Friday, June 19, 2015

Top Ten: Pixar Films

I've never committed to a definitive ranking of the films of Pixar Animation. Perhaps having relatively few feature titles under their banner made a top ten list kinda meaningless (although their ever growing roster of memorable characters is always ripe for sorting). Or perhaps the frequently high caliber of their movies made ranking them a more arbitrary exercise than ranking movies already is.

But with raves for their fifteenth feature Inside Out announcing a return to form after a few years of middling success, now seems like a good time to go on record as to which gems sparkle the brightest for me personally. Needless to say, this list is in constant flux and subject to positional shifts at any time – Probably as soon as I see Inside Out!

But which of the studio's first fourteen is on the bubble?...

10. Toy Story 2 (1999) [dir. John Lasseter]
That only the third feature to emerge from the studio was a sequel might have struck many as a harbinger of franchise-obsessed doom. But when a sequel is as smart, witty and moving as Toy Story 2 is, who are we to complain? The second installment of the series made a number of memorable additions to the beloved cast of playthings, including Jesse the yodeling cowgirl with the most tear-jerking of backstories (Randy Newman's "When She Loved Me" is the finest song of his career). It may lack the novelty and simple genius of the first Toy Story, but it still finds fun and interesting extensions to that original idea like a good sequel should.

9. Brave (2012) [dir. Brenda Chapman, Mark Andrews]
Though received somewhat tepidly on its initial release – perhaps on account of more resembling a Disney princess film than high-concept Pixar – Brave has already aged very well, infusing the modernisms of mother-daughter relationships with the charms of classical storytelling. Rendered with (what was at the time) brand spanking new Presto software, it could also make a claim as the studio's most purely beautiful work to date, dazzling with its evocative lighting and colour choices in every frame. Backing up those visuals are strong performances, expressive character animation, and a magical morality tale that lend the whole project a timeless quality that continues to hold up well.

8. Monsters, Inc. (2001) [dir. Pete Docter]
The immediate follow-up to Toy Story 2 found Pixar back in the realm of original premises, albeit while still conforming to the same template of a community of (anthropomorphized beings of your choice) living right under our noses.
Happily, the chance to manufacture an entire workforce of loveable cartoon monsters – as opposed to trademarked toys and bipedal ants – allowed the character designers to finally spread their imaginative wings. But Monsters, Inc. is so much more than a cute world-building exercise, working in surprisingly mature themes ranging from the desensitization of children to the ills of our dependence on unsustainable energy. The ending is lovely.

7. The Incredibles (2004) [dir. Brad Bird]
The Incredibles hews closer to an action movie than any of its more kid-conscious Pixar kin, and in doing so makes a strong case for animation as the ideal medium for the genre. Dizzying set pieces such as the airborne missile attack or Dash's high-speed escape through the jungle had me gripping my armrests tighter than any cartoon I can recall. What ultimately gives those action scenes such weight is that Brad Bird – excellent story man that he is – has taken the time in the film's first half to make us relate to and care about the characters. In fact, I may enjoy the family dynamics more than the superheroics, but it's all great stuff!
A sequel would actually be welcome.

6. Up (2009) [dir. Pete Docter]
The grief-triggered odyssey of an octogenarian widower may not sound like a rip-roaring good time on paper, but besides the weepy pathos of its brilliant "Married Life" montage and all the cathartic beats thereafter, Up sometimes gets overlooked as one of Pixar's funniest adventures as well. It lands a ton of fun laughs with talking dog collars, exotic bird antics, and of course extracts a wealth of buddy-movie-humour from the age difference between its two heroes. Instead of clashing, the comedy and the tragedy are impeccably balanced and seamlessly woven. Big props to Michael Giacchino's Oscar winning score for beautifully echoing that emotional range.

5. Toy Story 3 (2010) [dir. Lee Unkrich]
I questioned early screening reports that claimed Toy Story 3 was reducing grown men to tears. I scoffed harder yet at the notion that it would manipulate me the same way. It goes without saying that I was wrong. Perhaps I was underestimating the power of nostalgia, which does play a pretty hefty role in eliciting those third-act waterworks, but that wouldn't be giving enough credit to the filmmakers. They didn't simply make one heart-melting 5-minute scene; They made a damn good movie from start to finish (cleverly packaged as a prison movie parody), establishing themes of growth, change and acceptance from the get-go, writing to those themes throughout. Every tear is earned.

