When Pixar was given funding by Steve Jobs in 1986 – until then called the Graphics Group, part of the LucasFilm computer division since 1976 – it started a journey that redefined the possibilities for feature length animation. The company with the cheeky desk lamp logo subsequently unleashed a run of movies – perhaps the greatest run of movies ever produced by one studio, and that includes Disney – that told stories that have inspired us, moved us, made us laugh, made us angry, have often – too often – broken our hearts. Their story is unprecedented. Their vision is peerless.
With the recent release of Toy Story 4, and the announcement of a new, original title, Soul, to be released next year, NME thought it about time we revisit and rank all Pixar movies until this point. Beats working, huh?
We start at the bottom and then we rise to the top – but really, there’s barely a bad movie in this list. And those that are we can get out of the way pretty quickly…
21. Cars 2 (2011)
With each Pixar release comes a new revelation. In 2001, Monsters, Inc. showcased the Californian animation giant’s ability to animate realistic fur. 2003’s Finding Nemo did much the same for running water. Then in 2011 the company proved they could make a proper stinker of a movie. That would be Cars 2, a hyperactive, cheesy mess of a movie and the first true blemish on Pixar’s peerless run of animated brilliance. Rumours abound that the film was pushed out by parent the Walt Disney Company to drive merchandising sales.
20. Cars (2006)
Slightly better than Cars 2 is the first film in the Cars franchise, even though – and you’ll never watch it in the same way again once you read this – the plot is essentially the 1991 Michael J. Fox romantic comedy Doc Hollywood but with talking combine harvesters. Okay, no film starring the perennially adorable Owen Wilson can ever be completely without merit. But still, the Cars franchise felt like the first time Pixar cynically made a movie based on the potential for profits, rather than having a story they were desperate to tell. It’s worth noting the film made five billion dollars in sales of toys for the next five years.
19. Brave (2012)
Pixar’s first movie with a female protagonist – and, in Brenda Chapman, it’s first with a female director – is lovely. A fairy tale in the Hans Christian Andersen mould, with something poignant to say about a mother/daughter relationship. Chapman has said she based Brave’s story on the relationship with her own daughter. And yet it’s not completely clear whether the film is exactly what the director envisioned. Chapman would be removed from her role in 2010, after disagreements with then studio head John Lasseter. She’s described the move as “devastating”, while ultimately being “proud of the movie – and for standing up for myself.”
18. The Good Dinosaur (2015)
A Pixar movie based in a world where dinosaurs never went extinct is a great idea. One where the dinosaurs in it are riffing on classic Jack Palance-era Westerns sounds even better. And yet The Good Dinosaur isn’t very good at all, only ranking higher than Brave in this list because it’s got dinosaurs in it and Brave doesn’t. Its creation wasn’t helped by a succession of chefs in the kitchen – directors left, directors joined, while the list of people credited with writing the thing is the length of a very hungry persons shopping list. Subsequently it’s unbelievably disjointed and tonally all over the shop. Right now, some poor kid is talking about that river crossing scene in family therapy.
17. Cars 3 (2017)
Yeah, there’s another one. Thing is though, this one is really quite good! The third Cars movie is also, in many ways, a very sad movie; core themes including ageing, the disparity of sporting opportunities available to women (the character Cruz Ramiez, played by Cristela Alonzo, is exactly what a movie pitched to little boys needs) and punch-drunk end-of-career last stands. Think Rocky III with talking cars. Sentiment has always been an area in which Pixar has proved it’s more than just a company that makes cartoons. That’s what lifts Cars 3 above the instalments that proceeded it.
16. A Bug’s Life (1998)
Legend has it, that in the summer of 1994, Pixar’s core writing team – then comprising Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter and Joe Ranft – went for lunch. They talked about ideas for upcoming Pixar projects. By the time they’d split the cheque, they’d conceived the bare bones of Monsters, Inc., Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo. If you’ve wondered where the term ‘powerlunch’ came from, rumours have it this meeting bore that too. Like Woody and Buzz three years prior, the quartets thinking was that insects would be easy to animate due to their flat surfaces. The film remains a Pixar classic, despite looking pretty primitive compared to the company’s recent works.
15. Monsters University (2013)
At the time of its release, it felt like the follow up to 2001’s beloved Monsters, Inc. was a nod to the penchant for prequels and origin stories often seen in the superhero movies dominating the era’s box office. That felt lazy, not a word you’d normally associate with Pixar. Maybe that’s so, but in taking Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) back to their formative years, what Pixar actually achieved was showcasing its monstrous world in more breadth and more detail than the first film. Monster University is a film that didn’t raise the stakes Pixar has so consistently delivered. At the same time it proved to be a thoroughly joyful watch.
