Pixar Landing Page and Personal Rankings

(After having waited a respectable some amount of time before engaging in a new poll/collation, I am asking you once again to engage with my pet interests. Results of a poll where you folks shared their Pixar thoughts and rankings is here; if you’d like to see what the consensus view of Pixar movies is based on forty individual and critics’ lists, you can follow this link.)

After having spent an awful lot of time looking at critics’ lists of Pixar movies, I’m back to looking at my own. In the top ten, I don’t think I’m all that much out of step with the consensus—yes, it does make me feel very middle-aged—but once we get down into the bottom half I hope this feels a little bit less predictable. Given that I’ve done Pixar rankings in the past, albeit mingled with Disney movies, I’ll be brief here. Mostly what I want to do is provide a rejoinder to some of the narratives I’ve seen in the writing or ranking of these movies.

#23
Finding Dory

2016, directed by Andrew Stanton

Why is this so low?

Just for starters, I can’t find anything good about it. The strength of Pixar characters going back to Toy Story has traditionally been in reliably entertaining support just as much as the leads, and Finding Dory can offer neither. Dory, who was only ever forgetfulness in a body, meets a bunch of other characters who have a single trait, none of which are even as charismatic Dory’s short-term memory issues. (Who greenlit “a whale shark who needs glasses?” More importantly, who greenlit “not one but two characters defined by cognitive disabilities and used for humor?”) Add in the film’s reticence to use its prefabbed complex character, Marlin, and you have a movie which has sopped up as much as your average rag at the bar and which smells about the same.

#22
Onward

2020, directed by Dan Scanlon

Where is the director’s touch?

In the meta-analysis I’ve hypothesized, maybe a little cynically, that Pete Docter’s films have taken on greater weight for a lot of critics (or even the Academy) because his films are so much about systems of organization which are lit up in bright colors. If Dan Scanlon keeps making movies about losers who find out their dreams are actually impossible to attain, maybe they’ll start giving him Oscars instead, or at least people will start taking his movies seriously. Granted, everything done in Onward seems to be done for the least possible effect, but Ian is just such a loser, a boy who tries to meet his father and never actually gets there. It’s played as a good thing (in much the same way that Mike never becoming a scarer is a good thing), and assuming Dan Scanlon gets a chance to make another one of these, I expect we’ll find some similar kind of moment in his next effort.

#21
Cars 2

2011, directed by John Lasseter

What’s the best thing about this movie?

Beyond a shadow of a doubt it’s the scene where they do that homage to Witness, because now Lukas Haas has to live his life knowing that arguably the pinnacle of his acting career is actively being referenced in a scene about Mater.

#20
Toy Story 4

2019, directed by Josh Cooley

Why is this so low?

The problem with Toy Story 4 began back when someone said, “We’re greenlighting another Toy Story sequel,” because after the last half-hour of Toy Story 3, there’s absolutely nowhere left to go for those characters. The film struggles mightily to create a compelling story for Woody, who for a staggering fourth time is separated from his group, and where the three preceding films each managed to find different ideas for Woody to explore—inadequacy, immortality, death itself—this film, unsurprisingly, has nowhere else to go but down. If you were sad about Woody breaking off from the rest of the gang, that’s work that was done to you from 1995 through 2010, not work that was done in 2019; that ending is like watching some rich kid’s son cosplay as “self-made” when the family money came from a distant ancestor.

#19
Soul

2020, directed by Pete Docter

Who is this for?

From the very beginning, Pixar had a willingness to appeal to adults as well as children, and I mean the very beginning: that “look, I’m Picasso!” joke was not made for the elementary schoolers and younger in the audience. But I bristle a little bit at the idea that these are equivalently, or even primarily, movies aimed at adults. (Nobody used classic music like the Tex Avery Looney Tunes, after all.) Soul, which has a talking cat as a bait-and-switch for a midlife crisis, is at the extreme end of this pretension that these movies are made for adults as opposed to children. If Pete Docter wants to make a movie for adults, maybe he could try making a movie that has half the power of any Powell and Pressburger picture? It takes more than borrowing the imagery of A Matter of Life and Death, that’s for sure.

