Ranking The Films Of Pixar Animation Studios

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Pixar’s Finding Nemo arrives in theatres today for a 3D re-release, allowing a whole new generation of children the chance to experience one of the greatest American animated films on the big screen. Though Pixar hasn’t had a universally beloved creative success since Toy Story 3, they remain one of the most critically and commercially successful studios in Hollywood history, and the world of cinema will always be richer for their presence.

The chance to revisit a classic like Finding Nemo got me thinking: If most of the Pixar films are excellent, which one is truly ‘the best?’ Is it even possible to critically rank a set of films as beloved as these?

Yes, though it turns out the task is incredibly difficult. Still, that is what I have attempted here today: To rank the thirteen theatrical Pixar features from worst-to-best, without any ties or cheats. From movie nine on, the qualitative differences are somewhat negligible – how does one pick between WALL-E and Up, or Ratatouille and The Incredibles? – but in the end, this list is a solid representation of what I feel Pixar does best, and which of their films stand tallest as masterpieces.

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13. Cars 2

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A fairly obvious choice for the bottom of the list, I suppose, though I should say that I myself do not detest this film the way many do. Cars 2 is certainly not a great film, nor a very good one, but it has certain charms. The animation is stellar, the voice acting strong, certain plot ideas are creative, and the film has more genuine laughs than many probably remember. Putting sidekick Mater in the spotlight is not a strong narrative decision, but the character is funny and heartfelt, and his perseverance in the face of danger does offer children some good messages.

Still, it’s hard to ignore how blatantly commercial Cars 2 feels, especially considering what a large role merchandising money plays in this franchise’s existence. For a company so devoted to quality, Cars 2 simply comes across as a lazy, thoughtless cash-grab. It has not one iota of the thematic insight previous Pixar films displayed, and its plot is generally messy. I do not believe Cars 2 is a bad film, but it is a thoroughly mediocre one, and for Pixar, that makes it a pretty massive disappointment.

12. Brave

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I know Brave has its fans, and I understand what many people saw in this fantastical tale of mother and daughter. Unlike Cars 2, Brave really does have heart, and when it wears that heart on its sleeves, the material can be as strong as anything in Pixar’s canon.

But to me, Brave feels rushed and incomplete, not a surprise considering original director Brenda Chapman was ousted halfway through production. The story is slight and underdeveloped, better suited for a short than a feature-length film, and director Mark Andrews pads out far too much of the run time with silly, pandering slapstick or cheap out-of-character gags. Like Cars 2, much of Brave feels commercially calculated, as if the story were built around a set of demographic-research goals in lieu of heartfelt, organic storytelling.

Brave certainly has its moments, and Princess Merida is one of Pixar’s best overall character creations, but it just isn’t as polished as the studio’s best work, and doesn’t stack up against what came before.

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11. Cars 

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While the original Cars is obviously less engaging than the next ten films on this countdown, it really is a good movie, one made with passion and insight. The story is a simple, familiar riff on Doc Hollywood, but director John Lasseter overcomes any feelings of stagnation with charming characters and a pleasant atmosphere. He also imbues the film with a strong thematic undercurrent about the death of the romanticized American highway, a concept that gives the material a heartfelt, personal touch. The cars themselves are creatively animated, and each race is a rather spectacular set piece. Even if Cars is Pixar working in minor key, it’s an entertaining and intelligent film overall, one I am happy to have as part of the studio’s canon.

10. A Bug’s Life 

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Seven Samurai reenacted with insects probably shouldn’t make for a good movie, but A Bug’s Life is undeniably excellent, witty and intense from start to finish. In fact, this is where the list gets extremely challenging to rank, because I like A Bug’s Life quite a bit. It comes in this low on the countdown not because of any particular faults, but because of the strength of the next nine films.

The film sees John Lasseter working at the height of his narrative and visual creativity, crafting a fully realized miniature world, one inhabited with wonderful characters we immediately invest in. The story is actually one of the darkest ones in the Pixar canon, as the evil Grasshoppers threaten actual death and destruction at every turn.

