Since 1995, Pixar has released some of the most acclaimed animated movies of all time. The now-Disney-owned studio has dominated the Best Animated Feature category at the Oscars, winning over half the time since the category was introduced. They’ve put out brilliant originals, high-quality sequels – and a few that don’t live up to the company’s brand. They’re also notorious for ripping out our hearts and showing them to us.
So naturally, there’s only one thing left to do – rank them all. Similar to the previous ranking 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? To find out, we have to start at the bottom. In this first installment, we’ll look at the six movies that make up Pixar’s back of the pack.
24. The Good Dinosaur
This was by far the most troubled Pixar production, being massively delayed and going through multiple story revisions. Based on the final result, it really should have stayed on the drawing board. The concept isn’t bad – it’s set in a world where the meteor never struck and dinosaurs continued to exist, evolving into intelligent beings who are still around sixty million years later at the dawn of human existence. The problem is, it does absolutely nothing interesting with this concept. Its dinosaurs simply resemble your standard talking anthropomorphic cartoon dinosaurs from movies like The Land Before Time. All movies take inspiration from somewhere, but it’s rarely been as obvious – every bit of this movie’s trite coming-of-age plot is taken from The Land Before Time, The Lion King, Brother Bear, and other movies without any real originality. It does have a few clever bits, but they’re all in the supporting cast – bit characters like a family of T-Rex ranchers hint at a more interesting movie that we never got. It’s the one Pixar movie that’s an unmitigated failure.
23. Cars 2
Let’s be honest, you all knew this was coming. The Cars franchise has always been the ugly stepsister of Pixar – a critically derided cash cow that keeps getting sequels because they sell mass numbers of toys. I think the franchise as a whole gets a slightly bad rap – but the same can’t be said for the middle installment, the only Pixar movie to be an outright critical dud. Completely eschewing the studio’s trademark emotionally-driven stories, it’s an over-the-top spy thriller filled with stereotypes and explosions that focuses on the franchise’s most irksome character – Mater the Tow Truck. Larry the Cable Guy’s dim-witted sidekick might be a decent supporting player, but as a lead he wears thin very quickly and the movie feels like a bizarre pastiche of James Bond with talking cars. The only thing saving it from the bottom spot? Its colorful animation and fast-paced action make its run time breeze by.
22. A Bug’s Life
The second Pixar film ever released, this movie was done while the company was still in its growing pains – and oh, boy does it show. The animation on Toy Story worked because A) it was a new technology and everything looked amazing, and B) its characters were mostly made out of plastic and didn’t have to be photorealistic. This underdog bug adventure worked with living characters and didn’t quite have the finesse to pull them off yet. The passable animation wouldn’t have been an issue if the story was strong – but it’s mostly a generic tale of plucky underdogs against a snarling villain loosely adapted from the classic fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper. The buffoonish band of circus bugs who team up with an ant seeking to prove himself are amusing enough, but the movie is overall forgettable. The one bright spot? An over-the-top performance by the late Dennis Hopper as the evil grasshopper Hopper, giving the movie a bit of dark energy.
21. Monsters University
The original Monsters Inc. was an inventive and chaotic comedy – the first attempt by Pixar to create a fully original fantasy world. It was a roaring success – which made this much-later prequel such a big disappointment. The original cast returned and John Goodman and Billy Crystal were funny as ever as Mike and Sully, but the plot surrounding them let the cast down. Telling the origin of their friendship as they attended college to learn how to be scarers, it was bogged down in every trope of mediocre 80s college comedies. It lacked any sort of interesting antagonist, spent far too much time breaking down its leads, and ended with an odd downer note. The world is still one of Pixar’s most unique and the animation has taken a nice step up, but it’s an odd choice for Pixar to tell a story with the apparent moral of “Sometimes, you’ll just never be good enough”.
The movie that launched a million toys, it might be the most derided installment in the Pixar canon. Does it deserve it? Not 100%, but there are a lot of problems here. Unlike the Monsters universe, this alternate universe really requires you to take leave of your logic center or come up with bizarre theories about the post-apocalypse. The story is essentially a copy-paste of the 1980s comedy Doc Hollywood , about an arrogant rich man who winds up stranded in a small town to do community service and winds up being won over by a slower way of life. That being said, the animation – at least the backgrounds – are often stunning, and it features exactly one brilliant Pixar segment set to the tear-jerking “Our Town” by James Taylor. I just wish the rest of the movie lived up to it, and it rarely does – instead feeling like a generic inspirational movie.
19. Cars 3
Let’s be honest, we all knew the Cars franchise was not going to escape this bottom tier. It was close, though – because I think Cars 3 is the first genuinely good movie on this list. It’s the first in the franchise to get into the heavier themes that Pixar excels at, essentially being a rather mature story about an aging athlete grappling with retirement and finding a new purpose. The addition of young racer Cruz Ramirez as a foil to Lightning McQueen adds an intriguing new dynamic, and the road-trip adventure they go on has some great set pieces (including a living-car demolition derby, probably the best action scene in the entire franchise). The villains, a corrupt corporate executive voiced by Nathan Fillion and an arrogant young race car voiced by an actor we won’t speak of, don’t make much of an impression. The bigger problem is that while this franchise finally gave us a storyarc worth caring about, it hadn’t done the work in the previous installments to get us invested in the characters or world.
Stay tuned next time when we find out what makes up the #18-#13 slots!