(Minimal spoilerage for all Pixar films, reader beware)
In June of 2010, in the dark expanse of the Hadley, Massachusetts Cinemark, seven graduates of Amherst Regional High School cried like babies while watching a group of animated toys resign themselves to a fiery death.
Alright, if I’m being honest, I can’t remember if there were seven of us, or if it was June; but what I am absolutely certain of is the lingering emotional devastation that followed in the wake of my first viewing of Toy Story 3. Home for the summer after my second year of college, I was gut-punched by the decidedly “too close to home” resonance to the Lee Unkrich-directed masterpiece, one that captured the full spectrum of homesickness and desperation for change that had defined those first few post-high school years (all while remaining one of the funniest movies I had seen in ages).
“Pixar movies make you feel things” is as lukewarm a take as there has ever been. Still, whether because of my loose correspondence in age and timing of developmental milestones to Toy Story’s Andy, or because I am chronically susceptible to the emotional manipulation of movies of literally any quality, the vaunted animation studio has been a staple of my film consumption since as long as I can remember.
With the release of their latest installment, Luca, this felt as good a time as any to ignore Edna Mode’s indelible “I never look back, darling—it distracts from the now” maxim, and revisit some of the best and less-than-best Pixar installments. For ease of reading/digesting/slamming with reaction takes (and because this feels like the first night without the NBA in the past month), I’ve grouped films into the following loosely-basketball-themed categories:
- Role Players
- Bench Mob
- The Arvydas Sabonis “Never Saw It But Here Are My Takes Regardless” Award Winners
As always, we’ll hit them in reverse order:
THE ARVYDAS SABONIS “NEVER SAW IT BUT HERE ARE MY TAKES REGARDLESS” AWARD-WINNERS
–The Good Dinosaur (2015, dir. Peter Sohn)
–Onward (2020, dir. Dan Scanlon)
The MCU team-up that no one was waiting for.
–Monster’s University (2013, dir. Dan Scanlon)
–Cars 2 (2011, dir. John Lasseter)
No Paul Newman, no thank you.
-Cars 3 (2017, dir. Brian Free):
If you’re once, twice, three times a Cars film…I’m all good
THE BENCH MOB
19. A Bug’s Life (1998, dir. John Lasseter)
Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a top-ten-all-time hall-of-fame-worthy comedic actor, and A Bug’s Life’s inability to deploy her as anything other than a benign romantic interest sinks the film from the jump. Also, even in an animated film, the Kevin Spacey of it all is hard to ignore.
18. Cars (2006, dir. John Lasseter)
A rare “this doesn’t look good” Pixar movie, at least in its pre-Route 66 sequences. Despite some wonderful voice work (Paul Newman > almost everyone), Cars struggles to fully immerse you in its world in the way better Pixar films seem to do effortlessly. And while it’s important to at least consider the terms on which a film was made and the time in which it was created, watching Cars in the post-Trump era makes it nearly impossible to untangle its pseudo-populist messaging from its anti-corporate ideology, and the result is an even more difficult watch. The Ratzenberger post-credits scene raises the movie by a full star.
17. Brave (2012, dir. Brenda Chapman & Mark Andrews)
This movie is fine! Unfortunately, given the promise of its protagonist (cool Scottish archer with amazing hair! How can it go wrong?) and a fantasy-centric storyline form-fit for a LOTR nerd like myself, Brave ultimately only succeeds as heavy-handed mom-propaganda. But shouts to the first official Pixar butts!
THE ROLE PLAYERS
16. Toy Story 4 (2019, dir. Josh Cooley)
A near-impossible task to follow two of the greatest films in cinematic history, especially when one of them so perfectly closes the door on the preceding trilogy’s narrative. Nonetheless, Toy Story 4 is fun! The Bo Peep backstory is a wonderful narrative choice, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a Keanu Reeves performance I can’t find redeeming (@ me with those Lake House takes, I dare you).
15. Up (2009, dir. Pete Docter)
The first 10 minutes are an unparalleled, emotionally brutalizing cinematic achievement. The next 86 minutes exist. Nets out to a decent movie.
14. Luca (2021, dir. Enrico Casarosa)
Where Luca falls short in its emotional depth and narrative intrigue, it more than makes up with its legitimately astonishing animation. A strong, and thoroughly enjoyable (if not particularly memorable) addition to the catalog.
13. Monsters Inc. (2001, dir. Pete Docter)
I am as prepared for the roasting that this ranking will earn me as I am certain it won’t be the last one (buckle up, Pete Docter stans). I’ll own that in this case my opinion is based much more on a lack of personal connection than any qualitative assessment. Yet despite my longtime adoration of John Goodman, and my undying love of Boo, MI just never clicked with me the way many of its contemporaries did. That said—all-time final scene.
12. Finding Dory (2016, dir. Andrew Stanton)
Though it would be near impossible to bump Up out of the top spot, the opening ten of Finding Dory ranks astonishingly high on the fast-paced-heartbreak scale. The biggest hits against this sequel are the recycled parts of its superior predecessor, but ultimately I was surprised by how much of the film still landed for me. Gets a boost for facilitating a Sea Lion-themed Wire reunion, a laugh-out-loud Sigourney Weaver “cameo,” and otters.
