Welcome to a new feature I’m hoping to develop in this blog, where I rank everything in particular artist/group’s catalogue from best to worst (or least best in some cases). This is different than a top 5/10/however long list, as those are based on exclusion. Half the fun of reading a top list is to see what doesn’t make it, which tends to take the focus away from the positioning of what does make it. For these posts, everything makes the list, so the discussion is then focused on where. This is an extension of what list obsessives tend to do whenever something new is released by the people we like: mentally place how it compares to everything else they’ve released.
And what better way to kick off this feature than a focus on the absolute best studio making movies today: Pixar Animation. They’ve had an unmatched run of success since the release of Toy Story in 1995, with their name becoming synonymous with quality. The release of a Pixar film is anticipated as much by movie geeks as it is by families looking for the latest distraction for their rugrats, with the releases instantly getting stamped as one of the best releases of the year. So deciding how their feature length films match up will be no mean feat. It’s probably no surprise when I say that I’m an unabashed Pixar fan (especially if you’ve read any of my reviews of their previous films), so be prepared for an onslaught of superlatives.
Honourable Mention: The Pixar Story (2007) – Not officially a Pixar film, The Pixar Story is a documentary by Leslie Iwerks on the history of the studio. Mostly released at festivals (with a small theatrical release), it’s a fun little documentary that’s a must see for any fan of the studio, and can be found as a special feature on the WALL-E DVD release. Getting a glimpse of the culture around the studio gives you an idea of how they turn out such high quality films. With all their vaunted technology and effects, story always comes first. It should be a simple thing for a storytelling medium, but a thing that Pixar’s competitors often miss.
10. Cars (2006) – Generally considered by most to be Pixar’s weakest film, Cars is the only time a Pixar film disappointed me, and is the only film available that I don’t currently own. However, even Pixar’s worst film is on par with its competitors best, which is why I can talk about an unmatched run of success without contradicting myself. The problem with Cars is that it’s closest a Pixar film comes to the cold, crass commercialism of its competitors, hopping on to the NASCAR demographic with licensing friendly characters and a derivative plot. Despite that, it still has a lot of charm, as well as some breathtaking animation capturing the scenic desert landscapes along the side of the highway. It looks so good, I expect to pick this up eventually on blu-ray.
9. A Bug’s Life (1998) – This and Cars are the two Pixar films that are most directed at kids, with less of the crossover appeal that’s indicative of most of their work. It’s really cute, but if this was the company had stayed in this direction, I’d probably simply regard them as makers of superior children’s films, but not as makers of my favourite films. Which is probably why I hadn’t owned a copy of this until it was recently released on blu-ray. Watching it again recently improved its standing in my eyes, but the rest of the films on the list are too good for it to have moved up.
8. Monsters, Inc. (2001) – We’ve moved past the decent-to-good films, and are already in the very good grouping. At first glance, Monsters, Inc. is another entry in Pixar’s early-period cute films, with Boo being possible the most adorable character they’ve ever done. But it’s a mistake to dismiss this as simply another cute family film. From a technical standpoint, the fur on Sully is easily one of the most impressive things the company has ever done. From a story standpoint, the idea of a world of Monsters who power their society through the screams of children is as imaginative as any of their more recent ideas. And from an action standpoint, the climactic battle on the door mover is one of the most exciting things Pixar has ever done. This is a deceptively good movie, and yet it still stands at number 8. Which explains why I think so highly of Pixar.
7. Toy Story 2 (1999) – There are some who think this is even better than its predecessor. I’m obviously not one of those people, but I can understand why they think it. The action improves on the original, the addition of Jesse the Cowgirl gives it emotional resonance, and the satire is strong. It’s easily one of the best sequels of all-time, which should bode well for next year’s edition. Particularly interesting about this film is it’s villain, Al the toy collector voiced by Wayne Knight. Instead of appreciating toys for their intrinsic value, things that bring joy by virtue of the fun that comes from playing with them, he only appreciates them for their financial value. In many ways, you could see his role in the film as a guiding principle behind the way Pixar makes films. While other studios put together their market-tested, celebrity-voice-filled films as easy methods to get the money of families, both in the theatre and through ancillary merchandising, Pixar makes films in order to tell stories that bring joy to viewers. Art and fun come first, financial benefits later.
