It’s been 25 years since the release of Toy Story heralded a new era in animation. Now, we’re ranking the feature films that made Pixar—all 22 of them.
Perhaps the most celebrated animation studio in the world, Pixar have made beautifully realised, iconically characterised films for a quarter of a century. In the late nineties and early noughties, the studio was one of the most consistently imaginative filmmaking bodies in the business. With a host of family and critical favourites, the studio could do very little wrong.
However, since making a considerable set of sequels, the studio’s creative output has dried up somewhat, showing that they’re essentially just another arm of generated branded content owned by mother company, Disney. This conflict between making original productions and having to sate the money-hungry appetites of Disney execs has coloured Pixar’s recent output and has made for a truly mixed bag.
Ahead of what’s being lauded as another return to form, Soul, Counteract have ranked the Pixar films from worst to best, showing both their imaginative diversity and increasingly frustrating lack of originality.
22. Cars 2 (Lasseter, 2011)
Pixar’s second sequel is an easy place to pinpoint the company’s creative slump. A cynical excuse for Lasseter to extract the merchandising potential of the Cars franchise and indulge in his childish interest in the automobile. Just severely uncool.
21. Finding Dory (Stanton, 2016)
A cartoon seemingly made with the smug assumption of Hillary Clinton’s presidency. Finding Dory sees one of Pixar’s most iconic supporting characters gets her own feature dedicated to her in this tired rehashing of their original lost fish film. The irritating, half soaked Dory loses friends and makes new ones along the way, but with far less excitement and magic than the first. If you’ve seen Finding Nemo, you know how this goes, only more annoying.
20. The Good Dinosaur (Sohn, 2015)
If in doubt, make ‘em cute. Peter Sohn’s one and only directorial credit for Pixar is a perfectly harmless feature that becomes increasingly lumbered as it goes on. Lending from the Finding Nemo premise of a lost child, The Good Dinosaur, unfortunately, feels like someone asking “Isn’t it about time we made a dinosaur movie?”, without giving much thought to how interesting their narrative might be. At least Arlo the dinosaur is kinda cute.
19. Cars 3 (Fee, 2017)
One of the failings in Cars 2 was the lack of drama lent to the racing. Cars 3 takes the series back to basics, focussing on Lightning McQueen’s racing career over the Mater’s ludicrous espionage shenanigans. The film still lacks much of the heart and ingeniousness of most of their films, but several well put together racing sequences make for entertaining viewing.
18. Cars (Lasseter, 2006)
I’ll admit it, I’m simply not interested in cars. I, unlike John Lasseter, am not an automobile obsessed loser and do not care for the dramatisation of the life of cars. The first Cars film is a mostly harmless affair whose merchandising potential exceeds its narrative potential. There’s a touching story of the charms of rural life there somewhere that may be worth some praise. But I just don’t care about cars.
17. Onward (Scanlon, 2020)
The nearest Pixar has gotten to making an ’80s high school movie comes in this ode to absolute losers everywhere (note from ed: not everyone is a loser). Onward is at times a feast for the eyes and isn’t without its charms, but this brotherly adventure film leads you down a path a little too sickly sincere for my liking.
16. Toy Story 4 (Cooley, 2019)
After the success of the Toy Story trilogy, where does a studio go with a franchise that beloved? The answer should be: nowhere. The Toy Story franchise need never have been touched after its third instalment. And though the fourth film isn’t entirely without its moments (the first has created a world that is too full of life to fail), its very existence is a source of frustration. Pointlessness at its finest.
15. Brave (Chapman & Andrews, 2012)
Pixar’s first foray into the world of an unsuspecting heroine is, on the surface, a difficult film to fault. Full of terrifically realised Scottish landscapes and plucky spirit, Brave feels more like a classic Disney film than anything they’ve released before or since their golden era. However, this seemingly tried and tested formula doesn’t match the standards of other Pixar greats. It just goes to show that there’s not always magic in the magic.
