Toy Story 3 (All photos: Pixar)
Choosing favorite Pixar flicks is as daunting a task as, say, singling out favorite Beatles tunes or naming favorite Shakespeare quotes — when the high quality comes flying fast and furious, it’s hard to get a bead on the best.
The company’s latest animated effort, Toy Story 4, debuts this Friday, and it’s been almost 25 years since its first feature-length motion picture was released. When Toy Story hit theaters on Nov. 22, 1995, Pixar was able to promote it as the first animated feature created exclusively by computers. Little did anyone realize that this would sound the death knell for the traditional hand-drawn toon film, as CGI imagery would soon take over the industry at an alarming rate.
Still, just as it’s unfair to blame Star Wars for the slew of inferior, copycat sci-fi films that followed in its wake, or Pulp Fiction for the rash of violent, hipper-than-thou crime flicks that poured out of Hollywood in subsequent years, it wouldn’t be right for anyone to hold a grudge against Pixar. Besides, while other studios have employed CGI for tacky and even downright awful animated features, Pixar has always maintained the high road — even its lesser efforts have largely avoided the rampant crudity and imbecilic plotlines offered by the competition.
Here, then, is a ranking of all the Pixar features preceding Toy Story 4, beginning with the weakest and ending with the pinnacle of perfection.
18. THE GOOD DINOSAUR (2015). After a remarkable run, Pixar finally released its first out-and-out mediocrity four years ago. The film begins with a “what if?” scenario: What if the comet that wiped out the dinosaurs missed the planet? The only reason for this supposition is so a human protagonist — a feral boy — can eventually be added to the story, since this opening act doesn’t impact the film in any other way. Mostly, the plot centers on a young dino named Arlo and how his life is irrevocably altered by a tragedy lifted straight out of The Lion King. And like another lion, the one taking the road to Oz, Arlo needs to finds his courage, and he only does so after getting lost and teaming up with the aforementioned boy, a lupine lad named Spot. The story is suffocating in its simplicity, and while the backgrounds are gorgeously rendered, the characters are a visually drab lot. In short, innovation and imagination prove to be as extinct as pterodactyls in the modern world.
17. CARS 3 (2017). Resolutely sweet-natured and marked by some compelling visuals, this entry — basically an animated Rocky III — is nevertheless the weakest of the Cars trio, with Lightning McQueen (again voiced by Owen Wilson) and other old-school race cars finding themselves becoming obsolete with the emergence of newer and sleeker models. Chief among the upstarts is Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), who usurps Lightning’s position as the sport’s reigning champion. Combating both injury and depression, Lightning falls into a funk during the off-season, only to eventually regain his confidence and in turn undergo a vigorous training regime. Cars 3 spends too much of the early going in idle, repeating familiar beats about how it sucks to get old while fetishizing shiny new cars and accessories that look great on Target shelves. Still, the movie is always agreeable if rarely exciting, and it does kick into high gear for the final stretch.
16. BRAVE (2012). If nothing else, Merida (Kelly Macdonald) makes for a vibrant heroine. With marble-smooth skin, flaming red hair seemingly modeled after early-’90s Nicole Kidman, and archery skills to rival those of Robin Hood, she’s a spirited Scottish lass who, in the best animated tradition, longs for independence and adventure. Her rambunctious father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly), admires her earthiness and athletic abilities, but her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), ix nays such activities, insisting that Merida behave like a proper lady in order to land a suitable husband. There’s emotional resonance in the way the bond between mother and daughter evolves over the course of the picture, but it just barely compensates for the nonstarter nature of the big twist that propels all the second-half action. Brave is a perfectly pleasant outing, but in most regards, it’s disappointingly tame and conventional.
15. FINDING DORY (2016). This sequel to 2003’s Finding Nemo did little to quell the feeling that a certain measure of rubber-stamp efficiency had largely gripped the studio. Still suffering from short-term memory loss, the blue tang fish Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) recalls bits and pieces of her childhood and the close bond she enjoyed with her parents. She elects to cross the ocean in order to locate them, with the reluctant clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son Nemo (Hayden Rolence) joining her in her seafaring search. The under-the-sea animation remains staggering, but Dory’s odyssey is never as involving (though certainly more repetitive) as Nemo’s. And while the leads are still fairly engaging protagonists, they’ve been surrounded by a supporting cast revealed to be one of the dullest yet conceived by the Pixar brain trust (a trio of sea lions and a grouchy octopus excepted). Adults might find enough of interest to make it worthwhile, although I imagine many will still prefer the variation of this plot when it was R-rated and called Memento.
14. MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (2013). An amusing prequel to 2001’s Monsters, Inc., this looks at the period before Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman) were BFFs working together at the Monsters, Inc. factory. The setting is college, where Mike pursues his long-standing dream of graduating as a top scarer. Because of his small stature and non-threatening demeanor, he has to hit the books hard in order to learn all the scaring techniques; not so Sulley, whose imposing size and ground-shaking roar means that he feels he can coast through his courses. The film’s second half works feverishly to instill its underdog tale with the usual kid-geared messages such as it’s OK to be yourself and individuals accomplish more when they work together as teams. It’s the sort of head-patting that Pixar used to present so subtly, it almost qualified as a subliminal message; here, it’s punched across with the sort of thumping obviousness found in other studios’ toon efforts.
13. CARS 2 (2011). Adopting an international template, this energetic if inconsequential sequel to 2006’s Cars finds Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) invited to participate in an international Grand Prix event. Tagging along is his buddy Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), who gets mistaken for a brilliant secret agent by a pair of British operatives (Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer) trying to uncover the shadowy head of a criminal cabal. This ignominiously remains the only Pixar pic to hold a Rotten rating on the critical compilation site Rotten Tomatoes. I maintain that had Cars 2 been released by any other studio’s toon department, it would have been praised for its inventiveness and eye-popping animation; instead, the studio found itself punished for having a stellar track record like no other. Besides, I defy anyone to tell me with a straight face that this is anywhere near as awful as 2011’s other family hits, Zookeeper and Mr. Popper’s Penguins. Case closed.
12. A BUG’S LIFE (1998). It’s rare when an animated feature from another studio bests a comparable one from Pixar, but that’s what happened in the fall of ’98, when DreamWorks released Antz a month before Pixar debuted A Bug’s Life. Antz is the better film (at least for adults), though there’s plenty to enjoy in what over the long term has been revealed as a relatively minor Pixar project. After countless seasons of watching his ant colony terrorized by a gang of bullying grasshoppers (Kevin Spacey provides the voice of their brutish leader), an eccentric ant named Flik (Dave Foley) sets off to recruit intimidating warrior bugs for protection; instead, he returns with a motley group of circus insects, including a decidedly male ladybug (Denis Leary) and a clownish caterpillar (Joe Ranft). Flik proves to be a rather lackluster protagonist, but the animation is occasionally eye-popping and the throwaway gags off-kilter enough to score (such as the homeless bug holding a sign that reads, “Kid Pulled My Wings Off”).
11. INCREDIBLES 2 (2018). This sequel to The Incredibles reveals that superheroes are still outlawed and not allowed to engage in feats of derring-do. It’s only when the villainous Screenslaver arrives on the scene that dad Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), mom Helen/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), daughter Violet (Sarah Vowell), son Dash (Huck Milner), and baby Jack-Jack can again become full-fledged heroes. This one’s a guaranteed good time, but while it frequently feints in the direction of something more meaningful, it usually backs away and merely lathers on more thrills. That’s not exactly a debit, but anyone expecting the complexity of its predecessor might be left wanting. As before, the most satisfying element is the Parr family itself. The plotline involving Jack-Jack and his seemingly infinite number of powers devours too much screen time, but the attention accorded to the other four family members is once again lovely. Forget that Marvel gang: On screen, Bob, Helen, Violet and Dash are the true Fantastic Four.
10. CARS (2006). The storyline’s admittedly a bit hoary: A big-city slicker learns to slow down and smell the flowers — or, in this case, the diesel — in a small town in the middle of nowhere. But the picture’s six scripters expand the parameters of this plot description to make an entertaining and even poignant tale about the lure of the open road and the passing of a quaint chapter in modern American history. That race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) will find redemption in the small town of Radiator Springs (populated by vehicles played by, among others, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Cheech Marin and Larry the Cable Guy) is never in doubt, but like the best storytellers, the Pixar scripters make the journey to self-discovery highly interesting. Ultimately, the movie’s Route 66 mythology, coupled with the presence of Newman in what would turn out to be his final theatrical feature, lends it a nostalgic, bittersweet tinge.
