Earlier this month Walt Disney released Finding Dory on home video and if history is any indication it’s sure to be in many stockings this Christmas. The Pixar sequel was a solid addition to the animation giant’s library; a library that has seen many hits and only a few misfires. With over twenty years of films now in the books, there’s a whole generation of fans who have only lived in Pixar’s world. Naturally there is great disagreement about which is best, so let’s settle the issue once and for all.
Since it’s certainly impossible to create a list that everyone would agree on, it might be easier to group the films into categories. Pixar movies tend to fall into one of four types: Every now and then they release a dud; it happens (pobody’s nerfect). Just as occasionally (although it was more common in their early years) do they release a movie that is transcendent and deserves its place in the pantheon. In between are the movies they usually release: Movies that are almost great but one little thing holds them back, or movies that are great, with great stories, moments and style. They’re not revolutionary, but they’re delightful nonetheless. Other production companies would kill to have their median movies be so well-received.
But first, they aren’t all hits…
Cars 2, and really the whole Cars franchise, is Pixar’s “necessary evil.” The amount of cash the franchise brings in from toy sales is so astronomical it would be more than bad business to ignore it; it would be financial malpractice. Pixar mastermind (and now head of all of Walt Disney Animation) John Lasseter has all but said that the franchise exists solely to sell toys. And before anyone sticks their noses in the air and condemns such naked capitalism, remember that without the Cars movies, Pixar would not have the financial freedom to create toy-depraved movies like Ratatouille or Inside-Out. If your only concern is that Cars 2 is so bad it stains the almost-perfect record of Pixar, relax: If even Pixar itself doesn’t mind, neither should we. All that said, however, doesn’t change the fact that Cars 2 is simply a bad movie. Its biggest crime is that it is dumb. Its plot is preposterous, its screenplay a joke, and its humor inane. Skip the movie, buy the toys.
The Good Dinosaur is unusual in the whole library of Pixar in that it is basically the only film they ever released that was ignored from the very beginning. You can criticize Cars 2 but you can’t deny it was everywhere. It didn’t make a lot of money, but its presence was felt because Disney put their marketing muscle behind it. With The Good Dinosaur, the film was quietly released, flopped and was quietly pulled from theaters, never to be seen again. The production was troubled, with creative forces quitting or being forced to quit through much of the early stages of development. Other Pixar projects had troubled beginnings and many of them were scrapped entirely; only Brave and Ratatouille managed to endure. The Good Dinosaur was given a chance, but audiences rejected it, making it Pixar’s lowest-grossing film thus far. The visuals are mostly beautiful (except for the odd decision to make the characters cartoonish while making the environments photo-realistic) but the story is boring and the main character is often unlikable. Cars 2 was understood for what it was, but The Good Dinosaur is just a flat-out bomb by a studio that had, to that point, seemed incapable of slipping up to such a degree.
Cars is not as bad as Cars 2. In fact, to compare the two, the original Cars is very watchable. It still has a lot of the same problems as its sequel, but there’s more earnestness to this one; it’s as though the creators here were actually trying to make a good one (whereas Cars 2 was just a cash-grab). The plot is terribly banal though; it’s Doc Hollywood on wheels. There are moments to enjoy, however: The retro soundtrack and Route 66 motif are charming, but when it tries to be an actual movie it stumbles. It’s not terrible, but it’s not particularly good and when compared to the rest of the library, it belongs near the bottom of the ladder.
THE ALMOST GREAT ONES
Monsters University isn’t bad at all and really it’s perfectly fine. But there’s nothing about the movie that makes you understand why it was made in the first place. With Cars 2 you can immediately understand why it was made. With Monsters Inc. there wasn’t a big toy line to create or exploit (although a line of plush toys based on the monsters could have worked), but the film was so great it justified its existence on that point alone. Monsters University is another sequel/prequel to a great movie that no one demanded before it was announced, looked forward to as its release approached, or cared much about when it finally debuted. It didn’t do poorly in theaters (it made less than the 2001 original in the US, but made more in the expanded foreign market) but reviews were tepid. There’s not a lot to hate, but there’s not a lot to love either. It’s a film that was made because Disney’s agreement with Pixar now necessitates at least one franchise movie for every two original films. Expect more films like it more often.
Brave comes at a point in Pixar’s history where the studio was perceived to be stumbling. Cars 2 had been a critical bomb and Monsters University had just been announced. Meanwhile Dreamworks Animation found a hit with How to Train Your Dragon and Walt Disney’s home studio was making a comeback with Tangled and Winnie the Pooh scoring big and the upcoming Wreck-it-Ralph drawing lots of excitement. Pixar suddenly was no longer little miss perfect, so when they released Brave it wasn’t met with the same goodwill that other films had been. The Scottish setting, hard-to-summarize plot, and female protagonist all worked against it from a marketing standpoint. The movie made slightly more than Cars 2 in the US but actually made less overall worldwide. Reviews were stronger but not overwhelmingly positive. It was almost as if critics were expecting to be disappointed because that was the narrative that was building around the company at that time. Give the movie a chance and you’ll find it a heartwarming fairy tale with some unorthodox twists and turns. It’s not a story that is easily explained in 90 seconds, but it is well told in 90 minutes.