#18
Cars 3

2017, directed by Brian Fee

Why is this so high?

It’s not that this is “high,” so to speak, but given that it’s a pretty clear second-to-last option based on the original meta-analysis, I think it’s worth asking why I’ve got it out of the sub-basement. Even if this is pretty old hat for Pixar movies in a way that makes you worry about the people making these—”male character who came into the pop culture limelight a decade ago starts to deal with his star falling”—watching it happen to Lightning McQueen is fairly effective. The way that athletes rise and inevitably must fall is how your purplest sportswriters get to pretend they’re Homer, and that idea is transferred over to Cars 3 with a neatness that I’m not sure any other Pixar movie manages to pull off.

#17
Incredibles 2

2018, directed by Brad Bird

Where is the director’s touch?

Maybe there’s something in here about not knowing how to land this movie, but that’s a little cruel to Brad Bird. No, what makes this movie his is that dab hand at action. That doesn’t hold up in every sequence, but that sequence with Helen on the motorcycle or the encounter with flashing lights with the movie’s (sadly predictable!) villain are exciting and clean. Even the movie’s sole reason for existence, the raccoon fight, is a totally legible sequence which functions as good action even if the reason we love it is because it’s thirty-one flavors of hilarity.

#16
Brave

2012, directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman

Who is this for?

One of the early endeavors at Pixar that Disney actually had its fingerprints on, you can tell who this was for just by watching Ralph Breaks the Internet, where Merida is just one of the girls. The fact that it’s about one of these princesses trying to figure things out with her mother as opposed to spending all her energy on some royal himbo is welcome, but you can also hear the cry of the Internet saying WHY DOES IT ALWAYS HAVE TO BE ABOUT A GUY WITH THESE STRONG, BEAUTIFUL WOMEN. Put it all together, and the answer is that Brave, a movie that’s kind of a mess even from the most charitable reading, is for the C-suite.

#15
Cars

2006, directed by John Lasseter

What’s the best thing about this movie?

It’s the nostalgia. Nostalgia is a basically conservative feeling, and I guess in the world of Cars, where there are horrors beyond number for anyone cursed enough to think about them, at least there’s not racism, right? Cars, when it starts to look back at Radiator Springs before the highway came, imagines a kind of halcyon past that’s American Graffiti without the looming threat of Vietnam or the sublimated fact of segregation. I don’t know that it’s something that we have to sit around and laud, but that little snapshot of a reimagined Americana back when it might just have been America has real energy.

#14
Monsters University

2013, directed by Dan Scanlon

Why is this so high?

It’s no masterpiece, and it’s not aimed right at your emotional jugular, but I think this a really nicely paced film which delves into that territory I mentioned earlier with Onward. There are moments of real pathos in this film. Mike is so sure that he can be a scarer, so certain that if he just works hard enough and knows more than everyone else that he’ll make it. Of course he can’t—he’s just a tennis ball with the voice of Billy Crystal, after all—and we know he won’t. When he scares the pants off the practice model in front of a stadium of his cheering peers, it’s this incredible moment for the character…and then the film strips it all away from him in humiliating fashion. There’s boldness in this movie, and while I wish it had lingered on it more than it does, that boldness is in service of an inadequacy that the character can never really overcome on his own.

#13
Coco

2017, directed by Lee Unkrich

What’s the best thing about this movie?

I don’t think they’ll ever make a Pixar movie that looks like this one ever again. I think “glowing” is a easy, maybe even cheap way to get your movie to look good, but boy, this movie just makes the entire airplane out of the black box, and it’s stunning. I don’t think there’s much to this story at all, least of all the mystery that’s uncovered throughout, but the way this movie shines and radiates just floors me every time.

#12
The Good Dinosaur

2015, directed by Peter Sohn

Why is this so high?

If I added myself to that Pixar list collation, I would be the high man on The Good Dinosaur. No one else has it this high, and given that I technically don’t even have it in the top half of my Pixar movies, I’m not sure I’m the right guy to cape for it. But I can’t get over this basic synopsis of the story:

When Arlo gets into a situation which forces his father to save his life at the expense of his own…it’s painful. We can get into his head just fine. If he had been stronger, if he had been smarter, if he had been more ruthless, then his father would be alive. But Spot, a human boy about the age of a first-grader who sports similar table manners, would be dead.

