There’s perhaps no major studio more hard-pressed to contend with the weight of its own legacy than Pixar. Twenty-five years ago, the American animation giant reset audiences’ expectations with an 80-minute movie about toys who came to life when no one was around, and Pixar’s storytellers have worked every year since to meet them—in turn raising their own standards further and further. That passion is to be expected from a company that gambled on an entirely new way of making movies, earning acclaim, box office success and Oscars recognition as a result.
Twenty-five years later, the Pixar story is one reflected in the journeys of its characters. In examining it we find triumphs and occasional missteps, continued evolution and conforming to norms, the impossible being made possible and hints of a defiant spirit. In that spirit, and on the occasion of the impending release of Pixar’s 23rd movie, “Soul,” on Disney+, we’ve ranked every feature the studio has released below.
23. “Cars 2” (2011, dirs. John Lasseter and Brad Lewis)
Lightning McQueen and Mater motor east, try to get their kicks on European streets, and end up stalled. Pixar’s first non-“Toy Story” sequel is a junkyard of four different movies – none of them all that interesting – and the decision to make Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater the most prominent character feels like a middle finger to parents. “Cars 2” massively expands on the world of the original film as Mater gets tangled in an international conspiracy, and we perhaps wouldn’t mind the self-seriousness of the plot if it wasn’t running empty on solid jokes (Michael Caine’s voice contributions as the James Bond-adjacent Finn McMissile, meanwhile, mostly just makes you wish we’d seen him in 007’s shoes at some point).
Despite a wider array of living (maybe?), breathing (still unclear?) vehicles and its spy-story inclinations, “Cars 2” instead feels more lethargic than its predecessor, which at least justified its conceit by spray-painting the body of the story with Route 66 nostalgia. Here, it’s less vroom, vroom than yikes, yikes. But the strangest thing about the movie’s existence (which, like the “Cars” franchise as a whole, comes down to merch dollars) is that no one in their right mind would choose “Cars 2” over its various inspirations. Want a car-centered actioneer? Then binge “Fast and Furious.” Want a racing drama? Watch “Rush.” Want a spy parody? Oh behave; there’s much better, funnier, more inventive ones than this. “Cars 2” accentuates the empty tank of the franchise’s core concept, but it’s also one of the few imagination-less offerings from a movie studio that traffics in bolstering our imagination. It’s Pixar at its most purposeless.
22. “The Good Dinosaur” (2015, dir. Peter Sohn)
“The Good Dinosaur” is an enigma, a rare example of Pixar unsure of itself to the point that every scene is either too weird for its own good or begging to be weirder. This is a movie in which dinosaurs toil away on the family farm; it’s also a movie where a hallucinatory berry trip leads to the most stupendously WTF minute of any animated movie from the last half-decade. What’s frustrating is that if you overlook the movie’s tired ethos of “Earning your mark” and the early signs of what turns out to be an annoyingly flat leading voice performance, you can spot underpinnings of a patient survivalist story with aspirations of profundity against the backdrop of a stunningly animated, threatening wilderness.
Then, before it has the chance to convince us Pixar has made an effective tone poem, “The Good Dinosaur” takes a hard pivot from Malick-lite territory into droll dino-inhabited Western, one in which galloping T-Rexes herd buffalo and Velociraptors stalk young Arlo as dull representations of bloodthirsty bandits. The topsy-turvy dynamic of a talking dinosaur and his animalistic human companion sounds like the perfect Pixar pitch on paper, and director Peter Sohn indeed manages to squeeze some genuine emotion from their shared connection of tragedy, but those few triumphant moments mostly leave us wondering why their relationship keeps being shunted aside for appearances by other, more forgettable characters. No Pixar character has gotten more mileage out of those trademark puppy-dog eyes than Arlo does, and it’s in the service of a movie that ends on a shrug, leaving us to wonder why the studio didn’t go with a full-throated Western to begin with.
21. “Cars” (2006, dirs. John Lasseter and Joe Ranft)
There’s a funny paradox at the heart of this 2006 parable about a rookie racecar who thinks he’s all that and a bag of lugnuts: It’s cutesy aesthetics represents Pixar’s broadest gesture toward tykes despite the narrative being fueled by a pathos for sweetened American melancholy that only their parents would understand. “Cars” was feature No. 7 for Pixar, and by this point the studio had had a decade to make peace with the fact that their trail-blazing success was in itself a contradiction.
