Friday, December 4, 2009

The Top 10 (which is to say all) Pixar films

It should be no secret by now that I love Pixar movies. No, not love. Love. That's right. It's earning that capital letter. Pixar Animation Studios continually churn out some of the most inspired, intrepid, and affecting film-making to come out of the studio system today. So, in the spirit of list-making and finishing a blog post before dinner, I'm going to run down Pixar's efforts from best to least best (I couldn't bring myself to say worst. Even the worst Pixar film is still head and shoulders over most of the crap that comes out nowadays). Enjoy!

(note: some of these reviews might sound a little critical; this is simply because I need to provide some faults to differentiate #10 from #1. Please remember that all of these films hold some place in my heart.)

10. Cars

Alas, this 2006 offering is Pixar's weakest feature. Its plot, continuing the 'anthropomorphic objects' theme, surrounds the derring-do of one Lightning McCloud, a hotshot young race car whose arrogance is taken down a peg or two when he finds himself stranded in a small 'average American' town. The world in which Cars takes place is, uncharacteristically, never fully realized. It appears that it's identical to our own world, save that cars take the place of humans, but is that it? A guaranteed feature of most Pixar films is that the world the characters inhabit feels real and plausible within the constrains of animation. The film is also, by far, the most unoriginal and conservative (arrogant young man learns error of his ways through studious application of small-town life). This isn't to say that the film doesn't offer up its own special pleasures: my favorite has to be the Italian tire-store owner and his hapless forklift assistant, whose pit-stops must be seen to be believed.

9. A Bug's Life

This second entry into the Pixar canon represents one of their most timid works to date, which is to say that the Pixar artists don't attempt anything new. So, A Bug's Life is familiar territory, but still does great things with said territory. Most notable is the gang of circus bugs who pose as warriors to pick up some extra cash; each character, from the uber-masculine ladybug Francis, to the joyfully gluttonous caterpillar Heimlich, are all carefully created and wonderfully realized. Unfortunately, not all the characters are so lucky. The villain, Hopper, is at a loss for interesting characteristics, and attempts to make up for it by snarling a lot. A well-known axiom: a grasshopper cannot be intimidating, regardless of how much he snarls. Indeed, his villain status makes him rare in the Pixar Pantheon: most Pixar films have characters with flaws, but few all-out villains that are given no humanistic traits. Oh well. Still a fun piece of work.

8. Ratatouille

Most top 10 Pixar lists have this one near the top, but, for the love of all that is good and holy, I just can't put it up there. I respect Ratatouille's technical proficiency, inventiveness, and joyous creativity, but, for whatever reason, it doesn't do too much for me emotionally. Suffice to say that I was entertained, but not moved. This isn't to say that it's a bad film: indeed, Ratatouille is great fun, with some very inventive and amusing moments. I respect it, but I don't love it. And, as you may remember me saying before, respect without love can only take things so far.

7. Up

I cry for the potential of this movie. The first two acts are wonderful, top-form Pixar, but the last act is a bit of a let-down. The first ten minutes (mostly silent) is some of the best film-making to come out this year: it chronicles the lifelong relationship of Carl and his wife Elly; how they meet as children, become sweethearts, create dreams together, get married, and realize that the realities of everyday life slowly suck their dreams away. The first bit is so bittersweet and heartbreaking: I thought the film was going to blow me away. The next part, which chronicles Carl's journey to the Amazon, as well as his burgeoning relationship with young boyscout Russell, is also fantastic. It's full of the right blend of warm humor, sharp characterization, and quiet empathy. Hell, even when they get to the jungle, and encounter the sillier supporting characters (Doug the talking Dog and Kevin, the gratuitously colorful bird), the film retains its original emotional core. Where it falters, however, is in the ending. We meet the villain, Charles Muntz, whose use in the film should be the masterstroke: He is the man who inspired a young Carl to have his travelling dreams. Carl meeting his hero and realizing his shortcomings fits with the rest of the film's themes wonderfully. Instead of something with a light touch, however, we get dogs in an aerial biplane battle and two octogenarians fencing. Why the sudden B-Movie action? It's completely incongruous to the spirit of the rest of the film. Sadly, Up trips in the last leg. What could have been one of Pixar's best is relegated to being #7. Oh well.

6. Toy Story 2
Rarely is a sequel this successful. Toy Story 2 isn't a rehash of the first film, or a sad attempt to continue the franchise. It's its own piece, full of light, humor, and surprisingly touching themes. The film is most concerned with loss and abandonment: as Andy gets older, and the toys start losing their lustre, they begin to contemplate what will happen to them when the person they love stops loving them back. The scenes with the new toys (owned by Crazy Al, the toy collector) are particularly affecting. Only someone with a heart of stone could be completely unmoved by the scene, told in silent montage set to "When Somebody Loved Me," that chronicles Jessie's relationship with her owner, and her subsequent abandonment. I'm making the movie sound like a terrible downer, but it's also full of great humor as well. Toy Story 2's take on Barbies is something for the ages. The only slight qualm I have with the film is that it goes a little overboard with film references; careful viewers can spot homages to Star Wars, Jurassic Park, 2001, This is Spinal Tap, etc. I feel it detracts from the film on repeated viewings. Other than that, this film is near perfect.

