A few weeks ago, I wrote about how disappointed I was in Inside Out, the latest motion picture from Pixar Studios. I’m not a huge fan of animation, but I feel like I’ve generally enjoyed Pixar movies. My visceral reaction to this one made me wonder if that assessment was really true, which got me thinking about the studio’s filmography in general and whether I was suffering from my own version of Pixar nostalgia. When I think of their fifteen features, where does Inside Out rank? So, off to the library I went to rewatch the classics.*
By the way, I recently stumbled across this takedown of Inside Out and, while I probably give the film a bit more credit than this reviewer, he makes many interesting points, especially as regards Pixar as a whole.
The ranking below is based on the following metrics, which are similar to the considerations I use for judging books. When assessing overall quality—whether a book “works” for me—I consider three basic elements: character, language (i.e., artistic presentation: visuals for movies, writing for books), and story. If you don’t have at least two of the three, you will fall way down on any list of mine. However, I knew actually ranking Pixar films would be hard, so I turned to math and developed my own PIXAR metrics.
P: Premise + Plot. While it’s great when a book or a film has a creative or audacious premise, premise alone will not carry me through to the end. So, is the story interesting? Is it well paced? Is the world-building believable? Does it make sense?
I: Individual characters. Do I like the characters? Are they interesting and/or well rounded? Can I relate to them? Do I care about them? Are they believable?
X: Chromosomes. As noted in Pixar’s “Female” Problem, this score is based on passing the Bechdel Test, but also the general portrayal of female characters as well as the message or subject matter. And yes, I’m including this category because it is relevant to me (as well as, I presume, half the population) and my appreciation of this studio.
A: Artistic merit. Most Pixar pictures have very good production values. This score is for when films go above and beyond, whether visually or musically.
R: Reaction. Did I enjoy the overall film? Would I want to rewatch it?
[Side note: Crying is not a value. If a film manipulates me into crying, that is not necessarily considered a good in and of itself.]
For each category above, a film received a score from one to five upon rewatch, with a total possible score of thirty. Then, after watching all of them, I considered where I would place films relative to one another in each category to compare and confirm the scores I had assigned. In case of a tie in the total score, I ranked tied films based on an overall quality judgment. I was rather surprised how the math rankings worked out in certain cases, but, overall, I had to agree that it was pretty close to what I would have said on just a gut level.
To the rankings!
- Finding Nemo (2003). Score: P=3/5, I=5, X=3, A=4, R=5 Total: 25
Finding Nemo was the one movie I didn’t feel I needed to rewatch for this post because I had seen and enjoyed it so many times already. The depiction of Nemo’s underwater world is truly breathtaking and the film has a strong script with a great cast of characters. There’s a good blend of action, adventure, and humor. It’s one of the few Pixar films I hear people quote from. Yes, there an extra ending tacked on that we don’t really need, but that doesn’t detract from what a fun ride and touching film this is.
- Ratatouille (2007). Score: P=5/4, I=2, X=1, A=5, R=5 Total: 22
I’ve always liked Ratatouille (Paris! Cooking!), but it seems to divide people—for some Pixar fans it’s their favorite, and for others it’s a snooze. I think the visual depiction of Paris and the restaurant kitchen are glorious, and I love the story despite its inherent implausibility and the high amount of slapstick. I totally get that some people are squicked by the rats and can’t move beyond that (since that’s how I feel about the heights in Inside Out), but the premise shows just how daring and creative Pixar can be when they try. Anton Ego’s restaurant review is a high point of Pixar’s screenwriting.
- Toy Story (1995). Score: P=5/5, I=4, X=1, A=2, R=4 Total: 21
The first of Pixar’s films and, in many ways, their greatest. A simple homeward quest story where the various obstacles make sense given the world and characters presented. This buddy comedy deals with friendship, jealousy, and group dynamics in a relatable way. Great action, with just the right amount of melancholy, and the emotions are earned. Although the rendering of the people looks shockingly bad now, as the first computer-animated feature film, the animation was groundbreaking.
