Just like Walt Disney did all those years ago, Pixar revolutionized animation and has been at the forefront of animated films for the last 23 years. Officially founded in 1986 and releasing its first film in 1995, the company has enjoyed unparalleled box office and critical success. Making to date a combined $10.8 billion from all its 18 feature films worldwide, and with 16 Academy Awards, Pixar is not only a juggernaut of animation but of the movie business in general.
The studio is well known for making intelligent films with an emotional core that anyone can enjoy, whatever their age. Past the surface level, their films are basically about being human, whether they’re about bickering toys, super cool monsters, or chef rats.
Mixing those simple relatable emotions and life moments that we’ve all been through or will likely experience, and transporting them into unique worlds of imagination and far-out premises, you’ll know a Pixar movie when you see it. And of course, there’s the gorgeous animation that they took to the upper echelon and perfected over the years (sadly hitting the final nail in the coffin of hand-drawn animated movies in the US).
Then there’s the development phase with some films being worked on for years until they’re deemed ready; this is spearheaded by the influential “braintrust”, where employees critique each other’s work along with the company’s top directors and producers. This process helps them get notes a little easier and more understandable than from an ignorant suit.
With 18 features released to date and much more on the way, of course, ranking all the Pixar films is no easy feat. Ask anyone what their favorite is and you’ll get a different answer each time (sometimes from the same person); it’s all relative to which one spoke to you the most.
18. Cars 2 (2011)
More known for being Pixar’s first “rotten” rating on Rotten Tomatoes and apparently only existing to move more merchandise, there’s no doubt that it’s the worst the studio has done. In fact, it’s the rare film in the studio’s history that’s a kid’s movie through and through. And to be precise, it’s a kid’s movie for boys, after all; they’re the ones buying the merchandise (well, their parents, which basically means them). And to a 5-year-old boy, this is without a doubt the “Citizen Kane” of movies.
Whatever your opinion, you can’t accuse the studio of not trying or lazily rehashing ideas to cash in. Changing protagonists, locations, and premise, “Cars 2” takes a different route than its predecessor and adding some James Bond inspired spy shenanigans in the mix.
Larry the Cable Guy’s Mater takes the lead this time and while he’s an okay supporting character in the first “Cars”, he sort of gets annoying after the 30-minute mark. The plot sees him traveling the world after he is mistaken for a spy (really?), meeting a whole host of characters along the way. None of which resonate in any way.
Although there are some super cool sequences and it looks amazing visually, what’s most noticeable is the emptiness compared to the emotional heft we’re used to from other Pixar movies. It’s not completely terrible or unwatchable, but it’s not very good either.
17. Cars 3 (2017)
The latest Pixar movie immensely improves on its predecessor by adding the emotional backdrop that was missing before, and returning to its core premise and characters. It does, however, raise the question of how we’ve gotten three Cars movies before any sequels to “The Incredibles” or even “WALL-E”.
The legendary and cocky Lightning McQueen finds himself challenged by the newer generation making him feel like a jalopy. In comes a new owner and trainer (the almost annoying Cruz) to help motivate him to recapture that magic he lost, while gaining some motivation for herself as well. It’s a feel-good movie with lessons to be learned and positive energy in the end.
Visually speaking, “Cars 3” is the best the franchise has ever delivered but somehow the Cars trilogy just doesn’t reach the speeds of other Pixar movies.
16. The Good Dinosaur (2015)
Usually, when a Pixar film has a troubled production, they’re able to regroup and produce something fantastic. But unlike “Toy Story” or “Ratatouille”, “The Good Dinosaur” still fails to measure up.
It features an interesting premise: it’s set on an alternative timeline where the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs misses the earth and they live on. This by all rights should’ve been a much better movie; all the ingredients are there but they fail to connect in any meaningful way.
After a rainstorm washes him downriver, the whiny and weak Arlo finds himself far away from home and meets Spot, a Neanderthal boy who offers to help him find his way back home. The story is very familiar and has been done a thousand times before and better. It does try to add something new by reversing the boy and his dog relationship but that’s pretty much it. The characters also aren’t that interesting, including our titular hero (save maybe for Spot).
Awash with an inconsistent tone, humor, and storyline, “The Good Dinosaur” has its moments, like when the two leads get high on wild berries, but they are far and in between.
15. Cars (2006)
The first “Cars” movie was the strangest movie Pixar had released at that point. Not necessarily in its story or concept, but the fact that it came from Pixar. It’s totally different from what they’ve done before, feeling more akin to a Dreamworks movie in its execution and humor while still having that Pixar trademark.
It introduces the arrogant and equally talented Lightning McQueen who ends up stuck in a small sleepy town called Radiator Springs, whose inhabitants and their way of life take an influence on him for the better. Not exactly an original concept, but this started the merchandise madness that probably made Cars the Barbie for boys.
The animation is still Pixar-esque which means it’s a feast for the eyes in every possible way with some witty gags, a cool desert backdrop, and of course, the exciting racing.
At this point, the list probably looks prejudiced to the whole Cars series and in all honesty, it’s hard to watch any of them all the way through without feeling apathetic. There’s only so far you can go with this concept before it feels stale, and we’re talking in a single movie.
14. Finding Dory (2016)
The sequel to “Finding Nemo” is somehow just as overrated as its predecessor. Why is it so beloved and successful? Is it the cute fish? Even some ‘vegetarians’ love themselves some fish. Is it Ellen DeGeneres? Her voice work is pretty good and she is a likable person. Or is it an appreciation for the beautiful underwater animation? Water is indeed hard to animate.
Familiar in storyline and tone, but not copy-and-paste like “The Hangover Part II”, the sequel has some backstory on Dory about she got separated from her parents as a child, and even on how she learned to speak whale. Dory, Marlin and Nemo embark on an adventure to reunite Dory with her parents.
With all the constant advancements in technology, the film looks better than its predecessor and has a stronger climax as well. The ocean is breathtakingly vivid and the different species are masterfully captured.
It’s actually a good sequel and unlike “Monsters University”, it warrants a purpose and fits perfectly with what came before. It has funny moments and tugs on the heartstrings a bit too much which is probably why it’s so universally loved.
13. Brave (2012)
Disney made history with an array of princess stories and while Pixar has had some memorable female characters, “Brave” was their first to have a female lead.
Set in medieval Scotland, the story follows Merida, a daughter of royalty who defies an age-old custom by refusing to be married off, causing chaos in the kingdom and with her family. Adding some nice mother/daughter drama in the mix, it’s an interesting take on feminism and a twist to the classic Disney princess fairytale.
The voice work is excellent across the board with Emma Thompson, a hilarious Bill Connolly, and Kelly Macdonald in particular, who makes Merida likable aside from it feeling like there’s nothing more to her than her independence.
It takes awhile for the film to find its footing and all the fantasy stuff doesn’t translate quite as well in the story department. To their credit, the writers did try to shake things up with structure, but it doesn’t stick as well, especially with an emotional climax that’s a bit disappointing.
Things wrap up a bit too conveniently and sure enough, and they could’ve taken things deeper, but it does leave you entertained, even if it’s a little underwhelming. It’s a film that should’ve been more memorable.