That’s a nice touch, one that helps make the material truly compelling and, in 1998, signified just how much Pixar respected its young audience. The film and its now-primitive animation still hold up spectacularly well to this day, and though it has less to offer adults than subsequent Pixar efforts, A Bug’s Life remains spectacular children’s entertainment of the highest caliber.

9. Toy Story

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Toy Story is a great movie. There is no doubt about that. It features nothing but wonderful, memorable characters – perhaps the single greatest ensemble in the history of American animation – a simple yet powerful story about the need to be receptive to change, and beautifully designed visuals that hold up well to this day.

But while most Pixar rankings deify Toy Story and place it near the top of their list, I do not believe this particular film is a masterpiece. It has some pacing issues around the middle, and a second half that is notably less compelling than the first, and that holds it back from reaching the same highs as later Pixar work. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. This was Pixar’s first film, and it speaks volumes to the nature of the company that they only improved from here. Just look at how well each Toy Story sequel builds off the foundation provided in part one.

In any case, Toy Story is a fantastic start to a wonderful studio. If it never existed, the next eight films would have no chance of existing. To me, though, that does not place it above many of its successors. For Pixar, the best was still to come.

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8. Monster’s Inc.

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Pete Docter’s first feature solidified several crucial characteristics that would come to define Pixar’s output: First, Monster’s Inc. establishes its complex, creative world better than any CGI feature up to that point, drawing us in with inventive ideas and visuals unlike anything we had ever seen. Second, the film is unafraid to tug hard at the heartstrings, and though one could argue that ‘Jesse’s song’ in Toy Story 2 was Pixar’s first real tearjerker moment, I find Sully’s final interactions with Boo to be far more emotionally powerful.

In any case, bringing us to places we could scarcely imagine and making us cry in the process may be Pixar’s greatest defining qualities, and Monster’s Inc. does both in spades. Mike and Sully are two of the studio’s best characters, voiced flawlessly by Billy Crystal and John Goodman, and if the story is a bit slight, it’s also incredibly heartfelt. The film’s imaginative universe also allowed for Pixar’s greatest visuals to date, especially in the inspired climactic chase sequence. Monster’s Inc. is an amazing movie, one of my personal Pixar favorites. I am definitely excited to see it re-released in 3D at the end of this year.

7. Toy Story 2

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One of the very best examples of a sequel improving upon its already excellent predecessor, Toy Story 2 builds on the original’s foundation in every conceivable way. The story is larger and more involving. The characters are funnier, sharper, and better defined. The relationships are more intensely felt, and develop leaps and bounds over the course of the narrative. The new cast members integrate themselves flawlessly with the old. The animation is a major step-up. The list simply goes on and on.

But most importantly, Toy Story 2 was the first Pixar feature that signaled the company’s willingness to explore darker, more mature territory. This is, first and foremost, a film about death. The word may never be uttered, but by meeting Jesse and the round-up gang, Woody is reminded that his time on this earth – or, at least, in the arms of his beloved Andy – is limited, and he must enjoy it while he can. Toy Story 3 would explore these themes in even greater detail, but Toy Story 2 was a massive step forward for the company, one that gave future filmmakers license to examine increasingly dark and complex thematic territory. 

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6. Finding Nemo

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Finding Nemo is one of the first and best examples of how well Pixar can juggle its own ambition. Andrew Stanton’s first feature is a story of friendship, a parable about fatherhood, a coming-of-age tale, and a cracking underwater adventure all rolled into one. Every element is flawlessly realized, with each component differently affecting viewers depending on their age. For kids, Nemo is a wonderful role-model, an imperfect and developing character who learns from his mistakes even without his father to guide him.

For adults, Marlin’s story is crushingly emotional, and beautifully honest. It is natural for any parent to desperately try protecting their children from the dangers of the world, and like Marlin, most will come to the brutal realization that sometimes, they simply cannot. Albert Brooks is brilliant at illustrating the character’s struggles, and Marlin’s arc remains one of the most insightful, nuanced pieces of storytelling in the Pixar canon.

This is only scratching the surface, of course. Is there any Pixar character as lovable as Ellen DeGeneres’ Dory? Are there any Pixar worlds quite as intricate, detailed, and lovely as this film’s underwater landscape? Finding Nemo is simply superior, Pixar’s first true masterpiece and one of the stirring highlights of modern animation.