14. Incredibles 2 (2018)
Director Brad Bird is an animation legend – and his best film, 1999’s wonderful The Iron Giant, was made for Warner Bros., not Pixar. And yet even a man of Bird’s talents, a man formally schooled by the late Milt Kahl – one of Disney’s famous, pioneering Nine Old Men – couldn’t improve on the first Incredibles movie. Not that there’s much to be ashamed of there. The 2004 movie might actually be the best superhero movie ever made; certainly the best Fantastic Four movie in all but name. What the sequel is, mind, is a very good film, only lumbered with the pressure of bettering the first instalment.
13. Up (2009)
There’s no question that Up’s opening 10 minutes – in which the relationship of lifelong married couple Ellie and Carl is played out, from first kiss, to miscarriage, to lost dreams, ending with separation via death bed, via a succession of poignant, evocative, heartbreaking frames – is astonishing filmmaking. It’s a sequence that embodies everything film fans cherish so dearly about Pixar movies. It’s the reason why the film won Best Animated Feature (as well as being nominated in the Best Picture category, the first time a cartoon had been since Beauty and the Beast in 1991). But the rest of it? It’s pretty threadbare storytelling. Dug is great though.
12. Coco (2017)
Directed by Lee Unkrich, Coco was dogged by accusations of cultural appropriation. From the off, Unkrich was concerned whether he and his non-Mexican team were sufficiently qualified to tell a story which hung around that country’s Day of the Dead festival. A blunder occurred when, in 2013, with a view to future merchandising options, Disney made a clumsy approach to trademark the phrase ‘Día de los Muertos’. It resulted in over 21,000 people signing a Change.org petition claiming said trademark was “cultural appropriation at its worst”. It’s hard to argue otherwise. The actual movie though? One of Pixar’s very best within the modern era, with Unkrich’s fears allayed by the addition of noted Latino playwright Octavio Solis and former CEO of the Mexican Heritage Corp., Marcela Davison Avilesm, as cultural consultants. Oh yeah, and listen up. The ‘remember me’ scene? It’s just as heartbreaking as Up’s opening sequence. Drops mic.
11. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
“When we were making Toy Story”, director Pete Docter says of Pixar’s breakthrough, “everybody came up to me and said ‘Hey, I totally believed that my toys came to life when I left the room’. So when Disney asked us to do some more films, I wanted to tap into a childlike notion that was similar to that. I knew monsters were coming out of my closet when I was a kid. So I said, ‘Hey, let’s do a film about monsters.’” And so the brilliant Monsters, Inc. – a name that riffs on the child unfriendly 1960 gangster movie Murder, Inc. – was born. No two ways about it, Monsters, Inc. is classic Pixar, with all the usual themes – friendship, the curiosity of childhood, loss – on display. Want to hear something that will completely change your view of it, though? Bill Murray was almost cast as Sully!
10. Ratatouille (2007)
In many ways, the film for which director Brad Bird won his second Best Animated Picture Oscar for, is one of Pixar’s most formulaic. On the other, it’s one of its most beautiful and beguiling. Fittingly for a movie about a rat that wants to work a chief – Patton Oswald was signed up to play said rat, Remy, after Bird was impressed with his stand-up routines about food – it’s also impossible to watch without feeling hungry. Preparation for the film saw Bird interning at Thomas Keller’s famous The French Laundry restaurant. The dish Keller developed, confit byaldi, is even featured in the film.
9. Finding Dory (2016)
The sequel to 2003’s Finding Nemo achieved many distinctions. One of them is that it’s now impossible to hear Sigourney Weaver’s voice without grinning inanely. The other, is that it might be the most empathetic movie Pixar has ever made, a story which essentially asks viewers to try to understand each other more. The film – which sees Ellen DeGeneres returning as the titular Dory – came about after director Andrew Stanton (who’d long insisted he wasn’t fond of making a Nero sequel) rewatched the 2003 film as Pixar worked on a tenth anniversary 3D release. His role as a father influenced his decision to make the new film. “I started to think about how easily Dory could get lost and not find Marlin and Nemo again,” he said. “It’s almost like the parental side of me was worried.”
8. Inside Out (2015)
Another new Pixar movie, another Oscar for Best Animated Picture. But that hardly tells the full story about why Inside Out was such a revelation upon release. The film – noteworthy for being the first movie to feature no input from late Pixar co-founder Steve Jobs – began its development in 2010, whereupon director Pete Docter, upon noting changes in his daughter’s personality as she grew older, thought he’d like to make a movie about emotions and other neurological matters. He did the research, and Paul Ekman – a pioneering psychologist in the field of the study of emotions – and University of California Professor of Psychology Dacher Keltner were brought onboard. The result was a movie that dearly wanted viewers to understand more about themselves.