14. Monsters University (Scanlon, 2013)
Monsters University was the moment we all realised that sequels were the new normal at Pixar, this time returning to one of their most gloriously fantastical worlds. Their one and only prequel, Monsters University seems like an almost earned effort at franchising some of their best characters. Though the film begins with all the satisfying set up you could wish for, it becomes a long, convoluted mess that struggles to find an end as fulfilling as its start. Sometimes, though, it’s just good to hang out with Mike and Sully.
13. Coco (Unkrich, 2017)
Pixar managed to make one of their prettiest films with Coco. The textural depth of elderly faces, the vibrant, neon wonder of the Land of the Dead—this was Pixar truly making the most of their animation. Coco is, however, not a particularly strong film. This cliched chase-your-dreams, be-who-you’re-meant-to-be tale is old hat, and the studio finds themselves treading more familiar ground throughout the film. It’s by no means a bad film, just one that leaves you wanting.
12. A Bug’s Life (Lasseter, 1998)
Pixar’s second feature is a film that cemented a creative trend within the studio: a traditional story imagined through the eyes of animals. A Bug’s Life takes the story of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai and spins it as a tale of pauper ants recruiting circus bugs to help against evil grasshoppers. Fortunately—and quite simply—it works. Pixar managed to take this story and inject it with a solid balance of family fun and inventive gusto—not that it stands up much against Kurosawa’s epic.
11. Incredibles 2 (Bird, 2018)
In an industry dominated by Marvel and other superhero films, you’d think that Pixar would’ve capitalised on the franchising potential of their family of superheroes sooner. So when the sequel finally arrived 14 years after its original, it was a surprise that the studio continued to lean more into the ’60s, Bond-inspired aesthetic, favouring the complexities of the family dynamic (gender roles, adolescence) over the crash-bang-wallop mentality of Disney’s other output. Incredibles 2 also manages to be an exciting action movie with inventive set pieces, but it remains one of Pixar’s better sequels because of the family at its heart.
10. Inside Out (Doctor, 2015)
One of Pixar’s most acclaimed films and one that I once considered one of their very best. Inside Out is another adventure movie, a turbulent journey home that tries to shine a light on the complications and frailties of the human mind and how we should find the positivity in our highs and our lows.
Travelling inside the mind of young girl Riley, the studio conjured up one of their most inventive environments; thinking outside of the box to take us into the box. However, the film pangs of the sickly faux-woke preaching of Hollywood’s liberal elite that simply doesn’t ride. I find myself conflicted by Inside Out now, a beautiful, imaginative film that I can only raise my eyebrows at.
9. Finding Nemo (Stanton, 2003)
Pixar went all out in their journey across the ocean. In Finding Nemo, the studio seemed intent on capturing every luscious corner of their environment. In doing so, they present an adventure movie with a relentless array of sumptuously digestible scenes of fear, discovery and self-realisation. It really is one of their most Pixar-y films—an indulgence for the eyes that touches the heart.
8. WALL.E (Stanton, 2008)
WALL.E is one of those Pixar films that thrive because of the idea at its centre. This is the studio at potentially their most thematically ambitious; a sci-fi with ideas bubbling throughout, WALL.E is a film that truly reaches for the stars.
Along with posthumanist ideas of over-reliance on technology and consumer culture (now a difficult to swallow pill given Disney’s pursuit of product over art), WALL.E is a fantastic adventure movie. The titular robot is one of the studio’s cutest creations and his relationship with fellow robot Eve is perhaps their best love story. It’s a shame some of the ideas boil down to some gross fatphobia and ableism, though.
7. Toy Story 2 (Lasseter, 1999)
After the success of their first film, Pixar decided a sequel with the gang of toys would be a fair venture (they wouldn’t sequelise another one of their films until Cars 2, 12 years later). Again, Pixar would capture imaginations, win hearts and minds, and have another hit on their hands, with a critical and box office smash that would be deemed by some to be better than its predecessor.