A Bug’s Life had the unfortunate distinction of the being the Pixar movie to follow Toy Story. Its biggest criticism is that most forget it even exists. That’s what happens when you’re sandwiched between Toy Story and Toy Story 2. In fact, just looking at the lineup of early Pixar films, it’s almost unfair to be A Bug’s Life. What followed was Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. That’s a run that no studio has yet to top. A Bug’s Life doesn’t measure up to any of those movies but that doesn’t make it bad. It’s actually quite good, with the kind of plot that was to that point unseen in an animated movie. It’s not going to blow you away, but if you give it a chance it’s very likely to entertain you.
THE GREAT ONES
Finding Dory came along at just the right time. If it had switched places with Monsters University, it might have been met with a collective shrug and MU might have received bigger acclaim. Finding Dory was announced after Inside-Out restored public faith in the company (in between was The Good Dinosaur, which, again, everyone sort of pretended never happened). Having said that, Finding Nemo was a much bigger hit than Monsters Inc. and become much more of a home video staple for the company than any other non-Toy Story property. So maybe a Finding Nemo sequel was always destined to do big money. Still, it didn’t hurt that Toy Story 3 told everyone that Pixar could make a sequel that lived up to the predecessor. With Finding Dory they basically did. The movie of course doesn’t equal the greatness of its forebearer, but it is still a genuinely entertaining and heartwarming (and occasionally heartbreaking) movie. I rated it an 8/10 upon release but most probably would mark it a notch higher. It currently stands as the biggest hit the company has; a crown it is likely to wear until Toy Story 4 makes a run at it in 2019.
Up is rightly praised and many Pixar fans rank it among the very best, but most of the acclaim is centered on the opening montage. Granted, that opening montage is a masterclass in tugging the heartstrings, but the rest of the movie is a little too by the book and conventional to be fairly slotted in the upper echelon of the library. Beyond the movie’s opening, the movie deserves acclaim for being a “kid’s movie” (as most—wrongly—tend to think of animated films) whose main character is an old man. The action is frenzied and the emotional beats resonate but there’s little to really wow you after the initial quarter-hour.
Monsters Inc came along after Pixar had scored two huge hits named Toy Story and one not-so-hit named A Bug’s Life. It was reasonable for some to wonder if Pixar was a one-note company but with Monsters Inc they proved they had a deep bench of creative minds capable of taking stories and visuals to places they’d never been before. The film was one of the four that the early gurus of Pixar scribbled onto a napkin while brainstorming ideas for what would follow the original Toy Story. The premise is so simple you wonder why it was never explored before: “The monsters in your closet are real, and they’re terrified of you.” Pixar’s real gift has never been in clever ideas, however; it’s always been in the heart they put into their films. Sully’s relationship with Boo made the movie what it was and ensured that Pixar was a movie maker that brought the whole family to the screen. Anyone can make a stupid kids movie with fart jokes and talking cars, but to make a movie that makes grown men cry ensures a lifetime of repeat business.
Ratatouille is a movie that should not have worked. All the signs pointed to a failure: The production saw massive rewrites, the director changed hands mid-way through, and film never really had commercial appeal apart from the burgeoning Pixar brand name. And while the final product was actually the lowest grossing Pixar movie since A Bug’s Life, the critical acclaim kept the aforementioned Pixar brand a hot commodity. Director Brad Bird likes to say “animation is not a genre, it’s a style. You can tell any kind of movie in animated form.” Despite that, most animated movies tended to be “kiddie fare.” With Ratatouille—and it’s French background, music and story—Bird proved his idea true. The movie became a favorite with older viewers, which helped solidify the company as a movie making studio that defies the conventional audience breakdowns. 30 year olds brought their kids to see Incredibles. A few years later they were going to see Ratatouille on their own.
Finding Nemo is the Lion King of Pixar. As it was in the mid-90’s, the studio actually was putting more creative and marketing focus on another project. Instead of Lion King, Disney thought Pocahontas would be their big smash hit. It ended up being a modest success, while Lion King became the top dog for a generation. With Finding Nemo the hot movie in development was actually The Incredibles. And while that movie did end up a stellar film (more so than Pocahontas), Finding Nemo is the one that launched Pixar into the stratosphere. It was the studio’s first 300mm domestic hit (and would remain so for seven years, until Toy Story 3 broke 400mm) and despite not having a huge toy line behind it, became an instant classic for children in a way not seen since the Disney renaissance of the 1990’s. Only Toy Story rivals it in popularity, but set that aside and consider the movie on its own terms: It’s charming, funny, occasionally poignant, and beautifully animated.