7. The Incredibles (2004)
We mentioned previously that The Iron Giant is perhaps Brad Bird’s best ever movie, but the fruits of his first outing for Pixar runs it close. It also led to the familial-superhero movie’s very conception. Released in 1999, The Iron Giant was a box office bomb. Bird, feeling washed up and middle-aged, desperately rolled the dice, revisiting an idea he’d first sketched out in 1993 when he was debating whether he could have a family and still achieve his professional goals. “Consciously, this was just a funny movie about superheroes. But I think that what was going on in my life definitely filtered into the movie,” he said. These days Bird makes live action movies, directing the George Clooney starring box-office bomb Tomorrowland in 2015. Time to pick up the pen and paper again, Brad.
6. Toy Story 4 (2019)
On one hand, Pixar’s most recent release is a completely pointless movie – the company’s flagship franchise having been wrapped up with devastating poignancy almost a decade ago. On the other hand, it would have been a travesty if another Toy Story movie hadn’t been made. This is an instalment as funny, heart-warming, weird and yet ultimately fulfilling as any movie in the franchise to date. And don’t get us started on the brilliance of new character Forky (voiced by Veep’s Tony Hale). This should really be the end now though. Probably. Perhaps. Don’t take our word for it, take that of director Mark Nielsen who told The Ellen DeGeneres show in May, “Every film we make, we treat it like it’s the first and the last film we’re ever going to make, so you force yourself to make it hold up. You don’t get in over your skis. Whether there’s another one? I don’t know. If there is, it’s tomorrow’s problem.”
5. Toy Story 3 (2010)
Quite amazingly, the third instalment in the series that defines Pixar Animation Studios, almost wasn’t a Pixar movie at all. According to the terms of Pixar’s initial seven-film deal with Disney, all characters created by the company were owned by the Mouse House. When that deal expired, and with Pixar and Disney miles apart in their negotiations to continue their relationship, Disney turned to in-house studio Circle 7 Animation (known derisively within the animation industry as Pixaren’t). Sense prevailed, the work Circle 7 had put in was binned, and it was Pixar who picked up the intended conclusion to Andy’s toys story. The result was deliciously melancholic. It was the perfect ending… or at least that’s what we thought at the time.
4. Finding Nemo (2003)
The list of honours to Pixar’s little clownfish’s name is quite remarkable. Sure, the company bagged their usual Best Animated Feature award, but at the time of release, the film was the highest-grossing animated film of all time, as well as the second highest grossing film of 2003 – earning a whopping $871 million worldwide. It’s also the best-selling DVD of all time, with over 40 million copies sold, and – until Toy Story 3 overtook it – the highest-grossing G-rated film ever. Why? Because it’s a film that’s 104 minutes of pure wonder.
3. Toy Story (1995)
In the beginning, there was a toaster. It starred in a short-animated movie released in 1987 called The Brave Little Toaster, based on the novel of the same name by Thomas M.Disch. The film told the story of anthropomorphic kitchen implements that came to life when humans weren’t around. John Lasseter pitched the short to Disney as a full-length feature. They fired him. And then there was a toy. It was made out of tin. After Lasseter secured funding from Steve Jobs to make the film, the tin toy starred in a Pixar short called – yup – Tin Toy. The film won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film at the 1998 Oscars. Disney wanted Lasseter back. He remained loyal to Jobs. And Pixar, as we know it, was born.
2. Toy Story 2 (1999)
The sequel to the film that started Pixar’s journey was supposed to be a direct-to-video release. After all, the main Pixar team were indisposed with A Bug’s Life. Then, when Disney executives Joe Roth and Peter Schneider viewed the story reels, they upgraded it to a theatrical release. Cool! New Toy Story movie, right? Not so fast. Pixar weren’t happy with the movie that Disney intended to put into cinemas. The story team redeveloped the entire plot in one weekend. What’s even crazier is that the scheduled release for the movie couldn’t be moved and the film had to be made – despite Pixar movies traditionally taking years – in just nine months! Oh, and get this, during that time, a Pixar animator, routinely clearing some file space, deleted 90% of the companies last two years of progress. Remember that the next time you fuck up at work…
1. WALL-E (2008)
In truth, any film in this list’s top five could have been number one. And any film in it’s top 10 would be the best movie most other animation studios have produced. But no, we’re going with the story of a solitary trash compactor robot on a future, uninhabitable Earth, who falls in love with a probe sent by the starship Axiom. Hey, we’ve all been there. The film was actually conceived as early as 1995, under the name Trash Planet, and yet wasn’t realised until almost 15 years later because director Andrew Stanton believed the animation processes required to make the movie didn’t exist yet. When the movie did arrive, it looked gorgeous, it told a story infinitely more human than its protagonist, it dealt with themes of loneliness and love with deft charm and wit. And, the first 30 minutes – told with no dialogue whatsoever – are even better than the Up opening. Picks mic up, drops it again.