It’s almost more interesting than the movie itself to consider the place of “Cars” in the company’s story. The much-too-long runtime and formulaic self-growth machinations keep it from revving up to the shiny quality of Pixar’s output up to this point, but no matter: The next year would start what can be argued as the studio’s best run with “Ratatouille,” “Wall-E,” “Up” and “Toy Story 3.”
As for “Cars” itself? It’s a middle-of-the-road effort even if Owen Wilson’s Lightning McQueen doesn’t blurt “Kachow!” 573 times. Unlike the joys of “The Incredibles” or “Finding Nemo,” the inventiveness here is relegated to an endless highway of auto puns against the backdrop of a brand name-slathered world that depletes Pixar’s charm. The story’s commercial contexts practically portends its destiny as a merchandise-selling goldmine, but if “Cars” gave the kiddos of the 2000s a new toy obsession, it also gave their folks a final feature film role for Paul Newman before his passing in 2008. As Doc Hudson, Radiator Springs’s patriarch and a racing car past his prime(r), Newman provides much-needed soul to a movie that’s more engaging to watch through the lens of Doc’s comeback story than Lightning shedding his ego.
Even so, the more distance we get from “Cars,” the more its lasting impact is borne out not in its lessons or characters, but in the infinite questions we have about the rules of this world that “Cars” slyly sidesteps from acknowledging. And, sure, in the endless stream of Mater shorts now streaming on Disney+.
20. “Monsters University” (2013, dir. Dan Scanlon)
A nice, if needless, contextualization of Mike and Sully’s friendship in “Monsters, Inc.” would arrive in the form of “Monsters University” 12 years later—ample time for those who watched the duo growing up to head to college themselves. The technical leaps made by Pixar over that span can be glimpsed in the sheer busyness of the titular setting and its vibrant scarers-in-training, and that’s one reason why the sequel is more memorable for its endless gags than a formulaic find-yourself narrative. “Monsters University” is clever for turning the sneaking-into-the-human-world conceit on its head in what should be a thrilling showdown finale, but those thrills are numbed due by a rigidly structured narrative that meanders through what feels like five acts; this is a far more conventional flick than its fantastic predecessor, and is far more reliant on montage to ferry us through the story.
Still, it’s a sly move to introduce John Goodman’s lovable furball as a lazy jock who’s got a requisite dose of self-enlightenment coming his way, and anything involving the underdog Oozma Kappa misfits is good for a laugh. Extra points, too, for Aubrey Plaza’s couldn’t-be-bothered Greek Council leader and Helen Mirren’s menacing (if agonizingly trope-y) Dean Hardscrabble. As with Mike’s ambitions to become a professional scarer, “Monsters University” charges itself with aspirations it couldn’t possibly meet in trying to match the original’s exhilarating charm. It’s a solid success for Pixar as college campus comedy, less so as another chapter in the “Monsters, Inc.” story.
19. “Up” (2009, dirs. Pete Docter and Bob Peterson)
The animation, emotion and visual poetry of “Up’s” first 25 or so minutes are such that when we find ourselves rewatching the core of that first act – a gorgeous, music-driven sequence telling the story of a couple’s life and the dreams deferred by its tragedies – we may satisfy ourselves in thinking we’ve watched all that “Up” has to offer. That isn’t far from the truth. For how excellent those first 25 minutes are, the following 65 is standard misfits-on-an-adventure stuff that doesn’t measure up to the opening’s promise. Pixar has conjured up few images as purely magical as a house floating away on the strength of world’s biggest bouquet of balloons, but “Up” otherwise fails to capture the melancholic potency of its opening, instead drifting into non-sequitur territory that mainly keeps the audience on their toes for the next flashing visual gag.
Truck-sized birds and talking dogs and dishonorable would-be heroes—“Up” throws a lot at its audience over 90 minutes without backing it up thematically, and it feels like Pixar collecting its various Cartoon Motif Survival badges to the point that it becomes a well-rounded film that isn’t sure what ideas it’s most passionate about. TV legend Ed Asner is easy to love as Carl, the grumpy geezer whose only soft spot is for what he and his wife have built. But Carl’s arc isn’t refined enough to prevent “Up” – which succeeded “Ratatouille” and “Wall-E” – from being the closest Pixar has come to its own kind of animated-entry Oscar bait, to say nothing that it succeeded in that regard, keeping the studio’s streak of Best Animated Feature victories alive.
