It’s time for the grand finale of The Great Pixar Countdown! So far we’ve looked at the bottom of the barrel, the decent ones in the middle, and the elites that fell just short. Now it’s time to look at the best of the best, as we break down the top six and find out which tops the countdown.
Similar to the previous rankings of Disney films I did, I’ll only be counting the in-house Pixar movies – no sequels not put out by the original company, like the forgotten Planes. As obviously, things have changed in the last year, movies released on streaming will be treated the same way as theatrical releases.
What will rise to the top?
6. The Incredibles
Not only is Brad Bird’s retro superhero adventure one of the best Pixar movies, it’s one of the best superhero movies ever made. More of a proper Fantastic Four movie than the previous three attempts, it was also the first Pixar movie to focus entirely on human characters. While the art style is definitely more cartoony and stylized than future attempts, it works given the film’s comic book roots. The core family is strong with all four getting excellent storyarcs, but it’s really the supporting cast where the movie shines the most. Villain Syndrome was a perfect parody of toxic fans long before that became a widely known problem. Costume designer Edna Mode provides brilliant droll humor. And who could forget Frozone and his wife in probably the most widely quoted scene in Pixar history? It’s basically note perfect, but it lacks the emotional punch of the top five films on the list.
Brad Bird takes up two spots in the top six thanks to this hilarious culinary satire. This was probably Pixar’s most unlikely film, focusing on a nerdy young man and a gourmet rat who team up to save a declining French restaurant. Not only did it turn off people who couldn’t get past the idea of a rat in a kitchen, but it was initially intended to be Pixar’s first non-Disney release before the company was acquired. Thankfully both companies persevered, because what emerged is one of Pixar’s most charming and inspirational films. Patton Oswalt as Remy gives a fantastic performance, and the storyarc of mercurial food critic Anton Ego is an amazing demonstration of how to tell a full story in only a few minutes (a technique Pixar would use even more famously in a few years). While the evil chef Skinner is a fairly weak villain, he’s gone from the film quickly as it goes on to deliver brilliant comic gags and emotional highs.
4. Toy Story 2
Maybe the biggest level up in original-to-sequel history? It’s up there. While the original Toy Story was a strong proof-of-concept for CGI animation, this 1999 sequel is arguably the moment when Pixar as we knew it began. A much deeper look at what it means to be a toy, this installment turns the focus on Woody and his history before he was Andy’s toy – revealing a surprisingly deep legacy that goes back decades. It features two entertaining villains, including a pitch-perfect parody of that one collector no one can stand, as well as the first Pixar twist villain – which has still not been topped, in many ways. But the absolute all-star of this film goes to Joan Cusack’s Jessie, the traumatized cowgirl whose showstopping musical number was probably the first Pixar scene to tear out our hearts and show them to us. It’s no surprise that the song won an Academy Award, and it’s not even close – this is the best sequel Pixar’s ever made, and one of the best sequels of all time.
After a string of sequels, many people wondered if Pixar’s best days were behind it. That was answered with a resounding no in 2017 with Lee Unkrich’s stunning visit to the land of the dead. The first Pixar film to focus on an entirely non-white cast, it’s centered around a young boy with a love of music – and a family with a strict ban on music due to the supposed betrayal of his musician great-great-grandfather. His desperation to get a family blessing leads young Miguel on a dangerous adventure that exposes some long-buried family secrets. The first Pixar musical – although not a traditional Disney musical – it features some of the studio’s most brilliant and spooky visuals, along with the darkest and most evil villains the studio has ever created. While many of these films have specific moments that pack an emotional punch, Coco builds and builds its emotional gut-punches until the last act, where the last five minutes provide a phenomenal catharsis that has made many a manly man weep in the theater. Great studios know – diversity only makes storytelling stronger.
Something amazing happened in 2007-2009, as Pixar debuted a one-two-three punch of its most unique concepts. And nothing was more unique than this post-apocalyptic robot adventure. Set in the distant future when humanity has long-since evacuated Earth, it focused on a small robot trash compactor with only rudimentary intelligence – at first. As the robot sifts through the ruins of Earth, it starts learning more and more about what makes humanity so special – something it then has to remind humanity of. The remnants of Earth, now living on a never ending space cruise ship where they’re kept pacified by a menacing AI, are portrayed in one of the most unique and subtly creepy depictions of the far future I can remember. It’s a testament to Pixar’s phenomenal skill with storytelling that they’re able to get us invested in a romance between two protocol robots that mostly communicate in beeps. I can’t imagine today’s Pixar taking a risk this big.
If you asked people to sum up Pixar in one scene, most of them would likely come back to that emotionally devastating eight minutes at the start of Up, as we follow a couple from childhood to old age through their highs, lows, and eventual sad ending that leaves an old man sitting alone in a run-down house. But while this scene is what everyone remembers, don’t think that what comes next is any less phenomenal. An impressively anti-ageist adventure about a widower (voiced phenomenally by comic legend Ed Asner) who decides to eschew assisted living and fly his ramshackle old house to the South American waterfall he and his late wife always dreamed of visiting, it has some of the best visuals in animation history. While Carl is the star here, its supporting cast carry their own weight – including a spirited young boy scout along for the ride, and a hilarious dog with a collar that lets him talk. And then there’s the villain, played to glorious insanity by the late Christopher Plummer. It sets itself an incredibly high bar right at the start – and then, incredibly, it meets it.
And that’s the conclusion of the countdown! Where did your favorite land?