- The Incredibles (2004). Score: P=1/3, I=4, X=4, A=3, R=4 Total: 19
I liked this film more than I remembered. However, I really dislike the character of (epic-manchild) Mr. Incredible and so the initial set-up and exploration of his issues runs rather long for me, and this pacing as well as some troubling themes keeps The Incredibles from absolute greatness. It’s when the family comes together that the movie really takes off. As such, this is one of the few Pixar films where I really see the value of a sequel, especially since Edna Mode is one of my favorite characters in the Pixar universe. The James Bond–flavored score is a thing of beauty.
- Toy Story 3 (2010). Score: P=2/3, I=4, X=3, A=1, R=5 Total: 18
While Up is where Pixar really goes off the sentimental rails, Toy Story 3 also packs a tremendous emotional wallop. Its core themes of growing up and moving on are like Boyhood with toys. While I remembered enjoying it the first time around, I thought it suffered from multiple endings; however, on rewatch, the plot seemed far tighter than I imagined it. Perhaps it’s like how the way home always seems shorter somehow? Anyway, despite duplicating the framework of Toy Story 2, this edition works much better for me because we’ve come to know and love these characters over multiple films. And, while it gets quite dark in places (damn, Pixar can be nihilist), I found it far less tense than Inside Out.
- A Bug’s Life (1998). Score: P=2/4, I=2, X=5 A=2, R=3 Total: 18
I remembered liking this when I saw it, but was wary of a rewatch since it never seems to be high on anyone’s personal Pixar list. Yet it turned out to be one of the films that kept me the most engaged. The outcast-makes-good Seven Samurai plotline is something we’ve seen many times before, but it’s a classic for a reason. And to see it play out in this beautifully rendered world of tiny bugs is a delight. With a clear villain (not Pixar’s strong suit), A Bug’s Life makes for a great story of teaming up against bullies. The many secondary characters are rather one-note, but the voice cast, led by Dave Foley, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Kevin Spacey, is top-notch. Plus, Denis Leary as a ladybug is too awesome for words.
- WALL*E (2008). Score: P=3/2, I=3, X=2, A=4, R=3 Total: 17
Like Up, this is a film that many people rank very highly. Normally I’m a sucker for a post-apocalyptic tale and the first ten minutes or so are very cool, but then EVE arrives. Rewatching this today I realize what a frightening depiction of women she is and that WALL*E is not much more than a “nice guy” stalker for most of the film. Combine that with the fact that the second half is a mess that gets bogged down in preachy, heavy-handed commentary on consumerism and socialism, and yeah, I have an even lower opinion of this one than I started (even though I actually liked the EVE–WALL*E couple more this time around). Note: The sound design is absolutely f*cking brilliant in this film.
- Brave (2012). Score: P=1/2, I=1, X=5, A=5, R=2 Total: 16
Brave inevitably gets placed very low on many “best of” Pixar lists; however, I think that may be because its story structure resembles standard animated fare more than some of Pixar’s other recent creative leaps. And, it must be said, most of the lists I found were written by men, so that may play a role as well. While Pixar seems not to have known quite what to do with its first female protagonist, the narrative is actually pretty tight. Rather than the usual action/humor mix, this was more of an old-fashioned swashbuckler adventure, like The Adventures of Robin Hood or The Court Jester. And the visuals are gorgeous: Brave is really right up there with Ratatouille and the opening of WALL*E for the richness and texture of its animated world.
- Toy Story 2 (1999). Score: P=2/3, I=3, X=2, A=1, R=3 Total: 14
This is where Pixar starts to lean a bit too heavily on the fleeting innocence of childhood theme that it introduced in the original Toy Story. The second time around, I was remarkably underwhelmed during “When She Loved Me.” It really stops the movie in its tracks and is not necessary to the plot. Of course, the plots of the Toy Story films are all fairly similar—the toys have to make it back home—but this builds nicely on the world set out in the original. However, I think the film suffers somewhat from having the toys separated for so long. There are probably more obvious laughs here than in the original, but it doesn’t seem as cohesive. As happens with many Pixar films, it sort of falls apart in the third act.