18. “Brave” (2012, dirs. Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman and Steve Purcell)
Pixar’s first female-centered entry is a bear in sheep’s clothing—“Brave” operates in more traditional aesthetic confines than we might expect from the studio’s storytellers while lightly subverting gender tropes for an enjoyable fable about a young princess who would rather make her own path than wait for some prince to lead her. Kelly Macdonald submits a wonderful performance as archery-loving lassie Merida and the film makes good goofy fun of the cartoonishly hypermasculine tribes competing for her hand, though you can see its lessons about loyalty being teed up by the middle of the first act, making for a 90-minute movie that feels much longer.
The movie doesn’t fly as swiftly as one of Merida’s arrows, but it’s nice nonetheless that its mother-daughter relationship is the core source of intrigue when it could have constantly failed the Bechdel Test. In “Brave,” Pixar’s intentions are just a bit more absorbing than the execution. No doubt it needed more shenanigans from those cunning red-headed triplets Harris, Hubert and Hamish.
17. “Cars 3” (2017, dir. Brian Fee)
The “Cars” franchise went full “Rocky” in its third installment, shunning the spinoff-level hijinks of “Cars 2” for an operatic comeback-story narrative. The result isn’t entirely convincing in its self-seriousness (remember the *clenched teeth* grittiness of that teaser?), but the screenplay smartly centers the relationship between Lightning and his old mentor Doc Hudson as Wilson’s cherry, cheery racecar threatens to be lapped by the new generation. “Cars 3” blows the fuse of its age-old themes a few times over by the point Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” is being crooned at a back-country bar, but at least this is a more character-focused “Cars” entry with some legitimately surprising developments for Lightning and new character Cruz Ramirez. And the Thunder Hollow demolition derby might be the funniest sequence the franchise has ever come up with.
As with the entire franchise, the metatext of “Cars 3” is more intriguing to consider than text. It arrives six years after its predecessor, and both “Cars” entries bookend a Pixar period of high highs (“Inside Out”) and low lows (“The Good Dinosaur”). The studio is fully in sequel/prequel gear by this point, and it may have likened itself to being in Lightning’s shoes...er...tires, as the storytellers at Laika, Illumination and Disney Animation began to churn out movies, challenging Pixar’s long-time pole position in the animation game. Those minions may not have the soul of Woody or Nemo or Wall-E, but they were high-tailing it into kids’ hearts all the same.
“Cars 3” is more interesting with that context—a vision of a studio beginning to reckon with itself and finding new stories to tell. After all, “Coco” would come out mere months later.
16. “Soul” (2020, dirs. Pete Docter and Kemp Powers)
It took a quarter of a century and 23 movies for Pixar to create its first Black protagonist, which makes it frustrating that “Soul” ultimately cheapens the emotional currency of Jamie Foxx’s Joe Gardner in favor of its extravagantly literalized concepts about life and purpose. “Soul” is yet another existential tale from the studio in the vein of “Inside Out” and “Coco,” but this effort so cleanly erases the line between text and subtext that it creates a void of thematic reductiveness and stumbles into it. The animation is typically astounding, the humor predictably effective and the Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross score totally immersive—all elements supporting a story that can’t shape its soul into something as illuminating as the truths Pixar has unearthed before.
15. “A Bug’s Life” (1998, dirs. John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton)
We don’t talk much about “A Bug’s Life,” and I wonder why that is. Pixar’s follow-up to the smash success of “Toy Story” arrived three years later, in the form of another clever magnification of miniature societies and a story empathizing with the outsider mentality of misunderstood ant Flik, no matter how crazy his ideas. Was “A Bug’s Life” Pixar’s version of a victory lap? Perhaps. A knowing statement that the new kids in town are here to stay after changing the industry for good? Sure seems like it. Flik’s flick returned many of “Toy Story’s” maestros – including since-disgraced director John Lasseter, storyteller Andrew Stanton and composer Randy Newman – and cemented them as mainstays.