5. Monsters, Inc.

This is one of Pixar's great concepts. What if the monsters in your closet are just blue-collar guys trying to make a living who are just as terrified of you? Monsters, Inc. allows Pixar to create one of its most detailed and original worlds: the city of Monstropolis. Its inhabitants are monsters of such varying shapes and sizes that Darwin's head would explode after one minute of observation. The film's voice-cast is especially worth noting, comprised by the likes of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Jennifer Tilly, and James Coburn. The film works as comedy, thrill-ride, and corporate satire, and its central theme is potent: love and laughter are more powerful than fear. the final shot, a Chaplin homage, is a beautifully realized ending.

4. Toy Story

It's hard for me to put this one all the way up at #4, but that's how it goes. This, the original film, the one that started over a decade of successes, is still a classic in its own right. It's rightly praised for its visual inventiveness and technical acuity, but to focus on its superficial aspects is to ignore its unusually perceptive and complex portrayal of jealousy, pride, and the simple desire to be loved. The film is stuffed to the brim with great comedic moments (my personal favorite: "You're a sad, strange little man, and I pity you") and moments that ring true emotionally (the part where Buzz discovers he's a toy, attempts to fly anyway, and falls and breaks, always gets me). Toy Story, upon its release was a bolt from the blue that revolutionized the medium of animation. Yes, I respect it for its contributions to film, but I also love it for being a great movie.

3. Finding Nemo

Sometimes the best stories are the simplest ones. This tale of a father trying to find his son is full of warmth, love, quiet insight, and sights of astonishing visual beauty. It also boasts some of the most well-realized characters in Pixar's history. A write has no choice but to give a shout-out to Ellen DeGeneres as Dory, in what may be, perhaps the best, definitely my favorite voice-over performance in the movies. The movie is filled with great stand-alone sequences with their own colorful cast: the Shark Support Group, the Sea Turtles, the Sea Gulls. And who could forget Darla, perhaps the only character since Norman Bates to earn her shrieking violin music. This isn't just great animation. It's great film-making, period. And, let's be honest: Who here hasn't tried to speak Whale at least once?

2. The Incredibles

Unarguably the most complex effort on Pixar's behalf, it's also one of the best and most intelligent. Brad Bird's film is a sharp-edged satire of contemporary values; its plot concerns superheroes who are forced to pretend to be normal in the face of lawsuits from people who didn't want to be saved, or objected to the manner in which they are saved. As Bob Parr, or Mr. Incredible, points out society "keeps finding ways to celebrate mediocrity." What on earth is that line doing in a children's film? The answer, of course, is that this isn't a children's film. The Incredibles also explores a recurrent Pixar theme, which involves characters meeting their god and becoming disillusioned (see Up, Monsters, Inc., and Cars for other examples...even if I didn't write about that aspect of them. Oops.). Only in this film, however, does the character in question (Buddy, or Syndrome, depending on whose side you're on) decide to commit the rest of his life to killing that god. The Incredibles speaks volumes about societal mistrust of the extraordinary, dissatisfaction with life, and the inability for ideals to live up to reality. Plus, it gives us Edna Mode, who is, for my money, the best character to come out of a Pixar movie.


It was always going to be this one at the top, wasn't it? WALL-E is a singularly unique and staggering cinematic achievement. In its first forty minutes, it establishes its world and its characters entirely without dialogue. Even when speaking parts are introduced, the prevailing interactions are actions, not words. This is the closest thing to a silent film release since 1928. If not for a certain animated Israeli documentary that I can't shake, I would call this the best film of 2008. Even so, I would lay money on the fact that of all films from last year, WALL-E will be remembered for the longest. Much of its power comes from its simplicity. Sure, there's plenty around the edges about wastefulness, laziness, and stagnation (Pixar does love to to show people whose dreams have slowly died, don't they?), but the central conceit is almost impossibly simple: boy meets girl, boy falls in love, girl does the same. The emotion in this movie is so palpable and tangible. What's more impressive is that it's done with a glorified trash compacter and an egg-shaped iPod. WALL-E finds something universal at the core of the human experience and plugs into it, channelling it to the greatest extent. As an added bonus, the "define dancing" sequence is Movie Magic at its best.

Well, there you have it. Have y'all seen all of these? Or at least some? Am I perhaps to lenient with Pixar? What ranks as the best effort in your mind? Don't be shy. I love arguing.


  1. I've been pondering it all day, but now it's official - I am absolutely watching The Incredibles tonight. Because I'm me (no points for guessing who I am), The Incredibles will always be my favorite Pixar movie. The way it plays with the concept of superheroes in the real world, where people find any excuse to sue and the government and population choose to subdue that which is different, has always been fascinating to me. You're absolutely right about this not being a kids' film (doesn't Dash rack up a body count in the double digits?). It really gets into the psychology of the title family as well as their supporting cast. It switches between light-hearted and tragic naturally and with marvelous sincerity. As a self-taught, self-proclaimed expert on all things superheroic (except Marvel), I rate this one of the best superhero movies out there. Given, in a world with George Clooney and the bat-nips, that's not exactly a hard title to snag. I desperately want a sequel to The Incredibles. Why won't they give me a sequel? DX

  2. I agree completely. God, I do love The Incredibles. So much. It's definitely the smartest Pixar out there. And a sequel would be just fantastic. I don't usually wish for that sort of thing, but The Incredibles needs it, dammit!