It’s time for part three of The Great Pixar Countdown! So far, we’ve looked at the weakest Pixar films and the middle of the pack. Now it’s time to look at some of the elites that fall just short of the top tier. Most of these are considered some of the best animated movies of the modern era – but Pixar’s reputation for quality is such that they’re up against even better competition.
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 titans will fall as we look at the penultimate tier?
12. Finding Nemo
This movie held the title of the top-grossing animated feature of all time for a while, a testament to how beloved it is. And it’s not hard to see why – its emotionally powerful story of a widowed father desperately searching for his disabled young son remains one of Pixar’s best central conflicts. Albert Brooks once again prove himself the best voice actor of the modern era, Ellen DeGeneres is excellent as the forgetful Dory, and supporting characters like Crush, Bruce the Shark, and the fish tank gang deliver hilarity. The ocean visuals are great, but some of the gags are a little on the nose and lack the all-ages appeal of the absolute best films from the company. It’s hard to think of a better intro film for young kids, though.
11. Toy Story
Obviously, we wouldn’t be making this list if it wasn’t for this movie. This is how it all began for Pixar, and in many ways this film still holds up perfectly – a story of sibling rivalry told through a pair of action figures battling over the affection of a young boy. Tom Hanks is already excellent as the responsible Sheriff Woody, and Tim Allen is enjoyably bonkers as the deluded Buzz Lightyear. The supporting cast is hilarious, and it contains some scenes that hold up very well today, including the hilarious throng of alien cultists and Sid’s nightmarish toys. The animation is notably not as great as future installments, especially on the human characters, but that’s easy to forgive. Harder to get past? The two lead characters are kind of unlikable for much of the movie, coming off as squabbling old men more than anything. Is it a great concept? Yes, but one that didn’t get perfected until the sequels.
The first Pixar movie to go directly to streaming and the first of their movies to feature a predominantly black cast, Soul was a breath of fresh air in a depressing year. It’s also the most mature movie they’ve ever made, feeling explicitly like a story for adults. This tale of a middle-aged music teacher who finally gets the chance to be a Jazz musician – only to fall down a manhole and wind up in the afterlife – is a melancholy musing on what it means to live a meaningful life. Its segments focusing on black culture, and the interplay between lead Jamie Foxx and his mother (Phylicia Rashad) are often heartbreaking. When it focuses on Tina Fey’s wayward soul who winds up entangled in Joe’s quest to return to his body, things get a little unfocused and slapstick – but its depiction of the afterlife may be one of Pixar’s great visual triumphs. It’s not their best film about mortality, but it is an out-of-the-box win.
9. Monsters Inc.
The third original world to come out of Pixar and by far the most inventive at the time, this chaotic corporate satire turned “the monster in your closet” into a whole new world. John Goodman and Billy Crystal make a perfect duo as top scarer Sully and his loyal work partner Mike, who spend their days spooking children to collect scream energy – but god help you if a child gets back to the base. It’s a hilariously bonkers world that combines fantastic visual sight gags with some surprisingly deep commentary and an excellent last-act twist. It’ll be getting a Disney Plus spinoff shortly as we finally explore what the world looks like now, and while the animation on the human toddler doesn’t exactly hold up, the world is so colorful and the action so exciting that it remains the first great display of Pixar’s out-of-the-box thinking.
8. Toy Story 3
Pixar’s top-grossing movie when it debuted and one of only two to earn a Best Picture nomination, this return to the world of Woody and Buzz delivered some of the greatest emotional gut punches in animated history. Returning to the characters in real time, as young Andy is now preparing to go off to college and is considering what to do with his childhood toys, it was another musing on mortality that worked better than some of the more literal ones. The animation had taken a massive step up from the previous installments, and it had one of the all-time great villain performances by the late Ned Beatty as a deranged and bitter teddy bear with zero scruples. It also has the most pitch-black dark moment in Pixar history, to the point that it was met with some deeply disturbed kids in the theater. It may be a little awkward to watch given its director’s next appearance in the headlines ,but it’s one of the best conclusions to a trilogy in film history – and it probably should have stayed a trilogy.
In many ways the forgotten Pixar film – being released only two weeks before theaters were forced to close in 2020 – Onward gained a second life on streaming. It has one of the most inventive concepts they’ve worked with – a high fantasy world of elves and monsters that at some point just stopped bothering with magic – and its plot is heavily influenced by director Dan Scanlon’s own loss of his father when he was a baby. The story of two elf brothers (a perfectly cast Chris Pratt and Tom Holland) going on a quest to contact their father via a twenty-four hour spell of resurrection, it has a perfect combo of intense action, great laughs, and powerful emotional beats. At times it feels like we’re just scratching the surface of this fascinating world, and that’s its only real weakness.
And with that, the final six is revealed. Come back next time to see which of the Pixar greats takes the #1 crown!