Though as charming, as exciting and as satisfying as the first, Toy Story 2, for me, doesn’t manage to muster up quite the same magic or strange sense of dread that the original conjures up. Still, a mighty fine sequel with plenty of rewards.
6. Toy Story 3 (Unkrich, 2010)
The film that should’ve finished off the series, and arguably one that also lacked necessity. For me though, Toy Story 3 more than justifies its place in the series by upping the stakes, offering an increased sense of one’s place in the world, and a fresh look into the dreaded disposability of one’s treasured bits of plastic.
Though it avoids finishing the trilogy in ashes to ashes, dust to dust (perhaps a mistake), there’s a clear and poignant passing of the torch. Forgetting the dissatisfaction of Toy Story 3’s place in the franchise, it’s a fantastic movie.
5. The Incredibles (Bird, 2004)
Pixar’s family of outcast “supers” trying their best to integrate into a society intolerant to their powers may sound a little woe-is-them, but it’s actually one of the greatest superhero movies ever made. I can’t claim that the competition is particularly stiff, but it’s no mean feat to create a superhero film this invested in the humanity found in unfulfillment, marital friction and disillusionment. Not only is it a grounded, searching piece of filmmaking but it’s also a ludicrously enjoyable action movie.
4. Ratatouille (Bird, 2007)
For me, this is where Pixar really manages to flex their creative heft. The best Pixar films come in the form of a silly idea, and you’d be clutching at straws to suggest that they ever had a sillier idea than Ratatouille. As the film slowly lays out its premise of a food-obsessed rat who washes up on the streets of Paris and begins working in a former top-class restaurant by ventriloquising a hapless dope in the kitchen, you start to wonder how they managed to pitch Ratatouille. It’s bonkers ideas like this that help weld together such a simple story of passion, friendship and being true to yourself.
3. Up (Doctor, 2009)
Another example of Pixar having lofty, out-there ideas, Up brings together all that is great about the studio. Adventure, a touching relationship, a striving to fulfil one’s dreams, and a scope of imagination that rivals that of Studio Ghibli. Up is often remembered for its sombre, heartstring-tugging opening, but the film only rises in quality from there.
A strange take on the classic adventure narrative, Up manages to get genuinely quite surreal in a film that, until this point, was perhaps Pixar’s most seemingly grounded in reality. From the balloon house to the talking dogs to the exotic bird, Pixar pulled out all the stops in making this a truly weird piece of filmmaking. It’s a shame the studio’s appetite for films akin to this has dried up.
2. Monsters Inc (Lasseter, 2001)
Pixar are renowned for bringing magic into reality. With Monsters Inc though, they decided to bring reality to the otherworldly and to turn the lives of monsters upside down with the frightening introduction of a human child. Top to bottom Pixar’s most fantastical film, every aspect of Monsters Inc is a playful, illuminating and sumptuously amusing illustration of all that is good about Pixar.
In setting their film this firmly in another world, Pixar relish in making every corner of it a playground for everyone involved. Each detail makes Monsters Inc their most fully realised environment, making it feel as real as any workplace you’ve ever worked in or as real as any house share you’ve been part of. A film to come back to time and time again.
1. Toy Story (Lasseter, 1995)
It’s hard to say that some of the films that have followed Toy Story have been part of a downhill trajectory for the studio, but it’s also true. For me, everything about Toy Story makes it the perfect film of its kind. What do toys do when we’re not looking? It’s a simple premise that suggests that the imagination we give to toys extends beyond the time we spend with them.
The very fact that the toys do come to life, have their own dilemmas, make their own relationships, and come to terms with their existence suggests that imagination is the power behind all of those things. Imagination is the driving force in all of us. It gives us purpose away from the doom and gloom of our lives, and Toy Story’s very existence is testament to what the imagination can do for us, even when we’re not looking.
All of Pixar’s films are now streaming on Disney+, including all the good ones from before the acquisition.
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Long and incompetent man who is being allowed to write about films you can watch from your bed.