There are no film studios that inspire such fervent loyalty as Pixar. Since 'Toy Story' in 1995, the Disney-owned company has consistently raised the bar when it comes to animation, pumping out masterpieces (and a dud here and there) on the regular. To look at the complete Pixar filmography is to look at a list of some of the best movies released in the past twenty years.
With 'Monsters University' opening this Friday, it's time to place all 14 of Pixar's feature films (and their many short films!) side-by-side and see which ones come out on top. Which Pixar film is the best? Which one is the worst? Well, let's take a look...
Oh, boy. Where to start? Outside of the typically fantastic animation, there is nothing in the crass, loud and obnoxious 'Cars 2' that feels remotely like a Pixar movie. If anything, it feels more like a (gasp!) DreamWorks Animation project! With an emphasis on action and jokes above all else, this sequel-no-one-asked-for is a shrill mess that feels dialed down to the lowest common denominator. For small children who love 'Cars' toys, this is fine, but for the more discriminating Pixar fan? Ugh.
Okay...what went wrong here? 'Brave' has an indelible premise (princess wants to choose her own future), a fantastic setting (medieval Scotland) and a delightful first act (which culminates with the archery competition that was all over the trailers). And then it all goes downhill faster than you can say "magic bear transformation." With the introduction of a mercilessly unfunny witch, 'Brave' grows smaller, weirder and less funny by the moment, trading in the faith earned from the first half hour for bad jokes and a left-field story that shouldn't have made it past the development stage. Ouch. This one hurt, Pixar.
'A Bug's Life' is fine. But that's just it. It's fine. It's perfectly pleasant and you could put it on for your children and they'll be perfectly entertained, but it lacks the depth and the ideas that would come to characterize the Pixar name. As it stands, it's a charming riff on 'The Three Amigos' starring a bunch of cute bugs. It never really gets much deeper or more interesting than that.
There's a fine line when it comes to anthropomorphizing inanimate objects and 'Cars' tramples all over it. Although toys and robots survived the process under Pixar's watchful eye, the cast of automobiles seen here never stops being, well, a little creepy. Although the film isn't as bad as its reputation suggests (leave that noise for the sequel), its ultimately a tired story of a city boy learning to love the country...starring a bunch of really unnerving cars.
Any discussion of Pixar's work would be incomplete without mentioning their 23 short films, which range from sublime to forgettable. Although the earliest shorts feel more like tech demos than anything else, Pixar really began to hit its stride with two Oscar-winners: 'Gerri's Game' and 'For the Birds.' From there, they created slapstick masterpieces ('Presto'), delightful riffs on common images ('Lifted') and astonishing experiments ('Day and Night'). There are definitely a few duds in the bunch ('Boundin' and 'La Luna' come to mind), but even the weakest of them showcase Pixar's technical wizardry.
'Monsters University' is a really good movie, but it's also a slight one, telling a fairly conventional "snobs versus slobs" college story. As fun and heartwarming as the film can get, it's a little disappointing to see the studio treading on such familiar ground when it's reached for (and grasped) such unique heights before. Still, the early adventures of Mike and Sully make a nice if minor addition to the Pixar filmography, particularly the final half hour, which elevates the entire thing from simple comedy into something more honest, heartbreaking and hopeful.
It's a testament to how many great movies Pixar has made that a movie as good as 'Finding Nemo' ranks so low on this list. After all, what's not to like? You've got Ellen Degeneres and Albert Brooks bringing humor and depth to two cartoon fish. You've got stunning animation that brings the undersea world to life in both a realistic and beautiful fashion. You've got a compelling story about fathers and sons and learning when to let go and when to hold on a little tighter. Yep, 'Finding Nemo' is a terrific movie...it just happens to have a surplus of amazing company.
Although the early CG animation is often shockingly crude by modern standards, the first 'Toy Story' film delivers where it truly counts: story and characters. Every great Pixar movie has its roots here. Every unique, memorable Pixar character exists because they got away with it here. Every surprisingly complex and thoughtful Pixar story came to be because they got away with it here. However, simply saying that 'Toy Story' led to other great movies would be underselling what a terrific experience this film really is. Eighteen years after its release, most animated movies aren't half as interesting, thoughtful or funny as 'Toy Story,' which transforms a cowboy doll and a space ranger action figure into two of the most indelible characters in all of cinema.