11. The Incredibles 2 (2018, dir. Brad Bird)
At moments nearly as fun as the first (the Jack Jack vs. The Raccoon is top shelf stuff), but with an added dash of inconsistent pacing and predictable plot twists which prevent it from being as complete a movie.
10. Soul (2020, dir. Pete Docter)
There are moments in Soul that absolutely gutted me in a deeply personal way. There are moments in Soul that perfectly encapsulated my own experiences with performing music, better than almost any other on-screen rendition I had seen before. There are moments in Soul where the protagonist is a cat for thirty minutes and I still don’t understand why. It’s an imperfect film, hampered by its simultaneous dedication to its weighty concepts and its kids-film identity and an inability to gracefully thread the needle between the two (a sister to the next installment on the list in its “I wish this movie was as good as the idea of this movie”-ness)—but nonetheless, it’s on the upper end of the recent Pixar movies scale, and one I can imagine growing to love even more over time.
9. Inside Out (2015, dir. Pete Docter)
Part two of the “concept over execution” portion of the list, though one I think ultimately achieves more cohesion than Soul. That’s in no small part due to the phenomenal performances up and down the cast list, especially from Phyllis Smith as “Sadness.” Pete Docter’s ability to distill the nuances of complex emotional processes down into accessible animated metaphors embodies so much of what makes Pixar “Pixar” (even if I’m partial to other director’s approaches to the same task). Bing Bong’s sacrifice will never be forgotten.
8. Toy Story 2 (1999, dir. John Lasseter)
From its Buzz Lightyear-themed opening to the introduction of Bullseye and Jesse (Joan Cusack over any and everyone, always), to the Rockem Sockems, to fake-Real Buzz, to Buster acting casual, Toy Story 2 is jammed packed with some of the studio’s best bits. While it doesn’t pack the nostalgia impact of the original or land the emotional sucker punch of its follow-up, TS2 remains one of the stronger Pixar films, and certainly one of the best sequels in their stable.
7. Finding Nemo (2003, dir. Andrew Stanton)
A strong pairing with Up and Coco in the grief-centric Pixar pantheon, and a decidedly better movie than the former. Also one of the funnier non-Toy-Story films in the studio’s history. Nemo seems to have slid in many people’s estimation over the past years, but to me remains one of the strongest just-shy-of-all-time-classic Pixar movies.
6. Ratatouille (2007, dir. Brad Bird)
A “Nate-is-late-to-the-party” all-star, and one just barely on the outside of the top tier of Pixar films in my estimation. Excels in that essential “immersing you in a fully realized world” area that defines all the best Pixar flicks. “Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
5. Wall-E (2008, dir. Andrew Stanton)
Wall-E’s relatively low position rounding out the Hall of Famers is as much a product of my belated introduction to it as it is the following four films’ unimpeachable brilliance. Somehow, I missed this absolute classic in 2008 when it arrived, and only first saw it this past year, so I imagine after a few more viewings it could rise even higher up the list. As it stands, this may be the most innovative and intellectually challenging Pixar film, as visually gorgeous as it is scathing in its critique of wasteful consumerism. Even in writing about it, I feel it eying a jump up the rankings, but unfortunately, it has to contend with…
4. Toy Story (1995, dir. John Lasseter)
More of a fact of life than a film. Impossible to not take for granted, both for its innovation, its humor, and its heart. Honestly embarrassed for myself that it’s this low. As funny and as haunting (shouts to Syd’s crib) now as it was at six years old. It frequently swaps positions with…
3. Toy Story 3 (2010, dir. Lee Unkrich)
Yes, no movie is more of a guarantee to send me spiraling into a deep pit of nostalgic existentialism, and yes, no film feels more inseparably tethered to the arc of my progression from childhood to young adult to adulthood—but ultimately, it is and will always be about Mr. Tortilla Head. A top-five comedic bit of the last two decades, minimum.
2. The Incredibles (2004, dir. Brad Bird)
The only successful on-screen rendition of The Fantastic Four to date, and on the shortlist of GOAT-contending superhero movies. Hillary Swank stole Holly Hunter’s Oscar, and we would all like it back.
1. Coco (2007, dir. Lee Unkrich)
I have watched Coco eleven times. I have cried more than eleven times while watching Coco. The perfect distillation of every essential Pixar quality: unbearably gorgeous animation rendering a fully realized world, endless amounts of humor, and an unparalleled willingness to confront themes of love and loss and regret head-on without ever becoming consumed by them.
Perhaps most impressive, Coco manages to pull off the all-too-often-misguided “the song you are about to hear is the greatest song in the world” maneuver in three distinct (yet completely believable) iterations, each more impactful than the last. I’m hard-pressed to imagine another film taking the mantle from Coco anytime soon; but if Pixar has taught us anything, it’s that you never know when the next classic is coming.
You can find Nate’s full Pixar rankings on his Letterboxd, and can catch his friends Zach and Chris yelling at him about his choices on the upcoming Pixar-themed episode of the trio’s podcast Burritos and Other Less Important Things