6. Ratatouille (2007) – In 2007, one of the best year’s in film in recent memory, I ranked this the fifth best film of the year, calling it an instant classic. Yet, amongst Pixar’s films, it doesn’t even crack the top half. No, my opinion of it hasn’t changed, but rather their output is simply that good. From here on out, we’re dealing with nothing but excellence. Getting back to what I just wrote, in the hands of another studio, one driven by economics more than storytelling, this movie: A) wouldn’t have been set in Paris, fearing that xenophobic Americans would be turned away, B) wouldn’t have featured a rat (they probably would’ve gone with something cuter, like a frickin’ penguin), C) never would’ve gone with a hard-to-pronounce title, and D) definitely would’ve cast voice actors more famous than Patton Oswalt and Lou Romano (an animator for Pixar). Which is why Pixar makes films that make tonnes of money, draw universal critical acclaim, win Oscars, and inspire lists like this from geeks like me, while the other studios make films that just keep your kids distracted for an hour and a half.
5. Finding Nemo (2003) – This one just recently moved up my list. I think Nemo is often overlooked as one of Pixar’s greatest, because it was too popular, too heavily-merchandised, too kid-oriented, just too cute altogether. But just because it’s popular, doesn’t mean it’s not fantastic. From a visual standpoint, it’s one of Pixar’s most stunning efforts, creating a candy-coloured universe under the sea that never fails to captivate (and needs to be released on blu-ray, like yesterday). From a story standpoint, it’s deceptively rich. Beneath the rapid-fire yuks of Ellen DeGeneres’ Dory, or the silliness of sharks trying to be vegetarian and surfer sea turtles, is a story about parenthood and how difficult it can be to overcome your anxieties about your child’s safety and let them grow in the world. So you can imagine why this movie now has a more powerful connection with me than it did, say, two months ago, explaining why it’s recently climbed the charts (or at least you can if you know that my first child was born 7 weeks ago… especially if you know that we decorated his nursery with Finding Nemo accessories).
4. Up (2009) – This is tough ranking, as Up and Cars are the only two Pixar films that I’ve thus far seen only once. So it’s possible that it could move up or down with more viewings, but the fact that it ranks this highly after one viewing speaks to the richness of Up‘s emotional connection. The company has always made emotionally rich films, be it the parental themes of Nemo, the longing of Jesse in Toy Story 2, the familial bonds of The Incredibles, or the earnestness of WALL•E. And none of them have anything on the first ten minutes of Up. The beginning is so sublime that it can overshadow all the greatness that comes after it, from the chemistry of Carl and Russell, to the humour of Dug, to the deeply satisfying denouement that pays off the investment from the opening. Ten films in, they keep getting better.
3. Toy Story (1995) – You could argue, and I will, that Toy Story is the most influential American film released in the past 20 years. Its release signalled a paradigm shift in the world of animated features; marking the beginning of the age of CGI animation. Obviously, it’s through the benefit of hindsight that we see its influence, but interestingly, it only took watching the first reel of this film to know that everything you thought you knew about American animation had just changed dramatically. I was awe-inspired in a way that few films have ever made me, and that came from watching as a jaded teenager. The thrill hasn’t gone away since then. The company has proved since this release that they’ve figured out a whole new bag of tricks, but Toy Story proves that they had more than enough tricks up their sleeves in the beginning.
2. WALL•E (2008) – Probably their most ambitious film to date, WALL•E symbolizes everything I’ve been saying about Pixar and how they do things differently. While other family films are demographicked to death, Pixar chose to make a film about an unusual little robot in a dystopian future. While other animated films are marketed through character poster that highlight what celebrity voice du jour will be wisecracking their way through which character, Pixar went with a lead character with limited vocabulary, spending much of its stunning opening act without much dialogue at all. I guess it’s the willingness to take chances and the desire to make original stories that keeps them from being complacent after eight straight hit films.
1. The Incredibles (2004) – I’m a life-long comic book fan, so there’s a special place in my heart for Brad Bird’s tale of a superhero family. I just re-watched this yesterday to confirm its place at the top of this list, and even though it was somewhere around the three dozenth time I’ve seen it, I was still struck by how great it is. The characters are fully developed (with Helen Parr really standing out this most viewing), the action is fantastic, the meta knowledge on comic books is sharp, the comedy is legitimately funny. The Incredibles remains both the best representation of Fantastic Four and Watchmen themes committed to film, even though both of those properties have had movies made of them since its release. When I did my Top 20 Comic Book Movies of All-Time list, I excluded films like The Incredibles that were comic book influenced, but didn’t originate in the world of comics. If I were to make a top super-heroes movie list, this would give The Dark Knight a run for its money.