Pixar is an institution. There’s no doubt about it. The animation studio, arguably the most successful branch of the all-powerful Disney enterprise, just released its fifteenth film in twenty years, and most of those have been commercial and critical smash hits.
Beginning with Toy Story, winding through A Bug’s Life and Monsters, Inc., serving up some Ratatouille, all the while working hard to find Nemo, and chugging past Wall-E and Up, the Pixar brain trust have shared their collective Trains of Thought (a la 2015’s Inside Out) with the world. And oh, what a journey it has been.
The technology has improved exponentially, leading to ever-more visually arresting imagery, and surely a greater return on the complex, creative visions of Pixar’s directing team. The stories, too, have developed, and at their best they are evocative explorations of issues faced by viewers young and old alike. The best part? With a heavy slate of original films on the way—including The Good Dinosaur this Thanksgiving—Pixar’s engine is far from burnt out.
While many are apt to take on the entire Pixar canon when doing a subjective ranking, it seems to me an overwhelming task. Instead, I’d like to take a look at what I call top-tier Pixar. For me, these are the absolute best films that this illustrious studio has crafted. No, you won’t find Up here, or Toy Story 2, and it’s simply because they didn’t strike me the way others have (though they each contain particularly emotional, satisfying passages). What you will find is a list of seven incredible films that rank as some of the best of the past twenty years. Whether they follow small fish in a massive ocean, or larger-than-life superheroes, or even sewer-dwelling rats, Pixar has invested these films with thematic heft and visual splendor beyond what most others achieve, animated or otherwise.
Let’s not dilly-dally any longer…
7. Toy Story
The one that started it all. A close look inside the lives of the toys who litter our bedroom floors, and also a meditation on the power of being (un)wanted, Toy Story made a huge impression on me as a young child. Not only were the visuals cutting-edge, but the story—particularly an upsetting plot line involving Sid, the sadistic, misunderstood toy-killer—struck me even then as a cut-above. To make sense of the difficulties of adolescence, and, now that I’m living it, adulthood, through the adventures of Woody and Buzz Lightyear is no easy task, but the level of achievement is superb. Can anyone listen to “You’ve Got A Friend In Me” and not well up?! Toy Story may have been surpassed in concept and technical execution in years since, but it remains an animated classic, and a forebear to the wildly creative, richly emotional worlds Pixar has dared to bring to life.
6. The Incredibles
I recently re-watched this Brad Bird masterpiece and, as is typical with Pixar films, found much much more to admire as a 23-year-old than I had as a pubescent middle schooler. Though The Incredibles still stands as a fantastic action film—and certainly one of the best modern superhero films—it also contains a melancholy core of dissatisfaction with the drudgery of menial, everyday life. In its exploration of marital woes, parenting difficulties, and traffic jam tedium, not to mention the throes of adolescent awkwardness faced by the film’s teens, this film is downright depressive in some ways. Of course, there are some very cool superpowers in the mix to lighten things up, as well as a sinister villain in Syndrome (Up should take some notes) and a spectacularly retro design throughout. It may not be the biggest tearjerker of the Pixar slate, but The Incredibles is superb entertainment, succeeding at hyper-activity and familial pathos in a big way.
P.S. – Edna Mode is arguably the best supporting/guest character in any Pixar film; a truly wonderful delight!
5. Inside Out
With Inside Out, Pixar delves into the mind of one of its target audiences: the pre-pubescent adolescent. Out comes one of the studios most emotionally-satisfying, nostalgic pieces, an ode to the idyllic bliss we all leave behind when the realities of growing up sink in. A stellar voice cast personifies the emotions inside 11-year-old Riley’s brain, with Amy Poehler’s Joy and Phyllis Smith’s Sadness sharing MVP-status for their diametrically-opposed but wholly-necessary pairing. Pete Docter and team create one of the most visually appealing, abstract environments in a Pixar film to date, imagining the basic functions of our brain as a fun house—sometimes bright, sometimes nightmarish—of epic proportions.
By balancing not only Sadness and Joy’s journey through Riley’s mind, but also the girl’s experience of a new home (her parents move her from Minnesota to San Francisco), the script deftly maneuvers the give-and-take of emotional response. Through it all, Inside Out posits that it isn’t just humans that evolve throughout life, but also the little voices in their heads.
4. Toy Story 3
Of all Pixar films, this one really hit me at the right moment, folks. Picture it: the summer before heading off to college, I go to a movie theater in Charlotte, NC with my mom and my boyfriend, survive Woody, Buzz, and other favorites nearly dying a fiery death, and then watch from a toy’s-eye-view as Andy heads off for college himself, forever closing a chapter of his young life. How could I not be consumed by tears?!
