Benjamin: Ranking Pixar’s 17 movies from worst to best
UPDATED: June 22, 2016 at 6:41 p.m.
There is no brand in the film industry, or dare I say any industry, that resembles Pixar’s success. For the last two decades Pixar has churned out hit after hit, making audiences of all ages laugh, cry and reflect on a funny little thing we call life. It’s had various levels of success, with some movies clocking in at pretty good, and others as masterpieces. With the recent release of Pixar’s “Finding Dory,” let’s take another look at this legacy of excellence from bottom to top.
Tier 3: The Very Good
#17: “Cars 2” (2011)
Despite producing a trilogy literally about toys, I truly think no Pixar film was as focused on toys as “Cars 2,” simply because the movie really only existed to sell them. The kiddos love their Lightning McQueen lunch boxes, so give the people what they want I suppose. Though obviously a cash grab, the dirty little secret is that “Cars 2” really isn’t bad, it’s just not really good. There’s nothing offensive about it, and it’s a nice little story with a nice little message that’s a fun spoof of spy movies, but ultimately nothing about it really pops. If “Cars 2” came from any other studio, no one would be offended by it, but there is simply just a higher standard for Pixar.
#16: “The Good Dinosaur” (2015)
There is a reason why they didn’t call it The Great Dinosaur. The movie is good, yes, but far from great. This movie was a difficult process for Pixar, as the release date was shuffled back and forth, scripts were endlessly rewritten and the whole film was recast months before the release. While all of these components tend to lead to a disaster, the fact this movie was passable speaks to the quality of Pixar. Ultimately, here is an example of style over substance. The animation was simply jaw dropping, but the story was just your typical kiddie movie. The movie was not offensive to a film fan, but just nothing I will remember.
#15: “A Bug’s Life” (1998)
Call it a sophomore slump. “A Bug’s Life” had the very difficult task of following “Toy Story,” which you won’t be seeing on this list for some time, and while the animation was certainly very impressive, nothing about this story in particularly stuck. The craftsmanship was top-notch, and this is a Pixar movie that the kiddos will enjoy, but ultimately it just hasn’t held up that well over time.
#14: “Brave” (2012)
The animators at Pixar spent over two years working on protagonist Merida’s hair in the film “Brave,” and if some of that effort was redistributed to the script, this might be higher up on the list. Once again, “Brave” gets points for the beauty of the animation, as some of the visuals were jaw dropping, but ultimately the story didn’t have anything new to say. It was a heartwarming story with a female protagonist, which is good, but this movie might have over-relied on its good-heartedness, while sacrificing the usual Pixar bite and cleverness.
#13: “Finding Dory” (2016)
Consider this a hot take, but I was thoroughly underwhelmed by Pixar’s newest efforts. The animation was splendid, no doubt, but I feel the film did not live up to its potential, and relied far too much on likable characters rather than presenting the audience with an engaging story and plot. “Finding Nemo” was just such a grand adventure, and here we’re just meandering around an aquarium. The film made me smile many times and was cute, but lacked the emotional punch and masterful storytelling we have become so accustomed to by Pixar. Maybe over the years my reception of the film will warm, but for now, we’ll consider it very good. While watching this, it really hit me I was watching a kids movie. Maybe I’m getting older, or this film was simply less sophisticated. Probably a little bit of both.
Tier 2: The Great
#12: “Cars” (2006)
Well, four movies in and we’ve already zoomed through the “Cars” franchise. Here’s the thing though: I actually think the difference between “Brave” and “Cars” is pretty sizable, and that “Cars” is really quite underrated. The movie is fast paced, exciting and has a ton of heart. You can tell the flick was made with a ton of love. It isn’t perfect, but it deals with some truly adult themes, and if you replace the cars in this movie with people, you have a pretty mature adult drama. It was not a game changer by any means, but it did continue Pixar’s tradition of making films that not only entertain audiences, but really made them feel as well.
#11: “Monsters University” (2013)
“Monsters University” is probably among Pixar’s silliest films, and while it might not have the punch in the gut emotion some of the other movies have, it really thrives on its unique brand of humor. Being in college has certainly made me appreciate the details of this film more, as “Monsters University” provides a scarily accurate (no pun intended) picture of the college experience. Additionally, for all of the humor, this film has one of Pixar’s most sobering messages — that we must accept that sometimes we’re just average.
#10: “Ratatouille” (2007)
Certainly one of Pixar’s most mature films, “Ratatouille” explores the idea of passion with eloquence and sophistication. I applaud Pixar for making their protagonist a rat that really isn’t cute. The film exudes intelligence, but I felt like there was simply something missing from it. This might be the rare case of Pixar being too mature for its own good, and while “Ratatouille” is a film that can really strike up interesting conversations about art and criticism, the film lacks a sort of heart and fun that has made Pixar thrive.
Tier 3: The Masterpieces (Yes, there are nine of them)
#9: “Toy Story 2” (1999)
“Toy Story 2” is a milestone because it introduced the now perfected technique of the Pixar cry: we sit down and expect a children’s film, and then we cry our eyes out, in this case with the especially heartbreaking song “When She Loved Me.” “Toy Story 2” is at the bottom of the masterpiece list simply because it really suffers the middle child syndrome of the “Toy Story” trilogy, and of Pixar as a whole. It was great on its own, yes, but it is simply in company that is superior. Sometimes this movie can get lost in the shuffle, and that is ultimately a shame because “Toy Story 2” is a heartwarming film that has an infectious sense of adventure.
