be ranking it number one, but WALL-E is absolutely one of the studio’s greatest achievements.
9. Monsters, Inc. (2001) – Previous ranking: 3
Monsters, Inc. is actually our biggest faller, going all the way from 3 down to 9. Why is that? Unlike WALL-E, this one is largely fatigue. I’ve seen this one so many times due to it being on television a lot, being a personal favorite of mine, and being one my kids adore. Though no matter how many times I see it that closing, “Kitty!” from Boo still gets me every time. It’s the stuff leading up to that which I’ve grown a little sick of. It also doesn’t help that the visuals aren’t as nice to look at as they were in 2001, though Sully’s fur still stands as a remarkable achievement even today. Even though I’m ranking it 9th, I still love this movie as I do all of the movies in the top 10. And I will definitely be checking out the television series based on this property coming to Disney’s streaming service. Hopefully, it goes better than Monsters University.
8. Toy Story 2 (1999) – Previous ranking: 8
Holding steady at number 8 is Pixar’s first sequel. Saying it held onto number 8 is actually deceiving, as there are two new films to come along since those rankings that leapt past this one without affecting its rank. And that reflects my growing appreciation for Toy Story 2. Where as before I was certain it was a lesser film when compared with Toy Story and Toy Story 3, now I’m less convinced of that. It really expands upon the cast of the first film despite only adding a couple new characters and it does so by simply bringing along more in the journey of the toys outside Andy’s room. Mr. Potato Head, played so perfectly by the late Don Rickles, is really allowed to shine as he joins Buzz and the others in tracking down the lost Woody. The film is tightly paced and its new villain is arguably better than Sid from the first. Plus it looks noticeably better. It also holds up as it has proven to be the favorite Pixar movie of my kids so I’ve endured this one more time than I can count, and every time I see it I still get pulled in. It’s quite possibly the best sequel that doesn’t eclipse the original ever created.
7. Ratatouille (2007) – Previous ranking: 7
Another film that has held steady, but actually improved given the new films released since 2013, is Ratatouille. I adore this movie. Remy is so wonderfully portrayed by Patton Oswalt and his story is unique, engrossing, and ever so charming. I’ve seen this one a lot, and it never fails to entertain me nor does it fail to leave me hungry. The food looks so good, and for whatever reason the grapes affect me the most. I’m both hungry and thirsty just thinking about it right now. The way this one ends, with Remy finally finding acceptance amongst both his rat peers and the humans he shares a kitchen with, could lend itself well to a potential sequel, but I’m glad Pixar has so far resisted the temptation. I don’t want this film tainted in any way, even if that fear is largely an overblown one as no film could taint the original.
6. Up (2009) – Previous ranking: 1
It may not have fallen the most spots, but it feels like Up is this list biggest mover because it fell from the top spot all the way to number 6, outside the top 5. If it had fallen to number 3 because two new films supplanted it that would be one thing, but to explain the drop to 6 is practically unexplainable, but let me try. I pretty much love Up the same now as I did in 2013. I actually have not watched this one much since then as it’s one my kids haven’t taken to (though I should try again). It’s mostly moved because the films ahead of it are ones I have seen quite a bit in the interim and I just have a newfound appreciation for. Was ranking it number 1 six years ago a mistake then? Maybe. The opening beats in this one are some of Pixar’s finest work. Perhaps I placed too much emphasis on those and not enough on the ensuing adventure, which is fun and humorous, but not nearly as emotional. Reflecting on it though, I just think it really is a case of me falling even more in love with Pixar’s other works and not necessarily falling out of love with Up. This film still gets to me and I still love its characters. Ultimately, being considered the sixth best Pixar movie is also nothing to be ashamed of. I also did protect myself a bit six years ago as I said these rankings within the top 5 are pretty fluid. Not a lot is separating these movies.
5. Inside Out (2015) – Previous ranking: NA
Our first new entrant since 2013 to really make a splash, Inside Out was an instant contender for best film in Pixar’s catalog when it debuted in 2015. The internal struggle of emotions within a young girl as depicted by personified entities didn’t strike me as a truly novel idea, but it turned out to be incredibly well executed. The story is essentially about depression, and yet I don’t think that word is ever uttered by a character in the film. It’s so careful and well-thought out making it a truly technical marvel. That it’s able to be so procedural while still maintaining the fun and spontaneity of it all is its real achievement. Joy is well-balanced by Sadness, and the supporting roles of the other emotions prove to be hilarious more often than not. And even though most of the movie is spent inside her head, we still learn a lot about Riley and come to care for her by the film’s end almost as if she were our kid too. I think my adoration for the character, and the film, influenced me down the road when my own daughter came into this world. Her name? Riley.
