Well…this won’t be controversial at all. In fairness, with a lineage as prestigious as Pixar’s 16-film run to date, the only possible ranking must be based on pure subjectivity. Ask anyone their favourite Pixar movie and you’ll have a long wait in store. These films have secured a firm place in popular consciousness that is all-but-unprecedented. They have defined countless childhoods over the last glorious 20 years of animated perfection, including that of your humble critic. After much deliberation and soul-searching, here is a highly subjective (one simply can’t stress this enough) ranking of the illustrious Pixar output…
16. Cars 2
The sole film in the studio canon that can be classified as wholly terrible, Cars 2 is hideously commercial cash grab the likes of which Pixar’s best are an essential antidote to. Their most merchandisable franchise has yet to produce a single interesting character, scene or even fleeting moment. Its primary success is in simulating the sensation of being marketed to for 90 gruelling minutes. Admittedly, at least partial redemption can be found in a single great gag: “Finn McMissile, British Intelligence” “Tow Mater, Average Intelligence”. That eye-wateringly silly joke is legally available on YouTube. Do yourself a favour: watch it, laugh, and never think about Cars 2 again. It’ll only do you harm.
When a film’s greatest weakness is a vacuity of its laborious sequel, it can’t be half bad, right? Although a leap above the second, Cars remains in the lower echelons of the studio’s filmography thanks to the wholly predictable and listless narrative it focuses on. The outline of every “selfish man learns the meaning of friendship” morality tale tinges an otherwise serviceable family vehicle. Besides, any film that establishes a character as nauseating as Mater to the world deserves the minimum respect available. Though not irredeemable by any means, it was aan early sign of Pixar’s momentary mid-2010s downturn.
14. The Good Dinosaur
Arlo, the titular Apatosaurus central to The Good Dinosaur, is cute. So is his human friend. Now you don’t need to see this belated misfire. A troubled production, bland characterisation and a complete lack of forward momentum prove that photorealistic animation will only take a film so far. By the painfully predictable conclusion, barely a single moment of engagement had been earnt. An unholy Ice Age/Lion King knock-off that would probably be far more bearable on mute.
Pixar’s largest deviation from formula is an admirable failure. A far more archetypal Disney princess story with a feminist twist, Brave lacks the studio’s usual emotional and formal resonance, instead relying on a charming mother-daughter relationship to progress the subversive action. The Scottish landscapes are breathlessly lovely, and the mature message of transcending tradition is an important one for the impressionable young audience. What betrays these good intentions, however, is an adamant refusal to employ its arsenal of interesting ideas into a story worth investing in. A decent effort; especially so given the significant departure it represents for the studio, just not one to dominate any discussions during or after its underwhelming release.
12. A Bug’s Life
Hot on the heels of the hugely imaginative Toy Story, Pixar’s second feature is a far less entertaining “Seven Samurai with bugs” than promised by that nutty pitch. Laboured with a bland protagonist and one-note (charmingly one-note, to be fair) villains, A Bug’s Life is thankfully bolstered by a hilarious ensemble of side characters of varying insanity. Personal favourites include the deliciously flamboyant caterpillar Heimlich and irritable pillbug twins Tuck and Roll. For a film based on a literal flying circus of bizarre insects, what is most disappointing upon rewatch is just how little of the originality on display in Toy Story translated to the follow-up. Inconsequential fun is the order of the day.
11. Monsters University
Monsters University boasts a wonderful voice cast (old favourites like John Goodman and Steve Buscemi are matched by newcomers Nathan Fillion and Helen Mirren), a likable story and the studio’s bravest final act to date. It has no right to be as freakishly solid as it is; the movie packs an emotional gut punch no-one anticipated from what is at face value, a useless endeavour. We already know how this prequel will end. The joy is in the terrific journey, not the destination. Easily the most underrated and misunderstood entry in the Pixar saga.
We have arrived at peak Pixar: a fantasia where loving craftsmanship, touching story and, in the case of Ratatouille, food porn thrive. It’s the kind of place that makes the further rankings almost impossible to finalise. Still, the show must go on, and Ratatouille (warm, witty and charming though it is) is the least of the Pixar masterpieces. In Remy and Linguini, director Brad Bird exploits an easy chemistry that form some genius moments of both physical and verbal comedy. The film version of a lazy Sunday afternoon, Ratatouille is a wonderful picture where the achingly sumptuous food is outshined by the pure imagination on display.
9. Toy Story 3
Alternate title: The One That Made Every Grown Man Cry. Toy Story 3 is Pixar at the height of their emotionally manipulative prowess. The narrative similarities between the second instalment are undeniable, but feel largely intentional. Old Pete, Jessie and Lotso’s mutual abandonments parallel each other to reveal the uneasy truth at the heart of these films: mortality. Impermanence has been a key theme Toy Story ever since Buzz Lightyear’s arrival over 20 years ago, and this would have made a graceful final chapter. Alas, production on Toy Story 4 is well underway. It seems not even perfection can last forever…
Next time: the classics of the classics. Oh boy.