Pixar Animation Studios’s run from 1995’s “Toy Story” to 2010’s “Toy Story 3” is a feat of cinematic invention, ingenuity and love that moviegoers who were along for the ride will likely remember as one of cinema’s modern marvels and one of the key thrills of their lives, a rush of instant classics whose greatness, particularly for those who grew up right along with Pixar, can put a lump in your throat.
“Just Keep Swimming,” “Boo!” and “Edna Mode” are gateways to a world of nostalgia. It’s the reason this new decade for Pixar has caused different tears. Efforts that fall below their classics had us wondering if the old Pixar magic is waning. Such worries should be quelled once their wonderful new film “Inside Out” arrives in theaters June 19.
For now, it seemed appropriate to take a trip down Pixar lane and provide a ranking of all their efforts. I can’t think of any list that could be more subjective for a millennial, so if mine doesn’t match with yours, leave us a comment below.
15. Cars 2, John Lasseter (2011)
The one bad egg in the Pixar carton. “Cars 2” is in line with the flashy, commercial aesthetics of today’s mainstream market and less with the exquisite storytelling for which Pixar is known. It’s as entertaining as a “Fast and Furious” movie, but without the thrill of seeing actual cars parachute out of planes. Beyond young kids, this one has been mostly forgotten.
14. A Bug’s Life, John Lasseter (1998)
Another rather simplistic effort that never rose above its cute but well-trodden conceit. That it came out at the same time as another excursion into bug world, the far more entertaining “Antz,” also tarnished the film’s reputation. I’m as big a fan as anyone would be of Kevin Spacey as the villainous grasshopper, and there are visual treats abound, but “A Bug’s Life” grows tedious on repeat viewings.
13. Cars, John Lasseter (2006)
Pixar’s seventh feature allowed for Disney to milk Pixar products for more kids merchandise, but “Cars” had a rather surprising message at its center. The idea of reminding us of America’s fading industrial landscape was a bold and timely move, but it was swallowed whole by the insufferable babbling of Larry the Cable Guy and a predictable narrative.
12. Monsters University, Dan Scanlon (2013)
Dan Scanlon’s prequel to “Monsters Inc.” gets an unfair rap, but “Monsters University” granted our favorite monsters some wonderful context. And as a comedic riff on making your way through college, its notes will sound far more accurate than something like “Animal House.” Finding the right group, registering for class, not wanting to disappoint your parents, annoying roommates, no one who attended college won’t recognize at least one moment from this minor, but smart comedy.
11. Brave, Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman (2012)
Pixar’s first foray into a female-driven narrative depends on fairy-tale formula to weave a tender and engaging yarn on identity, family and communication whose central mother-daughter dynamic works as a lovely response to the father-son relationship in “Finding Nemo.” Add to that beautiful animation in which every strand of that carrot-colored hair looks alive, and you have a high-spirited entertainment that fans of “Frozen” should revisit.
10. The Incredibles, Brad Bird (2004)
A favorite for many, “The Incredibles” zigs and zags with such jazzy flavor that you hardly realize how thematically heavy it is. Director Brad Bird made a great superhero flick that also examined suburban angst and routine with bite and wit while also condemning a society that celebrates mediocrity. In the oppressive age of Marvel, the evil Syndrome’s wicked line “And when everyone’s super, no one will be” was prophetic. The brilliant cast (Sam Jackson needs to do more voicework) doesn’t just play their characters for laughs; they live their character’s wants, indignities and aspirations. They sound like real people. Bird, always the writing stylist (he penned many of “The Simpson’s” funniest episodes), has an ear for dialogue in the superhero and suburban realm that would make the film work just as easily as an audiobook. And let’s not forget: Edna. A slam-bang final two-thirds almost buries the rich subtext, but this thing still zips right along. We all await that sequel.
9. Monsters Inc., Pete Docter (2001)
Pixar started off the millennium with one of their funniest and most touching efforts. This tale of a community of monsters who scare kids for a living is filled with wonderful satire about our over reliance on energy sources and even manages to nudge in a tribute to the power of laughter. Even without these varied themes, you’ll be hard-pressed not to enjoy what’s there on the surface. Billy Crystal, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi give wonderfully comic vocal performances, and the surrogate father-daughter relationship between Goodman’s Sully and the little human girl (he calls her Boo) who enters his life is as sweet as anything Pixar’s yet created. That final shot is simple and pure.
8. Toy Story 2, John Lasseter (1999)
“Toy Story 2” is one of the greatest of all sequels. It expands on the original in glorious and exciting ways; a simple rescue film becomes a rumination on mortality and the importance of putting others before yourself. At the time, it pointed to Pixar’s growing maturity. No longer just films of charms and laughs, Pixar’s work could be thoughtful, complex, and even dark. It was a sign of great things to come. And I still have my Emperor Zurg toy.
