This weekend saw the release of Inside Out, hailed by critics as perhaps the greatest Pixar film to date – a claim no one makes lightly. This is, after all, the studio that brought us Toy Story. The charming Wall-E. The ultimately harrowing Up. Even the less distinguished among its 15 movies so far have struck some type of emotional chord – even Cars 2. It’s this aspect of their movies that make Pixar so unique. No matter how fantastical its narratives and characters, whether they’re lone robots roaming a dystopian earth, a family of dysfunctional superheroes or an estranged fish, Pixar movies’ trademark is unlikely realness: exploring universal fears and ordinary emotions in extraordinary stories.
They may operate under the guise of “children’s films” but Pixar movies are arguably even more potent for adult viewers: bridging the gap between our adult and child selves, reminding us that vulnerability is fine and that we don’t have to be so cynical. But which is the best? Here’s our film-by-film guide to their mighty canon so far, ranked from least-great to greatest.
15. Cars 2 (2011)
Sometimes things happen. Sometimes we get the movies we deserve, but not the ones we need right now. Sometimes we get a follow-up to a 2006 film that was just alright (more on that later), and then that follow-up boasts a cast that ranges from Larry the Cable Guy to Emily Mortimer who voice characters in a plot that starts with racing (sure) and evolves into espionage (okay). As they say: not all who wander are lost. Only the majority of adults who saw this pretty unneeded automobile sequel, which saw the original’s fable about the dangers of ego abandoned for a boneheaded spy tale.
14. Monsters University (2013)
To see Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) return to the big screen was fine with me… until it became obvious that Pixar and college mix only in a Toy Story 3 setting (more on that later). When we met the two best pals originally, they were adult monsters at work, and while watching them hang on the quad and live their best college lives was still entertaining, with necessary doses of heart – no one here’s made of stone – it still felt a little too follow-up. After all, prequels are tricky. Even for monsters.
13. Cars (2006)
It’s not anybody’s fault – and it’s not like the Cars franchise is an abomination (at all). In fact, Owen Wilson’s turn as race car Lightning McQueen is charming and warm (especially since he ends up learning that friends and family trump races won and world fame). But compared to movies like Toy Story and WALL-E, which bring life to inanimate objects, this particular Pixar offering seemed to connect a little less emotionally than the movies that surround it. What it is, is a great kids’ film.
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12. A Bug’s Life (1998)
And speaking of kids’ films, here’s another one (one that I remember watching religiously the year I started babysitting.) However, unlike Cars, A Bug’s Life is overtly so: the humour is light, the message is easy (read: it’s okay to think outside the box – that will help you stand up to bullies) and it’s a lot less dark than Antz, the Dreamworks film of the same summer. Also, you can’t go wrong with Phyllis Diller as the voice of the Queen. It’s the voice of reason all children should have and listen to.
11. The Incredibles (2004)
See? And this is where it gets really tough. While The Incredibles delivered biting dialogue, terrific action sequences (at the hands of director Brad Bird, FYI), and Halloween costume inspiration for days, this particular movie offered more entertainment than it did emotional reckoning, which Pixar tends to do best. Does that make this a bad movie? Obviously not. (There is no way a movie about a family of undercover superheroes could be bad, and I’ll stand by that forever.) It made it an action movie that happened to be animated – and with jokes I’m sure writers still aspire to.
10. Brave (2012)
Brave offered us a much-needed young female character with tenacity and vivaciousness (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), and also explored the complexities of mother/daughter relationships – which is a lot. As an adult watching this, we can recognise that it’s a movie that evokes all the pent-up feelings one might have about your own mother (call her.) But as a kids’ film, it’s a doozy.
9. Ratatouille (2007)
Ratatouille kind of epitomizes the only “downside” (and I use that term loosely) to Pixar films: considering the studio started out by making children’s movies, some Pixar offerings seem a little grown up. Ratatouille? An Academy award-winning movie about rats in Paris is a little grown-up. It’s terrific, it’s smart, it’s wonderfully-voiced by Patton Oswalt, but compared to Toy Story 3 which offers something for all ages, Ratatouille is an animated movie that seems targeted to adults. Which is why none of us could stop talking about it eight years ago.
