Ranking Pixar Movies From Good to Great

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Ranking Pixar

Ranking Pixar movies is like deciding which oyster is the tastiest. Or if you're not into shellfish, which tropical vacation spot has the best sand. All 11 of the animation house's feature films the 12th, "Cars 2," arrives in theaters June 24 are very good. Most of them are fantastic. The "Toy Story" trilogy is the "Godfather" of animation -- without any weaknesses. Still, as the Emeryville, Calif.-based creative giant celebrates its 25th anniversary in business in 2011, we decided to attempt a ranking. Would the old adage about getting better with age apply? Was there an adolescent slump? Does "A Bug's Life" have a shot at the gold? Read on, and remember, being at the bottom of this list is not an insult. Just as something has to be seventh on the list of Seven Wonders of the World, something has to be the least wonderful Pixar movie.

"Cars" (2006)
This homage to life on Route 66 is as good as any movie featuring inanimate, man-made objects talking, tipping over tractors and falling in love could possibly be. It's also a movie featuring inanimate, man-made objects talking, tripping over tractors and falling in love, and there we have its limitation. But it works -- it absolutely works -- I can't deny it. The fact that giving voice to gruff vintage racecar Doc Hudson was Paul Newman's last film role gives "Cars" a special je ne sais quoi, but something had to be last on this list. There's an element of crassness about "Cars" that sets it apart from the other Pixar films. It's funny and smart, but it's also cutsie and a wee bit boastful (see the way we make these cars seem like people, raising their "eyebrows") and, dare I say, commercial? Am I biased because I spent most of 2007 searching for lost or misplaced Lightning McQueen die-cast metal cars, which come in dark red, bright red and bright red with -- wait for it -- bugs in teeth? Yes. That's what happens when merchandising takes over.

"The Incredibles" (2004)
 The premise -- superheroes are thwarted by our ultra-litigious society, defrocked and forced into hiding in the suburbs -- is such genius that I kind of lost my taste for all other flicks featuring superheroes with angst. Nothing seemed quite as smart or fresh. Yet I was hard on "The Incredibles" when I first saw it back in the fall of 2004, which is to say, I gave it, you know, a B or something. I thought its explosive beginning (and end) was too violent, too standard-fare action flick, especially in comparison to the fluid beauty of "Nemo" and the cuddle factor of "Monsters, Inc." Figuring that having a 6-month-old baby at home when this came out might have made me hypersensitive. I just rewatched "The Incredibles," thinking my sensitivities might now be dulled by lack of sleep and years of viewing children's entertainment. And it is still too violent, better for grown-up nerds than little kids. But the pleasure of the company of Edna "E" Mode (voiced by director multitasking writer-director Brad Bird) and the whole Parr family is undeniable.

"A Bug's Life" (1998)
Pixar's second feature has a tendency to get forgotten, maybe because it's such an offbeat underdog story. A colony of ants, long held in virtual slavery by a crew of bullying grasshoppers, inadvertently get roped into staging a cautious rebellion. The ants are a little too traditionally cute, but all that preciousness is neatly offset by a troupe of jaded performing circus bugs, hired to help defeat the grasshoppers. There's something very old-fashioned, very Andy Rooney and Judy Garland, about "A Bug's Life"; it's basically a war waged by putting on a show. Brilliantly concise, it is filled with hints of all the greatness to come (keep an eye on that single-minded bug-hungry bird, clearly the forefather to "Nemo"'s seagulls ("mine") and "Up"'s Dug ("squirrel"), but it's a small gem.

"Toy Story 2" (1999)
Woody lands in the clutches of a sweaty, salivating man-boy toy collector who plans to sell him and his matched-set Wild West colleagues to a Japanese museum. After being rescued by Woody in the first movie, Buzz now needs to rescue the sheriff. So maybe it's not wildly original to have them essentially swap roles, but the material still feels fresh. The toy collector is a perfectly rendered obsessive. And then there is Jessie the Cowgirl. Her pain and suffering over being left in a box for donation by the girl who once loved her is so compelling it is no wonder the screenwriters returned to explore toy abandonment issues more thoroughly in "Toy Story 3" a full decade later. So, am I being arbitrary? Why score this sequel lower than the other two in the trilogy? It's almost as awesome as the original "Toy Story." But it came second, and it can't measure up to the emotional depth of the third movie, so here it sits at No. 8. See, this ranking business isn't easy.

"Monsters, Inc." (2004)
The premise validates children while emboldening and liberating them. Scared of the dark? Convinced there are monsters in the closet? There absolutely are: big hairy purple ones, even. But they're not there to cause harm; they're just collecting the shrieking energy of boys and girls in order to supply energy for an alt-universe for Monsters. And the truth is, they are terrified of children, too. The construction is beautiful, the voice work by Billy Crystal and John Goodman is superb, so why not higher on the list? Unlike most Pixar movies, this one seems to have less longevity on the playlist. Maybe because of all those pastels and furry creatures, it skews more to toddlers. In my household it was on nonstop for about a month in the age 4 range, and now it's been years since I've had a request for it. Nor have I felt the urge to watch it: It feels like a wonderful lesson learned and now passed. That said, am I excited for "Monsters University" in two years? Completely.