- Up (2009). Score: P=2/2, I=2, X=1, A=3, R=2 Total: 12
Up is an odd film. For many it’s Pixar’s best, but I’m really at a loss to see why. The first ten minutes is manipulative filmmaking at its worst. And, even if you think it’s a masterpiece montage, it’s a very small part of the film. Is there any other movie whose quality we judge based on so little? The rest is disparate pieces that don’t fit together. Why is the adventurer the villain? If he’s smart enough to invent talking dog collars, how can he not find that damn bird himself? And don’t even get me started on the inconsistency of the cluster balloon physics. I like Russell and Carl well enough, and Dug is sweet and idiotic, but there’s just not enough humor here to offset the fact that every character is more poorly developed than the one who died ten minutes in.
- Inside Out (2015). Score: P=4/1, I=1, X=3, A=2, R=1 Total: 12
Did I say Up was manipulative filmmaking at its worst? No, this is. There are lots of jokes, but nothing holding this one together for me. The underlying premise could be really interesting, but once it gets going the plot is completely predictable and the world-building is all over the map. Joy is annoying and Riley is a blank slate so it was hard for me to connect with either one. The most appealing character is probably Bing Bong, but he is a complete retread of the cheap sentimentality and nostalgia that Pixar has already overused. Also, for a film centered on a young girl, it has plenty of gender issues. And for those of us with a fear of heights, it is terrifying at times. Maybe it’s director Pete Docter, whose previous outings were Monsters, Inc. and Up, which both fall near the bottom of this list; I think I just don’t connect with his films.
- Cars (2006). Score: P=1/3, I=2, X=2, A=1, R=3 Total: 12
I remembered liking this when I saw it, but, like A Bug’s Life, it never seems to be high on anyone’s list. The film is actually very sweet (a fish-out-of-water rom com combined with a sports movie) and I’d be happier to rewatch this than many other films above, but it’s just average on a creative level. As someone who loves a good road trip through the West, I did appreciate the visuals and the Route 66 nostalgia, but the film takes twenty-five minutes to get to Radiator Springs and that was about fifteen minutes too long for me. The closing credits were very clever (the cars watching “car” versions of Toy Story and Monsters, Inc.). Also, I love that they included the Car Talk guys.
- Monsters, Inc. (2001). Score: P=4/2, I=2, X=1, A=1, R=2 Total: 12
This Baby Boom–Three Men and a Baby mashup was never one of my favorites. I appreciate the premise more on rewatch but it’s just not as funny as it should be. And the action scene with the door chase goes on far too long. Definitely the most “for kids” of all of the films on this list. Plus, as with Toy Story, this is primarily a male buddy picture and the attitude towards the female characters is retrograde at best. At least it ends on a more hopeful, less melancholy note than other Pixar childhood innocence movies, which is nice. I did tear up a bit when Sulley says bye to Boo.
Best Ensemble: Finding Nemo
Best Visuals: Ratatouille
Best Score: The Incredibles
Favorite Character: Edna Mode, The Incredibles
Scariest Character: Baby from Toy Story 3
Most Overrated Film: Inside Out
Most Underrated Film: A Bug’s Life
Most Feminist: Brave
Most Tear-Inducing Rewatch: Toy Story 3
Most Conflicting Rewatch: WALL*E
Most Surprising Detail: Sally’s tramp stamp in Cars
Best Pixar Callback: Boo’s toys in Monsters, Inc., which include Cowgirl Jessie and Nemo
Best Closing Credits: The original fake outtakes from A Bug’s Life
In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new.
—Anton Ego in Ratatouille
My rankings above are just that, my rankings. Please feel free to add your own in the comments below.
For my discussion of sexism and gender issues in Pixar films, see Pixar’s “Female” Problem.
*I have never seen either Monsters University or Cars 2 but, given that the originals didn’t rank very high on my list, and everything I’ve read about them leads me to believe that I haven’t missed anything, I didn’t include them in my Pixar lineup.