The plastic-y character design and early era of computer animation makes “A Bug’s Life” arguably the most visually bland of Pixars. But it also encouraged audiences to expand their imagination, going beyond the familiar confines of a child’s room to explore a world at our feet—discarded cans are now bars where mosquitos order Bloody Marys; sparrows are terrifying flying foes; ant colonies are run with the organized rigor of, well, a colony. It’s all about perspective, Pixar seemed to be saying with its early movies, and the message rang for adults who noticed the broad allegorical delights in Hopper and his intimidating minions—Pixar’s version of a dastardly mafia, using fear to control the ant colony into a mindset that isolationism is the safest way to life. The overarching narrative is a little wobbly and not nearly as emotionally sophisticated as “Toy Story,” but “A Bug’s Life” remains an economical and spirited tribute to collaboration within the confines of a lightly biblical interspecies struggle.
14. “Onward” (2020, dir. Dan Scanlon)
It really is onward rather than upward in Pixar’s 22nd feature, which sees Tom Holland and Chris Pratt taking a break from their world-saving ways over in the MCU to voice two elven brothers questing their way across a magical land of hidden chambers and leather jacket-wearing Pixie bikers. On the one hand, Pixar’s exercise in melding the astonishing with the familiar leans too far into the latter, extolling more lessons on the virtues of family while borrowing its set pieces from “Indiana Jones”-type fare. On the other hand, original Pixar is increasingly becoming rare Pixar, so we’ll gladly smile along at the movie’s giddy indulgences and perhaps shed a tear in the finale, too. “Onward” may have modest ambitions, but it’s also that restraint that makes it the more satisfying of the studio’s two 2020 offerings.
13. “Incredibles 2” (2018, dir. Brad Bird)
Most pretty-good superhero sequels are most memorable for astounding set pieces, and “Incredibles 2” isn’t an exception. Elastigirl’s thrilling rescue of a runaway monorail train, Jack-Jack’s hilarious battle with a raccoon, the final-act showdown pitting supers against one another—take your pick. Brad Bird is a more successful conductor of animated action than most of his counterparts in the live-action space; his sequences sing right up until there are no more notes to expel. The screenplay doesn’t have quite the same effect, mostly because there are lots of different melodies vying for attention, from Bob Parr’s chaotic readjustment to being a stay-at-home dad to personal vendettas to the corporate-funded mining of nostalgia that feels like Bird poking in the side of Disney.
There’s never a slow moment here, however, and even if some coherence is lost amid constant ricocheting between swinging punches and domestic reflections, it’s nice that “Incredibles 2” keeps the franchise subversive when the superhero genre continues to feel more and more homogenized.
12. “Toy Story 3” (2010, dir. Lee Unkrich)
It’s lightyears away from a bad movie, but some “Toy Story” flick needs to be ranked the lowest on here, and No. 3 is the least effective of the lot. Andy’s finally heading off to college, setting up Woody and Co. for more confrontations on the meaning of their existence when all they’re expecting is to start collecting dust in the attic. The thematic foundations of “Toy Story 3” are largely echoes from the first two movie’s ideas, and the film is aware of it. So, it sets up a feature-length premise in which our beloved toys must break out of Sunnyside Daycare, which is practically a gulag run by the diabolical Lotso. There’s some fun running bits here, an inventive gag there – as well as that terrifying incinerator scene that has always felt like Pixar overreaching just for the heck of it – but very little that builds on Woody and Buzz’s prior shenanigans before the eventual “So long, partner.” This is the only “Toy Story” movie where sticky glue has been slyly applied to the middle act in order to get back to Andy—and to a finale that hits all the right emotional beats as an ostensible capper to the franchise, 15 years after it first began.
11. “Finding Dory” (2016, dirs. Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane)
The cold-open flashback spotlighting a soon-to-be-fragmented family anchored by overprotective parents...it’s obvious how the sequel to one of Pixar’s most popular hits starts out as an echo of its predecessor. We shouldn’t linger too long on that impression, though; after all, the intention is right there in the title. Andrew Stanton, also the director of “Finding Nemo,” knows exactly what he’s doing.