7. Toy Story, John Lasseter (1995)
Where it all began. It speaks to the heights Pixar would later reach that this first effort, so original and endearing, finds itself out of the top tier. It’s nothing more than the relationship between a young kid and his toys. Yet “Toy Story” is a landmark, simple as that, influencing animated film from here to eternity (or infinity). Woody and Buzz are two of the most iconic characters in modern movies. They, and this film, will live on forever.
6. Inside Out, Pete Docter (2015)
I’ll say more in my review, but Pixar’s 15th feature is the rekindling of that singular magic people have been waiting for. Their most ambitious concept yet, “Inside Out” brilliantly and elegantly makes literal the tumultuous emotions that run budding adolescence. It’s sweet and knowing in ways live-action films about kids rarely approach. It will wind up one of 2015’s best films.
5. Up, Pete Docter (2009)
Pixar closed out the past decade with an emotional powerhouse of a set-piece in their 10th feature: a four-minute montage (caressed by Michael Giacchino’s lovely score) depicting the peaks and valleys of marriage. It was in the first 15 minutes of the film, and all who witnessed it were blindsided by its emotional truth and poetry. The rest of the film wouldn’t quite match it (a poor villain and excess of frivolity weigh it down), but “Up’s” delightful characters bring it home, not the least of which being the lovable dog Dug. If anything, “Up” reminds us that life’s great adventures are often the moments we share with others. ‘Tis a lesson worth remembering.
4. Toy Story 3, Lee Unkrich (2010)
“Toy Story 3” gets the edge over its predecessors for putting such a beautiful and poignant bow on what must be one of the great film trilogies. It supplies laughs, emotion and thrills in equal measure, while also providing a climax that will reduce any normal human to mush. That image of our beloved toys facing oblivion — first with fear and desperation until, finally, with brave finality — works on our emotions the way the best films do, when we realize these characters have become like family. Like family, things change, people move on and toys are passed on, but the memories and the feelings remain. A “Toy Story 4” is pointless. There could be no finer send-off for these characters than this film.
3. WALL-E, Andrew Stanton (2008)
Pixar’s ninth feature entered the cinematic space of “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Charlie Chaplin. It was a grand, visual navigation of human folly and invention centered around a protagonist of effortless charm and expressivity. The first thirty minutes or so is nearly wordless sublimity. The stark and arresting depiction of a ravaged earth set against the innocence and curiosity of WALL-E was beautiful to behold. The final hour is more formulaic, but with time has revealed itself as a rather savage satire of technology as life support and the inevitable numbing of human sensation. It’s more than just mankind becoming fat. Formula or no formula, when you have the scene of WALL-E and his love interest EVE performing a romantic waltz in space, you can’t help but feel like you’re flying right along with them.
2. Finding Nemo, Andrew Stanton (2003)
“Finding Nemo” is perfect. There is not a false scene or beat. Its stunningly life-like underwater visuals still have the power to wash over you and send you into movie bliss, and Thomas Newman’s score seems to swish and sway to the rhythms of the ocean. When you first see it, the emotional current of its father-son story carries you off. While Dory, played by Ellen Degeneres in truly Oscar-worthy work, gives you a childhood’s worth of life lessons in just one line. But subsequent viewings reveal a deeper appeal. Each character must deal with a handicap, either mental, physical or emotional. Everyone we meet on that epic journey to P. Sherman 42 Wallaby Way, Sydney — whether it’s the vegetarian sharks, the fish in the dentist’s office, or the surfer-turtle Crush — is just trying to get by. “Finding Nemo” reminds us that there’s life being lived everywhere you look, and it isn’t easy for anyone, and that sometimes we all need a reason to just keep swimming. That it can say all this so effortlessly and movingly while keeping kids of all ages enthralled the whole way through solidifies its status as a treasure.
1. Ratatouille, Brad Bird (2007)
Pixar’s eighth feature works like the best popular fiction, meaning more to you as you grow older. It is first a celebration of the senses. Not only is it a sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears, food and taste are as vividly depicted as they’ve ever been in a visual medium. You get hungry watching “Ratatouille.” Bird also knows how taste or touch can travel a direct line to our deepest and most important memories. But the film also celebrates the joie de vivre, buoyantly evoking that feeling of taking life’s next great step, of entering worlds you never knew existed. Finally, it is one of the great, impassioned films about the artist’s pursuit of excellence. And it is the defense of that pursuit that, in an age when what qualifies as exceptional grows more and more dubious, resonates so deeply.