The Incredibles came from the man behind The Iron Giant. Brad Bird was not one of the original creative minds at Pixar. He was a guy those guys respected as a peer. Bringing him into the fold allowed for fresh ideas and a new perspectives that paid off in a movie that might be the most perfectly-produced film the studio has ever made. Did it strike the collective consciousness the way Toy Story or Finding Nemo did? No, but from top to bottom the movie is flawless. Characters, writing, pacing, all of it is without blemish. What better compliment can you give a movie?
Inside-Out is a film about a child made for parents of children. As such, it’s not a movie that will necessarily enrapture your kids. They won’t clamor for it on long car rides the way they will, say, Toy Story 3 or Finding Nemo, but as a piece of art, there are few better. As a movie able to grab parents of young children by their hearts and squeeze, this movie is basically Mola Ram. The message of the movie, ultimately, is that sometimes you need to be sad. You can’t (or at least, you shouldn’t) just shove your angst deep down and bury it. You need to express yourself in ways that are healthy and constructive and you need to accept that sometimes you’re sad and that requires dealing with. A child probably can’t grasp the significance of that, but Inside-Out manages to at least express the notion, and for that parents everywhere owe it a great thanks. Never mind the fact that the film is wonderfully conceived and realized, with a great cast of voices that bring to life all of the anthropomorphized emotions. As I said in my review last year, Pixar has been making us feel all the feelings for twenty years now, why not put faces on the emotions and make them feel the feelings too?
Wall-E is probably not the film that tops too many “best of” lists when it comes to Pixar (it doesn’t even top this one), but on a personal level it remains my absolute favorite in the studio’s library. The last of those so-called “napkin” ideas (which became the basis for Wall-E’s teaser trailer) Wall-E is a hard story to summarize. If you only had 30 seconds to explain it, what part would you focus on? There’s a charming love story between two robots who basically only have one line of dialogue throughout the whole picture, there’s an ecological “message” story about global preservation, and there’s a parable about slothfulness and the dangers of technological reliance. There’s a lot to unpack in the story, but that’s precisely why it works so well; it is wholly unconventional. Take, for example, the opening half-hour, which is a basically the most delightful Charlie Chaplin homage ever created. If Pixar had wanted to, they could have made the whole film based entirely around Wall-E and Eve and the dilapidated earth. It could have been a bizarre and charming dystopian romcom and it would have been great. Instead, they took things to space, and created one of the most purely enjoyable “science fiction” stories to hit cinemas in a generation.
Toy Story Trilogy is grouped together here because together they represent exactly what has made Pixar one of the most beloved brands in movie-making. The original film was a revelation as much as a revolution. It was a children’s movie with enough smart dialogue and clever writing that parents could enjoy it as much as their kids. The fact that it was groundbreaking as a computer-generated film was just a bonus. Its sequel managed to do what so few have ever been able: It at least equaled the quality of the original (and many fans argue it surpassed it). Then, when it seemed there was no more to be said and no more reason to try, Pixar announced a third film, during a time when sequels were an overused and tiring trope in Hollywood. Once again, Pixar managed to break the mold and delivered a three-peat for the ages. No other franchise has managed to hit three home-runs in a row; Return of the Jedi stumbled, Godfather III disappointed, Spider-Man 3 got weird, and so on. But Pixar did it, and they did it by subtly tweaking the movie each outing.
Toy Story 1 was about a jealous toy learning to accept his place in the crowded-playroom of a child. Toy Story 2 was about a toy coming to terms with the fact that his owner will one day grow up (and the mid-life crisis-like crossroads that presents; whether or not to leave Andy proactively or stay and enjoy him while he can). Toy Story 3 confronted that event head-on by exploring the future of a toy whose owner outgrows him. Unlike with so many sequels, the stories did not retread, they grew and expanded the narrative, the cast of characters, and the laughs-to-poignancy ratio. Rightly is it, as a trilogy of films, regarded as some of the best movies ever made.
After over twenty years and over fifteen movies, and with many more films to come, Pixar shows no signs of slowing down. They’ve not been perfect, and there have been a couple real clunkers, but by and large their library of films ranges from the “nearly-flawless” to the “almost-nearly-flawless.” That’s a track record no other movie studio can boast; not even Amblin in the 1980’s was so consistent. Fans of movies—not just kids movies, or animated movies—of all ages can appreciate the amazing work being done by John Lasseter ‘s little bouncing lamp.