“Finding Dory” arrived 13 years after that movie, but it isn’t content with languishing in nostalgia. Instead, it builds on top of it—trading the open ocean’s vastness for the comparatively close quarters of the Marine Life Institute and morphing itself into an entertaining rescue mission where “Nemo” succeeded as a road-trip movie. Shifting the focus to Dory naturally tests the limits of how much Ellen DeGeneres a person can take in one sitting, but a new school of memorable characters – including Hank the ocean-phobic octopus and Destiny the enthusiastic near-sighted dolphin – prevent the movie from floundering. Dory, for her part, emerges as a character with dimension under her scales, led by a worldview that was good for gags in “Nemo” but leads to growth here. Latter-era Pixar tends to lean heavily on the comedy side of its screenplays, but “Finding Dory” might be the jokiest Pixar movie in which the jokes don’t become an annoying burden. There’s a breathlessness to the bits and revelations that gives the movie a propulsiveness worthy of its protagonist; if it isn’t as nimble or thoughtful as its predecessor, well, that’s what makes it an invigorating follow-up. This is sneakily one of Pixar’s best sequels.
10. “Coco” (2017, dirs. Lee Unkrich and Adrian Molina)
Pixar’s imagining of the Land of the Dead is so vibrant, so joyous, so paradoxically alive that it threatens to swallow up the narrative unfolding along its streets. Thankfully that narrative pulses with its own colorful urgency as Miguel, motivated to follow in the footsteps of who he believes to be the grandest of musical heroes, shuns familial loyalty for personal passions, only for them to come to a head down the road. Bien trabajo to Pixar for not only doing their due diligence in molding the authenticity of the film’s cultural contexts, but also for beautifully harmonizing the oft-misunderstood purposes of Dia de los Muertos with one of the studio’s most pitch-perfect endings. “Coco” is a movie about recognition and celebration, and so Pixar manages to recognize and celebrate.
9. “Finding Nemo” (2003, dirs. Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich)
Wondrous, alien, ethereal, threatening—all words to describe the ocean and, appropriately, all words to describe Pixar’s dive into it with “Finding Nemo,” one of the studio’s most luscious productions and also its first to tackle death head-on. Is this the most mainstream movie about overprotective-single-fatherhood ever made? Whatever the answer, its operating metaphor of exploring depths both literal and emotional is as effective as it is obvious, buoyed by a strong contender for the best voice ensemble Pixar has ever assembled. The most impactful cog, from a pop culture perspective, is perhaps Ellen DeGeneres’s forgetful Dory, whose “Just keep swimming” refrain of wisdom is more than an earworm--it’s the perfect distillation of the Pixar pathos that would only continue to refine itself going forward.
“Finding Nemo” is also just a searingly entertaining movie, transitioning from set piece to set piece with thrilling ease as it accentuates the infinite dangers of the oceanic world while not forgetting about the delicate grace to be found there, too. One of the most stunning sequences is a simple one: The camera patiently gliding closer and closer to an immense humpback whale dancing through the currents, while a helpless Marlin toils away inside. For all its memorable quirks – “Shark Bait, hoo-hah-hah!” and “P. Sherman, 42, Wallaby Way, Sydney!” and “He touched the butt!” – the movie’s enduring triumph lies in how effortlessly it conveys the vastness of the ocean, at the same time as it emphasizes the literal distances we’re watching a father go to find his lost son.
8. “Toy Story” (1995, dir. John Lasseter)
Even with all the technical advancements that were inevitably to come, Pixar’s debut remains a high-water mark—an existential parable about deeply conflicted toys with a weird streak that stands up to scrutiny and a commitment to concept that matches up to its groundbreaking innovation, if not surpassing it.
“Toy Story” represented an entirely new corner of the animation genre and the stories that could emerge from it, but enough of all that hoopla. The movie is also singularly enigmatic—a three-time Oscar nominee (Lasseter was also honored with a rare Special Achievement Award; only Alejandro Iñárritu has won the distinction since) so confident in its execution that it’s possible 25 years with the film have numbed us to the more bizarre elements of its assembly. Remember Sid’s Frankenstein’d creations that look like they dropped in from a “Child’s Play” spinoff? How about Woody’s near-homicidal selfishness? Buzz’s tragic (and literal) fall from disillusionment? Don’t overlook how Pixar blends its sensibilities so deliciously right out of the gate, for the sake of “Toy Story” being the first one out of the gate. This is a Shakespearian story by way of Toys R Us-era commercial comforts; a work of limitless psychology told through characters for whom limits are supposedly in their very nature. But nevermind that these toys’ batteries never seem to be at risk of draining; they will do what their very human desires push them to do all the same. As has Pixar, in the quarter-of-a-century since.
