20 Years of Pixar: Ranking the Best, From ‘Inside Out’ to ‘Toy Story’

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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.

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Review: ‘Inside Out’

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In Inside Out, Pixar’s latest effort (and its best since Toy Story 3), writer-director Pete Docter wonders what those little voices in our head look like. More importantly, he wonders what they do. The film supposes that as we grow, so too do our emotions evolve. They may be as hesitant about change as we are, and sometimes they lose control when we need them most; but they remain an inextricable, unique part of our being.

By crafting a vibrant inner-world to off-set the all-too-realistic urban malaise of the outer, the marvelous Inside Out works on multiple levels: as an often hilarious and highly emotional journey for a set of emotions personified, and as a relatable, melancholy coming-of-age narrative for Riley, the girl whose mind we come to know intimately.

Even at its most hi-jink-filled—and the film does verge into hokey, jokey territory—Inside Out maintains a soulful, mature core energy, as Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), by way of Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith), learns that all emotions are valid, purposeful, and necessary.

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