5. Toy Story 3

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The last and best of the Toy Story trilogy, Toy Story 3 is a beautiful, poignant ode not only to these characters and their universe, but to the very children who grew up alongside this incredible series.

I was very young when the original film came out – I cannot, as a matter of fact, remember a time before Woody and Buzz – and the year Toy Story 3 arrived, I myself, like Andy, was preparing to go off to college. Toy Story 3 was, I think, made for people my age, as it is a tale of growing up, moving on, and remembering the past while simultaneously learning to let go.

Like Toy Story 2, it deals prominently with death – the climactic trash disposal scene is a violent reminder that no matter what, the end will come for all eventually – but the overarching message is about maintaining a relevant and fulfilling life, even if it means adapting to a new status quo.

The film is visually lush and inventive, and the new characters are uniformly excellent, but the film’s reflections on the past and ruminations toward the future are what get me most. Toy Story 3 is the ultimate realization of the Toy Story franchise, one of cinema’s greatest sequels and a blinding highlight in Pixar’s canon.

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4. WALL-E

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Ah, WALL-E. This is, in many ways, Pixar’s most remarkable feature, one that makes full use of the potential animation has to tell unconventional stories and take us to fantastical places. The film has been so roundly discussed, dissected, and analyzed over the years – by myself and many others – that I feel there is little to add to the conversation today.

I will just say that Andrew Stanton’s vision of a dark, detailed, and overwhelmingly ignorant future grows more prescient with each passing day, and that in the silent, robotic title character, Stanton created one of animation’s single greatest characters. WALL-E is a charmer, a lonely idealist each of us can hopefully relate to, and his love for EVE remains one of the most touching cinematic romances of the modern era.

Much has been made of the film’s tonal shifts in the second half – some like where the film goes while others detest it – but the entire film works for me. It is powerful, poignant, and thought provoking from start to finish. The only complaint I can lodge against the film – if I can even call it a complaint – is that the story is not quite as impactful once one has seen it before. Unlike many of Pixar’s films, WALL-E draws much of its power from going in cold, and repeat viewings are not as revelatory. It is a small matter, and not necessarily a fault of the film itself, but it is the factor that separates WALL-E from the final films on the countdown.

3. Up

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The fact that Up – an animated film that deals primarily with the psychology of growing old – even exists is simply astonishing. That it is a true modern masterpiece should not be a surprise, given what a mind-boggling hot-streak Pixar was on at the time.

Nevertheless, Pete Docter’s magical story of an old man, a boy scout, a colorful bird, and a flying balloon house is awe-inspiring for its sheer narrative efficiency and overwhelming emotional power. Nearly every viewer will readily assert that they cried at the first ten minutes of Up – a relentlessly heart-tugging montage that traces the ups and down of life itself – and there are plenty of other spots that inspire a similar reaction. My breaking point? It’s Carl pinning Ellie’s soda-pop badge on Russell. I grow misty-eyed merely thinking about it.

The depth of characterization here is simply astounding, but the unflinching maturity of the storytelling is what defines Up as one of Pixar’s greatest accomplishments. The film is also a remarkably exciting adventure, of course, and features some of the studio’s lushest animation, but when I think about Up, I keep coming back to the film’s hauntingly beautiful discussions of life, death, love, isolation, and redemption. It is not just one of Pixar’s richest features, but one of the best American films of the new millennium.  

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2. The Incredibles

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From an objective critical standpoint, The Incredibles is Pixar’s smartest, most insightful feature. It tackles a myriad of highly relevant themes, all while telling one of the single best superhero stories of the 2000s. It may, in fact, be the best superhero film ever released.

At the very least, it’s the most intelligent one (and I say that as someone who loves the genre). Bird doesn’t tell a story with superpowers just for the sake of action, but because superheroics are highly relevant to the themes of the project. The Incredibles is, first and foremost, a poignant allegory about the nature of family. Few films wish to acknowledge this, but being a family – living among and loving unconditionally a select group of people every day of one’s life – is never easy. It is a struggle, with one’s own issues as much as anyone else’s, and to my mind, no movie has ever captured the omnipresent difficulty and ultimate grace that comes with being a family unit as well as The Incredibles.