I continue to be really taken by a movie with this much bloodthirstiness in its premise, especially when so much of what’s left is basically cutesy fare. The premise of this movie is that Arlo’s beloved, kindly, otherwise perfect father who does so many good father things, is wrong. He’s wrong about humans, so wrong that it undercuts the beloved, kindly, otherwise perfect facade. A couple years later, another film would describe the Arlos of the world by saying “we are what they grow beyond.”

#11
Inside Out

2015, directed by Pete Docter

Why is this so low?

Even in that glowing and simpering review I’m being transparent enough to link to, I managed to lodge a few reservations about this film’s shaggy pacing and too-clever-by-half side adventures. In the intervening years, I’ve been less blown away by the way the film boils down the complexity of the mind to those simple emotions, and while I haven’t quite reached Richard Brody or Emily Yoshida territory on this movie yet—in other words, I’m not sure I think it’s dangerous—I can’t quite get to that fawning excitement for it again. That hug at the end of the movie is still a tremendous moment, but the long and winding road it takes to get Riley back to her door has never been close to matching it on the rewatch.

#10
Toy Story 3

2010, directed by Lee Unkrich

Who is this for?

It’s anyone who saw Toy Story as a kid, and just as much for anyone who saw Toy Story through the eyes of their children. To some extent, Toy Story 3 only works for someone who has really internalized Toy Story and Toy Story 2, and so a lot of the criticism I have of Toy Story 4 is about as fitting for this movie. It’s still a good movie. I think we really overreacted to it in 2010, because this did not need to win Best Picture nor did it deserve to beat How to Train Your Dragon in the Animated category. All the same if we were to make a list of the best moments in Pixar movies, it’d be hard to keep our heroes holding hands and accepting the end together out of the top five.

#9
A Bug’s Life

1998, directed by John Lasseter

Why is this so high?

Everyone’s still sleeping on this movie! It doesn’t look as good as a Coco or even a Cars, and of course Flik is no one’s idea of a thrilling hero, but this movie at its best is never really about Flik. It’s about that really difficult balance between wanting to be an individual inside a community. Flik wants so much to stand out in a community that is not equipped for anyone to stand out in, but which turns out to need his spunk and creativity. It turns out that one ant on his own is just an ant; it’s when everyone pulls together to do a great work that we see that bird come together. (That montage is almost thrilling, which is not a word I use for montage very often!) There’s a really nice set of supporting characters as well with stronger comedy chops in dialogue and premise than in something like Finding Dory, and the ideas are strong enough to keep this movie compelling.

#8
Up

2009, directed by Pete Docter

What’s the best thing about this movie?

This is cheating because I’ve talked about this so often, but it’s got everything to do with Carl taking those beloved chairs out of his home because they weighed him down from getting on with his life. An absolutely lovely and natural metaphor. “Thanks for the adventure. Now go have one of your own!”

#7
Finding Nemo

2003, directed by Andrew Stanton

Who is this for?

Although there are Pixar movies before this one which I think are more frequently loaded up for adults (see Toy Story 2 below), this might be the first one that I think of as having a resonance which is primarily for parents. There’s a reason that as a kid, I found Dory so funny, and thought the sketches that Marlin and Dory went through so amusing and cheerful, but thought Marlin himself was maybe a little shrill and boring. As an adult, even one without children, I think Marlin is one of the four or five best characters Pixar has ever come up with, full stop.

#6
Monsters, Inc.

2001, directed by Pete Docter

Where is the director’s touch?

It’s the doors. This is still my favorite organizational obsession movie from Docter, and my favorite introduction to it generally. The boys are riding that door into a really mysterious storage unit, basically, but one that holds millions of possibilities. The reveal of just how huge it is is the kind of wide shot wonderment that animation doesn’t often key in on, but I am certainly glad they chose to do so here.

#5
Toy Story 2

1999, directed by John Lasseter

Why is this so high?