Toy Story 3 proved once more that Pixar really can do sequels right—though Cars 2 may suggest otherwise—by cashing in on our emotional investments and adding a new thematic layer of abandonment. This time the toys wind up in a daycare center by mistake, and director Lee Unkrich mines the premise for all the comedy its worth; a horrific playtime scene filled with screaming tots nearly as nasty as Finding Nemo‘s Darla is a highlight. But when one toy becomes a villain, and others believe Andy has left them behind forever, the emotion switch is flipped on and we can’t help but ponder the moments in life when we’ve felt most alone. A feat of visual storytelling the first two couldn’t hope to approach, and a film that feels as though it evolved right alongside me, Toy Story 3 is a marvel.
3. Finding Nemo
This is where things get really tough, y’all. From here on out, this ranking is essentially a three-way tie for first place, with only my first-time viewing experience really edging two and then one out ahead of the others…
Finding Nemo is easily one of Pixar’s most beautiful films, committing a churning, deep blue sea to screen, along with a striking cast of multi-colored characters. It also has, definitively, Pixar’s best voice acting, courtesy of never-better turns from Albert Brooks as the perpetually worried clownfish Marlin and Ellen Degeneres as the frantic, forgetful Dory (thankfully getting her own sequel!). The film is, in essence, a classic two-hander road movie, as Marlin and Dory journey through the South Pacific in search of little Nemo, netted by a scuba diving dentist and deposited in a salt water tank at his office in Sydney. There’s plenty of time for adventure, danger, and, of course, humor—the film delivers on each, providing genuine tension and belly laughs in equal measure—but Finding Nemo excels most in its touching and unique narrative, emphasizing the pain, for both child and parent, that comes from growing up. It is unsurprising that Pixar would reach so deep in their family-friendly fare, but the sheer perfection of Finding Nemo‘s execution plants this one firmly in the upper echelon of the studio’s work.
I saw Ratatouille for the first time on a butterfly-filled date in high school, so that certainly gave this film—honestly one of Pixar’s least kid-friendly, quick-paced outings—a rosy, romantic tint. But on second, third, and fourth viewings, Pixar’s story of a culinarily-inclined French sewer rat named Remy holds up as a gorgeous, funny, and moving tale of self-actualization. When Remy gets separated from his rat family, he is taken in by Linguini, a new, and poor-performing line cook at one of Paris’s finest restaurants, Gusteau’s. Linguini quickly learns of the rat’s skill in the kitchen, and they become a team…until things go wrong for both of them.
Overcoming the difficult task of making food appear and sound delicious on screen, directors Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava dig in, reveling in moments of eating with shows of abstract color and Remy’s vivid descriptions. Other marvelous touches include Peter O’Toole’s deep-voiced and droll performance as villainous restaurant critic, Anton Ego and occasional appearances by the lively, obese ghost of Gusteau himself. But as much as Ratatouille succeeds in its storytelling, its rapturous score, and its scrumptious visuals, it ultimately sings because it rewards its characters for embracing their unique talents and differences. Inter-species friendships have rarely been rendered so vividly as they are here!
Ah, Wall-E! Perhaps the strangest Pixar movie to date, Wall-E is a largely silent dystopian story of a trash-compacting robot and his longing for companionship, set (at the start) in what remains of our decimated Earth-bound environment. Taking a stand against large corporations and box stores, and with a keen awareness of our planet’s dire environmental state, Wall-E is, on one level, a truly political film. On the entertainment side, however, is the most endearing, relatable character Pixar has ever created: a doe-eyed, scuffed-up, odd-bodied little robot, with a palpable loneliness and fascination with all things human.
When Eve, a white, egg-shaped robot, comes to Earth to scan for signs of life—ultimately finding a plant amongst Wall-E’s hoarded stash of goods—Wall-E becomes smitten (though whether we should call their relationship romantic or not is up for interpretation). When a space ship comes to collect Eve and the plant, Wall-E tags along, going on an interstellar adventure more picturesque and delicate than we’ve ever seen before. Once aboard the Axiom, a ship containing all remaining human life, Wall-E discovers that humans have become fat, baby-like creatures, barely capable of raising a hand let alone walking. They are fed, transported, and bathed by machines, until Wall-E and Eve join together to make them realize that life on Earth may just be possible.
The film is simply breath-taking. Its plot verges into generic territory at times, but with animation this stunning, and characters this purely wondrous to be around, Wall-E is a treasure. Factor in Thomas Newman’s playful score, the daringly sparse screenplay by writer-director Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon, and a story that resonates on political and emotional levels, and you’ve got a bonafide classic.
I mean, just look at this trailer:
Curious about how I’d rank Pixar’s other films? Here’s a vague idea: 8) Toy Story 2, 9) Monsters, Inc., 10) Up, 11) Cars, 12) Brave, 13) A Bug’s Life, 14) Monsters University, 15) Cars 2
What are your favorite Pixar films? Let me know in the comments below!