Moreover, The Incredibles carries a wildly bold, subversive message at its core: That if everyone is made to be special, then no one is allowed to truly be great. The Incredibles is a commentary on society’s increasing deification of mediocrity, and Bird’s genius is that he is, without sounding bitter or resentful, able to craft a compelling argument for the need to foster greatness. Some people in this world are special – represented in the film by the superheroes – and when we orient society around trying to make everyone the same, we fail to do anyone any good. Those who can achieve greatness are stifled, and those who would benefit from what others have to offer are robbed.

As I grow older, and I realize just how many barriers there are – not just in education, but in general social norms – to expressing my own talents or intelligence, this part of the film speaks to me more every day. I do not believe in elitism, and I don’t think Bird does either, but The Incredibles has the bravery to question why we ask those who are exceptional to sit down and stay anonymous, and I think that is a discussion absolutely worth having.

All this, and I have not even mentioned the groundbreaking animation, or the remarkable action set pieces, or Michael Giacchino’s single greatest musical score, or the wonderful vocal performances from Craig T. Nelson and Helen Hunt, or Bird’s brilliant deconstruction of the superhero and espionage genres. The Incredibles is a film of impossible riches, and the critic in me says it is Pixar’s most accomplished work.

But in ranking these wonderful films, I find I must go with my heart, and my heart tells me there is only one option for the number one pick…

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1. Ratatouille

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Yes. From the moment I saw Ratatouille, I was in love, and I have never been able to shake that unconditional adoration. Brad Bird is, I think, the best of the filmmakers Pixar has worked with, and if The Incredibles was his bold, artistic passion piece, Ratatouille is his ultimate triumph of character, visuals, and heart.

Character, visuals, and heart. Those are the words that define Pixar, and for me, Ratatouille is the ultimate embodiment of each. I can never get over what a wonderful, fully-realized character Remy is, voiced so perfectly by Patton Oswalt, nor can I believe what a wonderful supporting cast Bird has created. The other rats are, of course, comic highlights, but consider how flawlessly Bird crafts a crucial-yet-minor character like food critic Anton Ego. The film is an unabashed triumph of characterization.

Visually, it is Pixar’s lushest creation. Bird’s vision of Paris is grand, romantic, and sweeping. His design of the central kitchen is detailed and enveloping. The motions of the characters are impossibly fluid, making for some superior comic slapstick. The stylized nature of the human characters makes for my favorite CGI depiction of human beings, and Bird even manages to make rats – filthy, filthy rats – look cute and cuddly.

And as for heart…where to even begin? As a story of following one’s dreams, few films are as sincere and inspiring as Ratatouille. As a poignant love letter to the romanticism of food, nothing else even comes close. As a parable for the nature of artistic drive, Ratatouille stands generally uncontested. You want heart? Ratatouille has nothing but, and more to give around every gorgeous corner.

I do not assume for a second that most will agree that Ratatouille is Pixar’s best feature, but that’s the beauty of this company, isn’t it? That they have crafted so many flawless worlds, so many wonderful characters and stories, that each viewer is swept up in different ways, their hearts affected uniquely. Ratatouille resonates strongest with me. Your favorite will no doubt differ. That is the gift Pixar has given us, and I cannot praise them highly enough.

What is your favorite Pixar feature? Your least favorite? Sound off in the comments!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Matt-Donato/556930521 Matt Donato

    Love your #1 pick. As a die hard foodie, lover of talking animals, cooking enthusiest, and being a huge fan of Bird (as well), it’s fantastic to see someone share the same sentiment and love for Remy!

  • Remy the Rat

    Ratatouille is the one Pixar movie that I can watch over and over and over and not get tired of. The Incredibles probably was a better first time watch, but this movie is flawless. The script is amazingly written and probably will go down as the best Pixar script of all time. Finding Nemo is third but many will either have UP or Wall-E in their top three as well. I liked Wall-E for being the most “different” Pixar but it falls well short of my top 5. UP opened really strong but became boring and faded….yawn. Ratatouille is master film-making at it’s best.