7. “Monsters, Inc.” (2001, dirs. Peter Doctor, David Silverman and Lee Unkrich)
Pixar’s first feature in the new century was – and remains – one of its most ingenious compromises between the children in the audience and their parents. Billy Crystal and John Goodman are a juxtapositional marriage made in voice-work heaven, invigorating a lightly environmentalist story that starts as hilarious riff on the mundanity of the 9-to-5 office job routine before deftly transitioning into a tidy little corporate conspiracy thriller—all while introducing Boo, the studio’s cutest creation to date (even in Pixar’s then-infancy, that was saying something). The title sequence alone was only the first indication that Pixar-ites were starting to expand on their inventiveness. Hollywood noticed too; “Monsters, Inc.” was the first Pixar offering since the inaugural “Toy Story” to garner multiple Academy Award nominations.
The sly genius of the movie is that its premise of Monstropolis is a starting point, not a destination. The characters who inhabit it have personalities as refined as their fanged, horned, furry, scaly visual designs, and the scary-good ensemble is a major reason the movie is as breezy and satisfying a 90-minute watch as it is. Nineteen years on, we’re also better equipped to appreciate the screenplay’s presciently raised eyebrow at corporate power (ironic, given where Disney has come since then), and “Monsters, Inc.” is just as keenly aware about bureaucrats’ tendency to fear the unfamiliar. This is Pixar’s best buddy comedy, but everything else about it continues to age just as nicely as Goodman’s warm empathy and Crystal’s zany hysterics.
6. “Toy Story 4” (2019, dir. Josh Cooley)
The “Toy Story” property has come to be the closest thing to a sure bet under the Disney umbrella this side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the final minutes of “Toy Story 3” was as perfect an ending to the story of Woody, Buzz and the rest of the gang that audiences could have hoped for, and so returning to them was a daring move. What else is there to their journey now that Andy has left? What more could they learn about their existence, now that they’ve settled with transitioning to young Bonnie’s playbox?
Well, quite a bit, it turns out. Reuniting with a now-fiercely-liberated Bo Peep provides Woody with a new perspective about the possibility of life beyond a child’s bedroom, and a surprising arc for antique toy Gabby Gabby redeems Pixar for the one-dimensional villainy of Lotso. “Toy Story 4” is a wholly more successful film than its predecessor, in fact; it’s just as deliriously fun a rescue/break-out mission mash-up that smartly mixes into its suspense themes of individualism and finding out what exactly lies beyond infinity. Pixar provides a moving coda to its biggest franchise with “Toy Story 4,” as well as a final, fitting epiphany for Woody that upends the philosophy he’s prescribed to for years—everyone’s favorite plastic sheriff has been so loyal to his multiple kids that he’s more than earned the right to put himself first for a change.
5. “The Incredibles” (2004, dir. Brad Bird)
Pixar enlisted a whole new crew for its sixth feature – no Lasseter or Stanton, no Newman or Docter – so it shouldn’t be a surprise that “The Incredibles” endures as one of the freshest-feeling entries in the studio’s catalogue. It’s also one of the smartest; just as the contemporary superhero movie is getting into full swing, writer-director Brad Bird pulls it in a hilarious new direction. Instead of telling an origin story, he offers one of resurrection, and tells it with bold style, mature humor and subversive flair. Sharp-edged architecture and Michael Giacchino’s James-Bond-on-a-caffeine-rush score manage to do the impossible: Provide “The Incredibles” with an aesthetic pizzazz that still stands out among Pixar’s stunning but occasionally samey sensibilities. And Bird’s screenplay hums with psychological depth and complexity worthy of its genre trappings. “The Incredibles” is as much a benchmark of the modern superhero flick as “Spider-Man 2,” “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” or “The Avengers”—and one of the greatest goods we’re ever gonna get from Pixar.
4. “Inside Out” (2015, dirs. Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen)
“Have you ever looked at someone and wondered: ‘What is going on inside their head?’”