“So high” is relative, but I’m bringing this up because Toy Story 2 is at the bottom end of a group of what I think are contextually very good movies, not just in the context of “American animated features” but “American movies as a whole.” So from that point of view, this is maybe a little high. Once again, this movie’s contrast of the Achilles choice—a long and undistinguished life versus a short and glorious one—is an exciting choice to begin with, but more than that it’s an absolutely new idea for a movie. Whether or not Woody should submit to being a museum piece or not is the kind of thing I think we can only get from animated movies, and that it’s done so well was hardly inevitable.

#4
Ratatouille

2008, directed by Brad Bird

What’s the best thing about this movie?

This movie is so even, so consistently strong, that I’ve always struggled to pinpoint a really great moment. Anton Ego figuring out what it means to say that “anyone can cook” is the best idea in the movie, but that’s a voiceover and hardly something really cinematic. It’s tempting to pick any of the sequences where Remy is cooking, the chase where Skinner follows Remy through half of Paris in order to retrieve his paperwork, the initial escape from the little old lady’s house. A lot of what’s funny in this movie is not about building stuff up scene by scene, but about cutting away from one thing to another, like when Linguini accidentally tosses the jar with Remy in it into the river and there’s a hard cut to him sopping wet with Remy’s jar near him again. The one that I’d go with is probably a moment not long after that. Linguini lets Remy go on the agreement that Remy will come with him. Remy, naturally, bolts. He cackles to himself a little and then turns back to look. Linguini looks absolutely crestfallen, and then…Remy goes back to him. The entire movie is about this duo, about the weird trust they build and then immediately start to break down again. This moment, where the trust is broken and then pieced together again, is done just right to set up that pattern.

#3
The Incredibles

2004, directed by Brad Bird

Who is this for?

In 2004, “superhero movie” meant Spider-Man 2, Thomas Jane as the Punisher, Halle Berry as Catwoman. This was still fallow ground, no matter how well-received Spider-Man 2 is by nostalgic folks now, and there’s an isolated, beautiful garden where they planted The Incredibles. By my reckoning the best superhero movie ever made, The Incredibles is for people who are a little bit skeptical about the idea of superheroes anyway, a little bit leery about the presence of people who think that great power bestows great authority. It’s for people who cherish perspective. As cheesy as it is that Bob Parr, who can perform feats of strength typically limited to gods, finds the whole affair worthless without his family, I think that’s kind of the point. It’s good to be able to fight robots or save the city. It’s entirely possible to feel big because of your family as opposed to feeling big in spite of them.

#2
WALL-E

2008, directed by Andrew Stanton

What’s the best thing about this movie?

I hate to reference the tagline for this movie, but there’s something so spot on about the idea of “After 700 years of doing what he was built for, he’ll discover what he’s meant for.” They find it in maybe ten seconds of film time, which are maybe not all that important in the scheme of the plot but which are seismic in helping us recognize that idea in the movie itself. WALL-E, out in space itself, near the rings of a far-off planet, looks up at them. He reaches his free hand out to touch the space rubble. It spirals behind him, tighter and tighter. The phosphorescent glow of the planet and its rings, the way it glances off of WALL-E’s filthy body and wide eyes, gives us a literally heavenly moment. Maybe he’s not “meant” to touch the face of God, but how could he have dreamed this result even after surviving centuries of drudgery. How long would it be worth it to live in dullness and junk for a few moments to reach out a hand and make the still and beautiful rings of another world react?

#1
Toy Story

1994, directed by John Lasseter

Why is this so high?

I frequently say that once you say something is the best of anything, it immediately becomes overrated (apologies to The Incredibles). In the case of Toy Story, at least I’m not guilty of being the only person overrating it. This is the only Pixar movie on the most recent AFI Top 100. It’s the top-ranked movie in the meta-analysis I did. You can find it any list of the best animated movies ever made. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that there’s never been a better animated feature in the history of this country. The art still absolutely holds up, even if it’s not beautiful like Coco or Toy Story 4 can be beautiful. The characters are so human. The ideas are absolutely compelling, and continue to hold strong over the years. This is an American classic just as much as High Noon or Star Wars or Jurassic Park or The Wizard of Oz. 

2 thoughts on “Pixar Landing Page and Personal Rankings

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