4. Toy Story (1995) – Previous ranking: 6
The debut feature from Pixar is a tough one to top. Obviously, the studio has topped it since I’m ranking it fourth, but careful consideration is given to any film I intend to rank ahead of it. First of all, yes, the story is a bit derivative of the less popular Jim Henson production The Christmas Toy, but Toy Story takes the concept of toys having their own world in which they live in so far ahead of that production that it barely warrants a mention. I do it only because a lot of the concepts are the same, though I question how original it is to begin with. Who didn’t wonder if their toys came to life when no one was around when they were kids? Anyway, Toy Story was an incredible technical achievement in 1995, but it’s also so much more. Like Disney was able to do way back in the 1930s with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pixar was able to convince an audience that a computer-generated character could make us cry. This one doesn’t go nearly as far as its sequels would in that regard as Toy Story’s tears, if it produces any, are via celebration as opposed to sadness. I still get chills when I watch this one today when Woody and Buzz take flight and head for Andy’s car. It’s a wonderful moment of elevation to cap the film’s climax cementing this film as one of Pixar, and Disney’s, all-time greatest achievements.
3. Finding Nemo (2003) – Previous ranking: 2
Moving down a notch from my 2013 rankings is Finding Nemo. Unlike WALL-E and Up, this one simply moved because a new film was released since then to push it back a spot. That’s no slight against Finding Nemo, a movie I’ve seen more times than I can count over the years because it remains my wife’s favorite film. If I had to offer up one piece of criticism towards it, it would be that the film is perhaps a bit too long (it didn’t really need that sequence with the net after Marlin and Nemo’s reunion), but otherwise there’s nothing I’d change about. The undersea world of Finding Nemo remains beautiful more than a decade removed from release, and the story of a father searching for his son against hopeless odds will never not resonate with audiences. When I find myself feeling a bit fatigued with this one, I just stop and remember how charming some of the smaller details are such as Bruce and his boys and the seagulls that just say “Mine!” over and over. A beautiful film with a beautiful story, I won’t blame you if you think Pixar has yet to top it.
2. Toy Story 3 (2010) – Previous ranking: 4
This is the biggest culprit in moving some of the other films down a few notches. Every time I revisit Toy Story 3 I’m blown away all over again. First of all, its visuals are miles ahead of the two preceding films and it’s one of Pixar’s greatest technical achievements. The world the toys inhabit is so much more alive than it was before and the little details are amazing. Yeah, the toys somehow get lost again, and yes, Buzz also is reverted to his old form yet again, but the journey is just so much more engrossing than before. Woody’s devotion to Andy remains strong and serves as the film’s emotional core, but also there is Woody’s devotion to his fellow toys. He’s a true leader here unwilling to let anything happen to the friends he’s shared a playroom with. We caught a glimpse of this in Toy Story 2 when he helped out poor Wheezy, but we really see it on display here when he not only risks life and limb to save the others, but also in how he chooses to finally say goodbye to Andy. If that moment in Bonnie’s yard doesn’t choke you up then you have no soul. What an incredible, brave, ending that also proved smart since it setup for future television specials and even a fourth film no one saw coming. Had this been the last we saw of Woody and the gang I think everyone would have been fine with it, because the ending is so perfectly bittersweet. Hug your toys, if you still have them, people.
1. Coco (2017) – Previous ranking: NA
Of all the films on this list, I don’t think I’ve seen any other more times over these past six years than I have Coco. I figured this film would be plenty good, because it’s Pixar, but I don’t think I was prepared for just how great it was going to be. Coco is an easy choice as Pixar’s best film for me because it does everything well that Pixar is known for. It looks amazing, its characters are well-formed and endearing, it depicts a new, fantastic world in the Land of the Dead, and it packs an emotional wallop to boot. Oh boy, is that emotional hook a big one. I was prepared for Ernesto to not be related to Miguel in the end, and I even saw Hector’s reveal coming, and yet I still was not prepared for Miguel’s emotional performance of “Remember Me” to his grandmother, Coco. So much of the film’s heart should be credited to Anthony Gonzalez, the young man hired to provide the scratch track for Miguel who was so good in the role he was made the starring voice of the film. His performance is incredible, whether speaking lines or singing one of the film’s many songs. Coco is also the closest thing to a musical Pixar has produced, though the songs all work within the confines of the film as opposed to being something that breaks-up the flow of the plot. And the music is so wonderful! “Remember Me” is its most famous track, though it might be my least favorite song in the film. It’s supremely versatile though, as the song takes on a whole new meaning depending on the performance. In the hands of de la Cruz, it’s an up-tempo, playful, track, but when performed by Hector it’s a sweet and somber tune. I’m torn on if my favorite song is “Un Poco Loco” or “Proud Corazon.” The visuals at the end of the film when “Proud Corazon” is playing probably seals it for me as Miguel is warmly embraced by his family that once shunned music, and the spirit of his ancestor Hector takes the “ghost guitar” from him to play along which is the perfect touch for the scene. I’m welling up just recalling it. Coco is just a perfect film filled with wonder and excitement and plenty of humor while also containing an emotional backing no film in Pixar’s library can match. It surprised me to become a favorite of my children as well, who happily sing and dance along with the film and sit enthralled with its exciting, closing, moments. They don’t fully understand it, because they’re so young, and it will be interesting to see how they respond to it as they get older. I hope one day that Pixar can top this film, but there’s a part of me that doubts the studio ever can.