#8: “Inside Out” (2015)
Here is an amazingly clever film that not only personifies emotion as a character, but also makes us think about emotion in life. I feel the film is less about a story, and more an extended metaphor about how our emotions control our lives. Thus, from a plot point of view I feel it can fall somewhat short, but all of those shortcomings are made up for in pure, raw emotion and extremely witty ideas.
#7: “The Incredibles” (2004)
Forget “The Avengers,” and dare I say forget “The Dark Knight,” because “The Incredibles” is one of the best superhero movies of all time. If this film were live action, we would be hailing it as an all time great action film. The good news is that the film was animated, so instead of hailing the action, we can hail the extreme amount of depth and heart this film possesses. Yes, this is a movie about superheroes, a great one at that, but more importantly, this is a film about family — how a family balances power, and how a family unit stays together. This is a film where the kids leave thinking about their superpowers, while parents leave thinking about their marriage. Additionally, this film has some of the best one-liners in all of the Pixar canon, with special recognition going to locating Frozone’s suit.
#6: “Monsters, Inc.” (2001)
Call me blinded by nostalgia, but I’ll always have a soft spot for this one. I remember seeing it in theaters, five years old, and for the first time ever, crying at a movie. This was a magical experience for me, as it really hit me with, “Wow. Movies can have this kind of effect.” I will never forget that experience, as I really think it was a defining moment in my relationship with cinema. “Monsters, Inc.” pulls at your heartstrings, but also has some truly hilarious moments. Additionally, the scene with millions of doors was downright revolutionary in terms of the prospects of animation. With everything said, this is more of a children’s film than anything, and though everyone can enjoy it, “Monsters, Inc.” is behind five other Pixar movies simply because it lacks the thematic depth that others possess, but it succeeds wildly in everything it sets out to accomplish.
#6: “Up” (2009)
This one was a toughie for me. If we are counting the first 10 minutes, this is hands down #1. I think the opening sequence of “Up” is maybe the most magical scene I’ve ever seen on film. With that said, the latter 90 minutes are great, but just not up to that truly special opening. So I think #5 is a good resting place for this extremely satisfying film, even if it’s a tad bit uneven simply because of the opening’s strength. The movie as a whole really is gorgeous though, and really speaks not only to the child in all of us, but to the old man inside of us as well. It makes us feel adventurous, but also reminds us that loving someone is the greatest adventure we can have in life.
#4: “Finding Nemo” (2003)
I remember seeing “Finding Nemo” in theaters in 2003 and just saying, “Wow.” 12 years later, and I think the 8 year old me hit it right on the head. To this day, I think “Finding Nemo” was Pixar’s most epic undertaking, from the grand scale of the ocean, to the perfect portrayal of the hero’s journey. This was a film that spanned Australia and took place in the largest possible setting, yet was a small and intimate story. We connected deeply to the characters, and rooted for them as if we have known them for years. I am cautiously optimistic to see what comes with the upcoming “Finding Dory,” but I know if it captures half of the magic and emotional intensity of its predecessor, it will be a grand addition to the Pixar legacy.
#3: “Toy Story 3” (2010)
In terms of raw emotion, “Toy Story 3” might take the cake. There is never a dry eye when you put this classic on, as we have a film that acknowledges the sorrow in life, but also the joy. The film really succeeds on so many levels: as a heart wrenching goodbye to characters we know and love, as a fun comedy, and as a genius spoof on old prison escape movies. The villains are despicable and the heroes are lovable, yet flawed. Simply put, “Toy Story 3” is everything a movie really should be, and it was the perfect end to one of cinema’s best trilogies.
#2: “Wall-E” (2008)
I remember “Wall-E” being the first Pixar movie that I wasn’t looking forward to that much. I mean, it was a robot that didn’t talk and was just cleaning. Could this work for 90 minutes? Oh did it work, and more. “Wall-E” is about a robot who cleans, sure, for 30 minutes, and those 30 minutes are absolutely captivating, despite not having really any dialogue. As the film progresses though, we receive a piece of cinema that not only shows one of the greatest love stories in the history of film, but also satirizes and criticizes the very nature of society’s existence, from consumerism to the environment. “Wall-E” tackles issues that are out of this world, yet makes them feel like they’re in the palm of our hand. It’s the perfect movie to watch with the person you love, on the planet you love.
#1: “Toy Story” (1995)
Is there any way this could not be No. 1? After all, without the success of “Toy Story,” none of these other films would even exist. “Toy Story” was the world’s first computer animated feature film, and truly set the bar for what this company could do. They create visuals with breathtaking, lifelike animation and stories that tug at our heartstrings and minds equally. This is a film that took a bunch of talking toys and made them family, and they stayed family for the next 15 years to follow. This was a film that talked to children, not down to them, just as children talk to toys, not down to them. I suggest you go back and watch this Pixar masterpiece, and though you’ll see growth in the animation techniques and the pacing of the storytelling, you will not be able to help but love this amazing, simple tale that started it all.
A previous version of this column was published on June 23, 2015. It has been updated to include “The Good Dinosaur” and “Finding Dory.”
Erik Benjamin is a television radio, and film major. If you want to talk movies he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published on June 28, 2016 at 12:01 am