"Finding Nemo" (2003)
Go to an aquarium, any well-stocked aquarium, in the world. Stand next to the tank with clown fish in it. Wait 30 seconds. A child will crow "Nemo!" or "Marlin" in great delight. Guaranteed. And I bet that will continue happening as long as there are DVD players, children and aquariums. My 7-year-old inexplicably has "Nemo" dead last in his Pixar rankings. Haven't I educated him properly? There are three main reasons why "Nemo" can't be anywhere near the bottom of this list. First, the combination of grumpy Albert Brooks and gently idiotic Ellen DeGeneres is so deliciously "Odd Couple." Then there are those lush underwater sequences, generated by artists who did their ocean research; "Nemo" marks the beginning of Pixar's special brand of visual lyricism. Finally, other than the howling fit I threw at Bambi as a child, "Nemo" was the first animated movie that made me cry, and not in a mommy's-dead-because-of-the-mean-hunter kind of way, but in a happy, isn't-familial-love-and-devotion-great kind of way. A beauty, visually and emotionally.

"Toy Story" (1995)
The first Pixar full-length feature is still in the top five. It's really "The Velveteen Rabbit" of movies. There is a beautiful simplicity in its conception: Children believe that all their toys, whether favored or left at the bottom of the toy chest, have feelings, personalities and real interactions, and Pixar makes it so. The central conflict, between a toy that is tried and true (Woody) and one that is new and glitzy (Buzz Lightyear, who also happens to be plastic) is classic and timeless in nature, but also provocative. It makes kids think, about what they love and how they love it. I didn't see it until I had a kid (with a title like that, childless me assumed I was above it) and it made me think. As Hollywood's first entirely computer-generated animated film, "Toy Story" was a technological marvel, but it was also an emotional marvel, setting the tone for Pixar's special brand: childlike wonder writ large.

"Up" (2009)  
Here's the surprise for me. I thought I'd be rearranging the top three on this list for days, and that "Up," with its fantasy of a flying house with a sad (let's face it, suicidal) old man locked inside it would be one of those top three. It's that "Married Life" infertility sequence that gets me every time -- the most soulful and stirring four minutes in Pixar's history. The fact that there are filmmakers both sensitive enough to come up with this material and daring enough to include it in this "kids" movie still shocks me. (And the Pixarians knew what they had; I've been told that was the only sequence that essentially stayed the same throughout the creative process.) But I took points off for the slightly backward energy of the narrative. The dramatic climax of the conflict between Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer) and Carl Fredricksen (Edward Asner) never resonated at the same level that the flashback story of Carl and Ellie did.

"Ratatouille" (2007)
This is the movie that convinced me the Pixarians can do anything. They put rats and food together and no one wanted to vomit. Amazing, non? And we're not talking about a cute Mickey Mouse rodent; Remy is a full-on rat who sups, albeit reluctantly, on garbage. But he dreams big -- he wants to be a chef -- and against all odds, it happens. The pointed inspirational message is, don't be held back by where you come from, even if it's a sewer. I like that -- it's very Pixar -- but I love the kitchen slapstick, the sweetness of kindly loser Linguini, the tart edge of his love interest Colette the supercilious food critic and the faith in flavors as having the power to transport even the biggest curmudgeon back to a time when his mother was there to care for him.

"Toy Story 3" (2010)  
I felt I knew Buzz and Woody plenty well enough already. I step on one of them at least once a week. Whatever they got up to in the third installment of the franchise would be fun, I assumed. Good clean fun. But there I was, tears pouring down my face as the toys headed for that incinerator. Going, going -- are they really going to do it? Is Pixar going to throw this wildly popular posse of toys into the flames? They're bold, after all. And I was ready to trust them, to believe that Woody burned to a crisp would somehow serve the franchise right. But the plan was to take us to the brink and then back to a kinder place, wrapping this whole saga in bittersweet truths about moving forward while passing the good things on to others. Does that sound saccharine? If it does, just take a look at scary, funny amazing Big Baby, the creepiest character of the year.

"WALL-E" (2008)
No, that honor has to go to Pixar's masterpiece. The Pixar filmmakers often seem to be on a mission to remind us that life is beautiful. But in this futuristic depiction of a trash-littered, storm-scorched toxic earth, life is all but gone, except for a cockroach and a sapling. Life has been unsustainable on earth for 700 years; we're centuries past the misery of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." The only beauty lies in the eye of the mechanical beholder, the charming robot WALL-E. The universe does contain some humans, hideously bloated and floating around in the Love Boat of the sky. Talk about a clear message: We humans, with our whole Buy and Large culture, are destroying the earth. Now, you want some corn syrup-laden Froot Loops while you watch that DVD, honey? A love story involving inanimate objects and an ode to the environment that's too funny and sweet to be sanctimonious, this radical movie is Pixar's best. But you know, the filmmakers there always have something new in the pipeline.  
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