9. FINDING NEMO (2003). The animation in this beloved effort is truly stunning, awash (pun intended) in a dazzling array of colors and creating the impression of a living, breathing sea. As for the storyline, it finds timid clown fish Marlin (Albert Brooks) setting out to rescue his son Nemo (Alexander Gould), who’s been captured by a deep-sea diver and deposited in an aquarium that rests in a dentist’s office in Sydney, Australia. For all its visual splendor and adult-oriented gags (nods to Psycho, Jaws and The Shining are included), this falls short of select Pixar films primarily because many of its supporting characters atypically lack depth (pun not intended). What’s more, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), an excitable blue tang, and Crush (Andrew Stanton), a mellow turtle, have always been as likely to alienate viewers as envelop them (Dory with her scatterbrained routine and Crush with his surfer-dude speak). Still, it’s downright curmudgeonly to remain focused on the negatives when the rest of the picture is saturated with invention and wit.
8. COCO (2017). Coco centers on Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), a young Mexican boy who yearns to become a celebrated musician like his idol, the late singing star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). That’s quite the challenge, though, since his entire family hates music and has prohibited anyone within its ranks from ever picking up a guitar or a microphone. Undeterred, Miguel goes against his family’s wishes, a decision that, through supernatural means, catapults him into the Land of the Dead. Coco opens by following the traditional toon template of a person following their dreams against all odds, but once Miguel reaches the Land of the Dead, the movie deepens in satisfying and even unexpected ways. Interpersonal relationships take some surprising turns, and the story’s metaphysical slant (particularly the notion that a person doesn’t truly disappear until no one remembers they ever existed) lends the proceedings a haunting and ruminative air.
7. WALL-E (2008). Here’s where it gets hard, since the next three titles are of comparable high quality and could be shuffled with nary a protest from me. First, there’s WALL-E, the sort of toon tale that might endear itself even more to adults than to kids. And it’s not just because grown-ups will enjoy the usual asides tossed their way (e.g. a witty reference to 2001: A Space Odyssey; Aliens star Sigourney Weaver providing the voice of a ship’s computer); it’s also because the plot speaks to them in a way that won’t resonate with humans who still don’t possess all their permanent teeth. For ultimately, WALL-E is about nothing less than one of the tenets of human existence: the need to find a partner with whom to share life’s experiences. Of course, the switch here is that it’s a robot, not a human, who’s in need of companionship — specifically, WALL-E, a rickety robot who falls for a sleek model named EVE. Who knew that romance between robots could be so affecting?
6. THE INCREDIBLES (2004). The vigorous embrace of mediocrity above all else currently grips a 21st century America that has become too lazy to think for itself (as witnessed by the ascendancy of FOX News), and this national tragedy is smartly worked into an animated superhero tale that’s, well, pretty incredible. The bulk of the comic relief comes from costume designer Edna Mode, an Edith Head caricature voiced by the film’s writer-director, Brad Bird; the drama comes from the Incredibles, presented as the modern American family that’s expected to conform to the societal status quo (i.e. blend with the bland) rather than champion its own uniqueness. The domestic conflicts triggered by their suburban ennui give way to an acceptance of their individuality and, consequently, an ability to pool their resources as both crime fighters and family members. It’s affecting without being sticky-sweet, and just one of the reasons why this gem, for all its kid-friendly sops, feels as mature as any live-action drama.
5. UP (2009). After the passing of his cherished wife, 78-year-old balloon salesman Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) hooks his house to thousands of helium-filled balloons and drifts off to an uninhabited part of South America, realizing too late that he has an unwanted passenger in the form of an energetic, 8-year-old boy (Jordan Nagai). Nevertheless, the curmudgeonly Carl pushes upward and onward, only to encounter a plethora of unexpected developments once he reaches his destination. In addition to providing the requisite thrills (those afraid of heights will tense up during the exhilarating climax), Up finds themes of longing, loneliness and self-sacrifice coursing through its running time. Of course, this wouldn’t be a family film without some colorful sidekicks on hand, and the picture provides one keeper in Dug, a happy-go-lucky dog who, along with other (fiercer) canines, has been equipped with a device that allows him to speak. In other words, this is a movie that ultimately goes to the dogs, and it still deserves enthusiastic thumbs up.