'Wall-E' is a film of two distinct halves, with the second half simply not quite living up to the first. That's not to say the latter half of Pixar's thoughtful sci-fi adventure is bad. On the contrary, the second half of 'Wall-E' is filled with scathing and brutal satire that seems to be directly targeting the consumer culture that fills Disney's coffers every year. However, the first half is just something truly special. Could we have watched an entire film of an adorable trash-compacting robot exploring a desolated Earth and falling in love with a more advanced 'bot? Probably not...but those early sequences are some of the best scenes Pixar has ever made.
If you claim to have sat through 'Toy Story 3' and not shed a single tear, you are either a liar or a soulless monster. The grand conclusion to the saga that got Pixar started in the first place, 'Toy Story 3' is a bit less exciting than the first two films but a lot more emotional, wringing every possible drop of pathos out of Woody, Buzz and the gang. If there's one real problem with this film, it's that it relies on your emotional attachment to the past two films to work as well as it does, which means that it doesn't function as well on its own as many of Pixar's other triumphs. But let's face it: why the heck would you be watching 'Toy Story 3' without having seen the first two films?!
Remember how you cried like a baby at 'Toy Story 3'? Well, just remember that you cried like a baby at 'Toy Story 2' first. More gorgeously animated than the first film and more action-packed than the third, 'Toy Story 2' is the best and most well-rounded film in the trilogy. Like the best Pixar movies, the film hides some weighty issues under its adorable exterior, forcing its cast of living toys to deal with issues of abandonment and identity. The fact that it's effortlessly charming and hilarious while giving its heroes existential crises is evidence that some kind of divine providence was involved in the making of this movie.
'Monsters Inc.' is a clever and very funny movie that upends typical childhood fears in an delightful way...until the second half, where it becomes a different beast altogether. After luring you in with awesome monsters, witty humor and the cutest animated kid of all time, the film drops the hammer and reveals itself to be a story of corporate malfeasance, political corruption and the importance of energy conservation. After 45 minutes of watching our heroes live in a broken world, the second half of the film finds them doing everything in their power to change it. It's these sudden, massive stakes that elevate 'Monsters Inc.' into one of the most fascinating and ambitious films in the Pixar canon, a quietly subversive and honest look how systems can break societies and how people can work together to make the world a better place.
First and foremost, 'The Incredibles' is probably the best superhero movie ever made. Forget about 'The Avengers' or 'The Dark Knight' -- this completely original universe with its completely original superheroes runs laps around all of the old standbys. A visceral action film with a sweet, gooey center, 'The Incredibles' finds time for plenty of touching moments amidst all of the beautifully choreographed action, making it the rare family film to actually have a compelling story about a family. If there's anything particularly wrong with 'The Incredibles,' it's that its theme of "don't let anyone hold you back" can feel downright Rand-ian at times, but any animated superhero movie that has the potential to open up conversations ranging from Jack Kirby to Objectivism is doing something fairly astonishing.
Like 'The Incredibles,' 'Ratatouille' revolves around some surprisingly complicated ideas. What appears to be a cute story about a rat who wants to cook eventually reveals itself to be a treatise on responsible arts criticism, a defense of quality and good taste, a dissection of social/class boundaries and a call-to-arms for the talented-but-unknown masses. What really makes 'Ratatouille' special is how it wraps all of these ideas into a fun, simple and often downright weird package. Movies about talking animals shouldn't be this oddball or inspire this much conversation, but leave it to Pixar to make it all work.
Let's not beat around the bush here. 'Up' isn't just the best Pixar film, it's one of the best animated movies of all time. It's perfect. Blending old school adventure and gentle observational humor, 'Up' finds the perfect middle ground for both of Pixar's audiences. The kids will appreciate the hilarious animals and the exciting action while the adults will be profoundly moved by what the film has to say about parenthood, love and a life well-lived. Everything Pixar has ever aspired to be and every story it has ever wanted to tell feels like it climaxes here. 'Up' speaks volumes for every age group, managing to be enthralling without a single moment of cynicism or negativity. This is an incredible film.