8. Up (2009)
Okay, look. All any of you are thinking about right now is the opening montage in which Carl (Ed Asner) and Ellie spend their lives together, and then she dies. The little boy? The dog? The balloon? Those are not on any of your minds because, as mentioned, you’re just thinking about the saddest opening sequence in cinematic history. For that, this makes Up great. But because that’s all you can think about, it makes it just-out-of-the-top-five. Do you guys even remember the little boy’s name? Of course you don’t. You’re still crying about Ellie, as you should be.
7. Toy Story 2 (1999)
Let’s just get this out of the way: Joan Cusack is fantastic as Jessie the Yodelling Cowgirl. (And I will never, ever argue the importance of Tom Hanks in any and every movie, ever.) But the thing about Toy Story 2, is that it’s a very good sequel. It bides our time between the original and the third follow-up, it establishes that Andy is aging (which is normal), and it assures us the characters haven’t become stagnant. But then came Toy Story 3, and boom: there’s a new sheriff in town.
6. Monsters Inc. (2001)
Arguably, the reason Monsters University didn’t hit home was because Monsters Inc. created such a perfect world: two best friends, making jokes, doing their jobs, saving a kid named Boo – it was funny, and lovely, and it was heartbreaking. (That last scene!) And truthfully, it’s hard to recreate the same type of chemistry that incites both laughter and tears from kids and adults while using the same characters. So while Monsters University obviously saw itself for what it was (a prequel), Monsters Inc. made us all painfully aware of our own vulnerabilities. Especially as we entered the workforce – or worried about saying goodbye to old friends.
5. Finding Nemo (2003)
This movie – about an overprotective father fish who loses his son in the ocean and must find him with the help of Ellen Degeneres — s the reason we, as adults, still say “just keep swimming.” (Usually by Wednesdays, and under our breath so whats-his-name at reception doesn’t hear.) For kids (or teens, depending on how old you were in 2003), Finding Nemo was the animated beacon of hope that your parents would eventually let up on your curfew. For adults, it was the animated reminder that your kids have to grow up, and it will be fine. For everyone else, it’s just a lovely movie – especially since we’ve all felt over-protected once or twice.
4. WALL-E (2008)
This is where you commenters will set this piece ablaze. Yes, WALL-E is beautiful. Yes, WALL-E looks beautiful. Yes, WALL-E is a robot who must save the world (which is a very daunting task for a very sweet garbage-collecting specimen with large, lovely eyes). But WALL-E is not one of the following top three films, and that’s really the only I can say about this. The scene where Wall-E dances in space though? Cinematic perfection. Pure poetry.
3. Toy Story (1995)
It’s hard to believe it’s been twenty years since meeting Woody, Buzz, and the crew. Toy Story taps into some harsh realities: the corrupting power of jealousy and fear of being replaced, for starters. Sure, we picked up the message as kids, but as adults, Toy Story is arguably an entertaining version of the internal monologue when so-and-so gets that promotion over you at work, even though you’ve been logging a million hours since Christmas. We are all Woody. We are all Buzz. But we are not all Sid, hopefully.
2. Inside Out (2015)
Not to give anything away, because you’ve only had two days to see it, but the next time anybody asks why you’re feeling sad after a sizable life change, make that person watch this movie and refuse to speak to them until they do. (Also, Amy Poehler forever, am I right?)
1. Toy Story 3 (2010)
The best kinds of movies are the kind that stay with you. And while Toy Story 3 may not be the funniest Pixar movie or the one we talk about the most, it is arguably the greatest in terms of its importance. Why? Because it deals with death. And not just Disney-movie, battle-and-somebody-dies death: death in the sense of acceptance and preparation. When Woody, Buzz, and the gang realise they’re about to be incinerated, they acknowledge the inevitability of their situation and choose to take their next step together. It is harrowing, and it is painful, and it is upsetting – and it is one of the most realistic approaches to tackling mortality in movies I’ve seen. Spoiler alert: they’re all fine. But that moment helps the toys understand the importance of change, which sums up the franchise perfectly. That is, until the upcoming Toy Story 4…