4. RATATOUILLE (2007). Cinema has given us so many marvelous movies set around the kitchen that it’s easy to lose count among the tantalizing dishes laid out on display. But onto a long list that includes Babette’s Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman and Like Water for Chocolate, I never expected to add an animated yarn about a culinary rat. The critter is Remy (Patton Oswalt), whose skills in the kitchen are exemplary, and the primary human protagonist is Linguini (Lou Romano), a skinny lad who possesses none of his late father’s superb culinary abilities. Since restaurant kitchens aren’t exactly rodent-friendly, and since circumstances force the singularly untalented Linguini to pass himself off as a master chef, the pair pool their resources to return a once-great Paris eatery, now struggling following the publication of a disastrous review by food critic Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole), back to its lofty position as one of France’s finest. Ratatouille serves as a love letter to Paris, a valentine to the fine art of cooking, and a gift to film fans of all ages.
3. INSIDE OUT (2015). In the control center in the mind of 11-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), the core emotions that have been with her since birth — Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) — attempt to figure out how to respond when she learns that her family is relocating from her Minnesota hometown to San Francisco. Firing both our imaginations and our own core emotions (particularly Joy, with some Sadness thrown in for heft), Inside Out‘s brainy script is matched both by its visual splendor, a go-for-broke design that often invokes the spirit of the gems Hayao Miyazaki made for Studio Ghibli (that nightmarish clown might well have stepped out of Spirited Away), and its humanist reach, which extends to both family and (imaginary) friend alike.
2. MONSTERS, INC. (2001). The first Academy Award ever given for Best Animated Feature should have gone to Monsters, Inc.; instead, it went to Shrek, a likable but overrated movie whose dependence on pop culture references and flatulence gags has already dated it. But Monsters, Inc. is a timeless toon tale, forever relevant as long as kids continue to be scared of what might lurk in the dark. The burg of Monstropolis is powered by the screams of children, and the only way to harness that energy is for the company Monsters, Inc. to send its employees through kids’ closets in an attempt to generate worthy shrieks of terror. Chaos ensues when a bubbly tyke nicknamed Boo (Mary Gibbs) accidentally invades the monsters’ world, forcing gentle giant Sulley (John Goodman) and wise-cracking cyclops Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) to return her to her bedroom before matters really get out of hand. It’s a given that the film is a visual marvel, and Mike Wazowski remains one of the studio’s greatest characters. Yet what really sticks is how deeply it makes viewers care about the relationship between Sulley and little Boo.
1. TOY STORY (1995) / TOY STORY 2 (1999) / TOY STORY 3 (2010). Is it cheating to put three movies in one slot? Maybe, but at this point, it’s become almost impossible to think of the Toy Story franchise — at least before Toy Story 4 — as anything but one elongated and beautifully linked tale, with each chapter as formidable as the other two. If you haven’t seen the original in some time, perhaps for fear that it won’t hold up compared to the later, sleeker releases from Pixar, it’s worth rediscovering the pleasures of this first adventure featuring cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) and spaceman Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen). Equally noteworthy is Toy Story 2, that rare sequel that lives up to the high standards of its predecessor — in part because of the introduction of the great new character Jessie (Joan Cusack). And while threepeats may be rare in the sports world, they’re even harder to achieve in the cinematic realm. Yet here’s Toy Story 3, bucking the odds and satisfying sky-high expectations to emerge as yet another instant classic in a series that’s guaranteed to live on for generations — or, in Pixar parlance, to infinity and beyond.
Keeping it short: Pixar’s top five quick flicks
Nearly as famous as the Pixar feature films are the Pixar shorts, many of which have premiered theatrically before one of the full-length flicks and all of which are available on Blu-ray and/or DVD. Of the 33 shorts produced to date, these are the cream of the crop.
1. GERI’S GAME (1997). The most ingenious of all Pixar shorts, this centers on an elderly man playing chess in the park … against himself.
2. KNICK KNACK (1989). A snowman trapped in a snow globe yearns to join the characters in a tropical-themed globe, so he plots his great escape.
3. DAY & NIGHT (2010). There’s tension and, later, understanding when the characters of Day and Night (whose bodies reflect their moods) first meet.
4. FOR THE BIRDS (2000). A gooney bird wants only to be accepted by the smaller birds who mock him, but he ends up getting the last laugh.
5. PRESTO (2008). A stage magician learns too late that it’s not wise to annoy the rabbit who co-stars in his famous hat trick.
Honorable Mentions (chronologically): Luxo Jr. (1986); Tin Toy (1988); Dug’s Special Mission (2009); Partly Cloudy (2009); Lava (2015).