Pixar: Ranked (part 1)
Pixar is the definitive Western animation studio; some would argue the definitive animation studio. Period. In their 28 years of existence, they not only invented computer generated feature length cinema, but they’ve perfected it as well. While not without misfires, Pixar has still more than earned their spot as the top name in animation. With the release of their 27th film, Elemental, it seemed like just the right time to reflect on one of the most influential film studios in the history of cinema. So without further ado, here are the first thirteen movies of my personal Pixar ranking.
#26: Cars 2 (2011) - dir. John Lasseter
It was never a question that this would land at the end. While I personally don’t find it to be the irredeemable disaster many see it as, I’d be lying if I called it a good film by any means. It’s Pixar’s first “toy commercial” film, and while it occasionally teeters on dumb fun, it’s mostly a hollow slog. Bad characters, repetitive humor, and a bizarre insistence on pushing a very inauthentic message about being yourself drag Cars 2 from a goofy spy adventure to a rather tedious experience. Not the worst in the world, but a very bad film, nonetheless.
#25: Cars 3 (2017) - dir. Brian Fee
For the longest time, I had Cars 3 below its predecessor, but at least Cars 3 tries something somewhat bold. Lighting McQueen’s aging storyline is nothing new, but as far as the Cars franchise goes, it might as well be written by Bergman. While Cars 2 is an obvious disaster, Cars 3 is a quieter version of bad. These big themes were not made for Cars, and it shows. It’s another toy commercial, but with the slightest tinge of storytelling to go along with it.
#24: Lightyear (2022) - dir. Angus MacLane
Lightyear is the most egregious of Pixar’s toy commercials, it’s canonically a toy commercial in the Toy Story universe. Lightyear is a sad film, not emotionally affecting, not by any means, but a sad display of corporate greed in a studio that once stood for the most creative minds in the industry. I prefer to see Lightyear as another example of Disney corporate influence leaking into Pixar. Lightyear is a forgettable movie with egregiously stupid storytelling that leaves your mind as soon as the credits roll. Its animation is nice to look at, but that’s the Pixar standard and it doesn’t save Lightyear from being a boring, disingenuous mess.
#23: Brave (2012) - dir. Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman
Brave stings the most as a Pixar misfire as it had arguably the most potential to be amazing. Rooted in fascinating Scottish lore and sporting a uniquely female perspective unfortunately unheard of for Pixar at the time, Brave could’ve something amazing. However, writer/director Brenda Chapman (of Prince of Egypt fame) was removed from the project and replaced by Mark Andrews over “creative differences”. The final product is clearly something with conflicting visions. Brave’s central issue for me is how it turns a great story into a generic children’s film with bad humor and spoon-fed messaging. Somewhere in Brave, there is a masterpiece, but due to ignorant corporate mishandling, what we’re left with is a largely forgettable family film.
#22: The Good Dinosaur (2015) - dir. Peter Sohn
The Good Dinosaur feels like a massive step in Pixar’s animation, but it doesn’t feel like much else. The Good Dinosaur tries but ultimately fails to stretch a simple story into something meaningful. It has a handful of impactful moments, and it looks absolutely gorgeous, but as a cohesive experience it falls flat. It’s not the worst movie ever made, but it’s not something that warrants any further viewings, or critical thought whatsoever.
#21: Cars (2006) - dir. John Lasseter
The best of the Cars franchise is still at the bottom of the Pixar list, but it’s still a good time. Cars is not a deep film, but it’s not trying to be. It almost functions as a hybrid sports movie and hangout movie, which is occasionally a really good time. Its simplicity is its greatest attribute as you get attached to the characters of Radiator Springs just by watching them vibe. The movie does overstay its welcome as it clocks in at almost 2 hours, but its earnest modesty makes it hard to hate.
#20: A Bug's Life (1998) - dir. John Lasseter
This animated adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai with bugs (that’s a real sentence) is better than it should be, but it’s still not that great. Any movie that attempts to follow up Toy Story so soon is bound to live in its shadow, and while A Bug’s Life certainly does, it’s not without its merits. It’s entertaining and its world building is a lot of fun. It’s not bursting with creativity like Toy Story, but it still demonstrates Pixar’s strengths in story and animation. Its weak protagonist and predictable story beats prevent A Bug’s Life from forming a real identity within the Pixar canon, but it’s not a bad time by any means.