4. Finding Nemo (2003) [dir. Andrew Stanton]
While Pixar's first four features earned them the reputation as the animation house whose movies could be enjoyed by more than just kids, Finding Nemo was their first to take the direct perspective of a parent. It dives headfirst into an ocean of anxiety for an overprotective clownfish trying desperately to find his son, and learning an all-important lesson in letting go. It's a testament to the performances of the animators and actors (namely Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres) that the characters so effortlessly embody both the film's emotional maturity and its comic edge. And oh yeah, it's a stunner to look at, with lush shades of blue mirroring the mood of each scene.

3. Ratatouille (2007) [dir. Brad Bird]
A feast for the eyes, ears and soul, Ratatouille boasts some of Pixar's richest writing and most savory images, at times literally visualizing its connoisseur rodent's adventurous sense of taste. Inventing a warming fable that sounds like something out of a European childrens storybook, but painted in stylish strokes and sharp hilarity, it might be the finest rumination on artistic origins and art criticism ever animated (Peter O'Toole's climatic monologue is utter perfection). The characters are a splendid blend of personalities and the storytelling is crisp and unfettered, every moment serving up thematic substance in entertaining spoonfuls; Cinematic nourishment that's both healthy and delicious!

2. WALL-E (2008) [dir. Andrew Stanton]
I thought long and hard about putting this in the No. 1 spot on this list, because I do consider WALL-E to be the studio's creative apex. The near silent first half proves a magnificent combination of the oldest and newest filmmaking techniques
(the cooperation of old and new is niftily one of the film's many thematic threads), introducing us to the eponymous robot and its adorable mission to win the love of a sleeker model. But rather than contain itself on our tiny planet, the story dares to veer in unexpected directions, scaling up its intimate romance into a grander quest for humankind's salvation. The result is an ambitious, unique science fiction that's the best of its decade – the same superlative applies to Ben Burtt's sound design. A modern masterpiece.

1. Toy Story (1995) [dir. John Lasseter]
Some may consider it a back-handed compliment to say Pixar's first film is their best, the assumed implication being that they peaked too soon. Well... not quite.
Toy Story probably isn't their funniest film, nor their most emotionally powerful, nor their most artistically conceived, and certainly not their most technically accomplished. But its elegant storytelling template has never been improved upon, and none of its more evolved successors (wonderful though they are) can match its flawless execution. Though the infant studio had a lot of growing up to do,
this ground-breaking first step is as close to a perfect movie as you'll see, animated or otherwise. At the age of seven, it became my first real cinematic obsession – I can still quote its delightfully witty dialogue verbatim – and 20 years later its quiet profundities can still moisten my adult eyes.
No, I wouldn't objectively call Toy Story Pixar's “best” film. It's simply the one that I love the most.

Outside, looking in: 
A Bug's Life is slight, but also so much fun. It sometimes feels like the odd cousin of the Pixar family; Not quite substantial enough to contend with the loftier entries on people's top ten lists, but content to be its own humourous self. Didn't crack my dectet, but I wanna make it clear that I still like it.

As for the rest, ordering them doesn't really matter. I think just about everybody puts Cars 2 on the bottom, while the first Cars and Monsters University don't separate that much for me.


  1. Gotta agree with you there, buddy. Though I consider WALL-E Pixar's strongest film in a lot of ways, nothing can beat the first Toy Story in a better of sheer perfection. I grew up watching it, I can quote it verbatim, I love the characters, I love the music, I love the story, I love the... hell, I love everything about it. And the CG is still kinda impressive to this day. It's arguably my favourite film of all-time!

    I have yet to see Inside Out, but when I do, I will edit in where it would stand on my list, but here's my favourites:

    #1: Toy Story
    #2: WALL-E
    #3: Toy Story 3
    #4: Up (The best film of 2009, IMO)
    #5: Toy Story 2
    #6: The Incredibles
    #7: Monsters, Inc.
    #8: Ratatouille
    #9: Brave
    #10: Finding Nemo
    #11: Monsters University
    #12: A Bug's Life
    #13: Cars
    #14: Cars 2

  2. 1: WALL-E
    2: Toy Story 3
    3: Ratatouille
    4: Toy Story
    5: Monster's Inc.
    6: The Incredibles
    7: Finding Nemo
    8: Up
    9: Toy Story 2
    10: Brave
    11: A Bug's Life
    12: Monsters University
    13: Cars
    14: Cars 2

    I think everybody's bottom 4 should pretty much be the same.

  3. Can't wait to see where Inside Out falls on your list.