So goes the pitch for “Inside Out,” Pixar’s brainy metaphysical masterpiece, and an ironic logline given how effortlessly the movie cuts to the heart of the matter. What matters are those? Ones of streamlined psychology and realizing that life’s sadnesses are inevitable, yes. But also matters of memory and emotional malleability—of the necessity to shed our past lives to grow into something better, of recognizing all the different pieces that make us who we are and foreshadow who we’ll become. No, the movie isn’t too literal for its own good, because the literal architecture of Riley’s mind is the only way we can empathize when it all comes crashing down (and Amy Poehler’s Joy perfectly sells the complicated not-joy of it all). “Inside Out” would make a punchy double-feature with “Coco”; if “Remember Me” swells the heart, Bing Bong’s fading away to memory shatters it to oblivion.
3. “Toy Story 2” (1999, dirs. John Lasseter, Ash Brannon and Lee Unkrich)
When Pixar is at its best, it leaves no opportunity for something outside the screen to divert our attention. A prime example? “Toy Story 2,” in all its world-enlarging, ethos-expanding, devastatingly melancholic glory.
The sequel is even more confident than “Toy Story” in its cross-audience appeal while complicating its predecessor’s defining contradictions. Is it out of selfishness or duty that Woody tries to get back home to Andy, after being plucked by a greedy collector’s item hoarder? Is it desire or purpose that drives him the other direction with his Roundup Gang? Amid the movie’s rapid-fire gags and endearing weirdness (the Woody-renovation sequence remains one of the most inexplicably satisfying across four “Toy Story” pictures, and a low-key stunning editing showcase), “Toy Story 2” churns with a dark irony: The implication that Woody, Jessie and Co. are valuable precisely because they’re not wanted anymore. It introduces trauma as an inevitability for our ever-lovable toys, and Joan Cusack sells its effects coherently and cogently as discarded cowgirl Jessie. Listen closely and you can still hear that “When She Loved Me” sequence breaking hearts years later.
The movie wastes nary a moment, and when it’s not tapping into our emotions, it’s winding up belly-aching laughs. Supporting toys Rex, Hamm and Slinky get more time to shine and a visit to Al’s Toy Barn sets up opportunity after opportunity to riff on pop culture iconography, all while maintaining the ticking-clock tension and the stakes of Woody’s predicament. “Toy Story 2” saw Pixar turning its debut franchise into its flagship franchise while settling into a natural storytelling ease and mastery of tone. The rest is history.
2. “Wall-E” (2008, dir. Andrew Stanton)
Pixar at its most symphonic, and an ingenious display not just of the visual wonders of computer animation, but of its storytelling possibilities as well. The studio has exhibited a continued interest in existential stories, but none of them are more of a shoulder-shaking indictment of our consumer-obsessive habits as “Wall-E” is, and which Wall-E the lonely robot has devoted himself to dutifully cleaning up after humanity has taken off just because it could.
But even more effective than “Wall-E” as allegorical firebrand is “Wall-E” as love story, and it’s here where Andrew Stanton and his fellow screenwriters imbue an ostensibly simple premise with such absorbing elegance that it causes our tinny friend to go where he has never dared go before after a sleek white EVE arrives and changes everything. Cue the robot-uprising hijinks aboard the starliner Axiom and the slow waking-up of a human race that’s been perfectly content coasting along on the commercial flavors of the hour for seven centuries, emotionally distancing themselves from each other even as they zip along in close physical proximity. Loneliness is a universal concept, as is the possibility of companionship. That turns Wall-E into a worthy avatar of Pixar, and a perfect Pixar hero—he’s driven by his curiosity to wondrous new frontiers.
1. “Ratatouille” (2007, dirs. Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava)
And if Wall-E is rocketed by curiosity to new places, it’s passion that guides Remy the rodent chef to a pinnacle of creative fulfillment, bringing Pixar along with him. Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava’s movie remains a marvelous ode to the aroma of obsessive artistry—even more deliriously zany than Bird’s pair of superfamily epics and charged with a swagger that’s on par with the Paris setting. “Ratatouille” knows that movie montages are infinitely more appetizing when the subject of the frame is food, and through its astute depiction of critic Anton Ego it reveals understanding of deeper enduring truths that ring clearer in a period of content overload: Art is at its most delectable when shepherded with care and embraced with an open mind.
In the way it emphasizes the sensuous improvisations of undertaking, “Ratatouille” is a cinematic feast. In the way it empathizes with those who dare to dream beyond possibility, it functions as effective Pixar self-tribute. There’s fulfillment in entertaining, but “Ratatouille” shows – in form and function – that the ultimate catharsis lies in having been sufficiently entertained.