#19: Finding Dory (2016) - dir. Andrew Stanton
Pixar’s run in the 2010s is unanimously considered the weakest era of the studio, and these needless sequels are the defining reason for that. Most, if not all these sequels are perfectly fine movies, but they can’t help but feel inconsequential in the larger scheme of the studio. Finding Dory is a perfect summation of everything right and wrong with these sequels. On the good side, it’s a sweet time with the return of beloved characters that in fleeting moments capture part of the magic of the original. On the bad side it feels like a weaker film that prefers to ride the nostalgia of the original than develop a meaningful story. Finding Dory loves to remind us of a better film opposed to being its own independent experience, a running theme of Pixar during this era.
#18: Incredibles 2 (2018) - dir. Brad Bird
Much of what I said for Finding Dory can be applied here too, but Incredibles 2 is just ever slightly more effective in being its own movie. Its issue is how forgettable it is, and how in its rush to recapture the original’s magic it becomes a disjointed experience. It feels like a sum of parts that never truly reach a comfortable rhythm. Large action scenes are strung together with a weak connective tissue of a story that makes the entire movie inconsequential. Not awful, but unneeded and another bitter reminder of a far superior film.
#17: Toy Story 4 (2019) - dir. Josh Cooley
To give credit where credit’s due, Toy Story 4 is way better than it has every right to be. While I still believe the franchise would be better off without it, it’s able to justify its existence with an interesting story. Woody’s internal conflict is a jarring shift from the other 3 entries, but it still functions as a meaningful extension of the character. Its ending is also extremely strong, not even close to the juggernaut conclusion of the 3rd film but still a loving sendoff to the characters, until the 5th decides to give it another shot, I guess. Toy Story 4’s biggest weakness for me is its balance as a sequel. Understandably it focuses on Woody as it is Woody’s story, but the abandonment of the classic ensemble cast in favor of newer, weaker characters leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the marketing was built around these new toys that were bound to sell to the younger generation. It comes across as a toy commercial with a sentimental core with even more of a toy commercial underneath, not bad, but unnecessary.
#16: Onward (2020) - dir. Dan Scanlon
Onward is a solid animated family adventure, but not something that really lives up to Pixar’s golden years. Onward’s disjointed narrative ends up sucking away a lot of the potential whimsy in the interesting world they set up. The adventure feels like nothing more than walking from spot to spot with a lesson explained every step of the way. It doesn’t naturally flow or progress, which is a shame because the various set pieces are bursting with creativity. The film also boasts one of Pixar’s finest emotional climaxes. The lead up is obvious and slightly watered down by the film’s transparent narrative beats, but it doesn’t destroy a very meaningful and impactful moment. Onward may be a lesser Pixar film, but it still exhibits the magic of the studio.
#15: Turning Red (2022) - dir. Domee Shi
Turning Red is a massive step up for representation in Pixar, and it’s a pretty great movie to boot. The most non-Pixar film the studio has ever made, but it’s those types of films that push the studio forward. It’s a bubbly, expressive story of a young girl’s experience with puberty that feels anything but ordinary. Turning Red is uncompromising, not willing to be any other animated children’s film, and as a result it builds an incredibly unique identity. The animation, humor, and heart are all phenomenal and serve a simple story about growing up. Turning Red was an unfortunately polarizing movie upon release, and I think that can be chalked up to people not being prepared for such an unabashedly feminine and exciting movie to come out of notoriously “boys club” studio. Hopefully, Turning Red is the beginning of a new era for Pixar that gives room for creative minds to let loose with effective personal stories.
#14: Luca (2021) - dir. Enrico Casarosa
I believe Luca will go on to become one of the most important features in Pixar’s catalog. After Pixar’s mixed run in the 2010s, Luca’s jarringly different tone paved the way for a new era for the animation studio. A low stakes story that focuses on the bond between two young boys in a beautifully animated Italian coastal town doesn’t strive for the highs of Pixar’s past, but that works to its favor. Its laid-back vibe helps develop the bond between the characters in a way that Pixar has never done in the past. It runs countercurrent to Pixar in every which way, but if there’s anything quintessentially Pixar, it’s being new, and Luca succeeds in every which way.
#13: Monsters University (2013) - dir. Dan Scanlon
Monsters University is unquestionably the most underappreciated work in the entirety of the Pixar canon. A common complaint lauded towards this is how it gives a backstory to a film that didn’t need one, and that’s true. However, Monsters University doesn’t exist in the shadow of Monsters Inc., it’s a wonderfully realized film that possesses a completely unique identity. The characters, new and returning, gel incredibly with the setting. The progression of the story is incredibly well done, and the unexpected ending is a shockingly mature route to go down, even for a studio as bold as Pixar. Monsters University is a film that has no right to be as good as it is, but through authentic, careful storytelling, it becomes one of Pixar’s best and a film I can only hope receives the critical revaluation it deserves.
Stay tuned for part 2 coming soon...