It’s time for round two of the Great Pixar Countdown! Last time we looked at the six weakest Pixar films – and one franchise found themselves wiped out entirely in the first round. But by the end of that first wave, we were already into quality movies with flaws, proving Pixar’s reputation for quality.
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.
Now, we finish out the first half as six more Pixar movies get ranked. What makes up the next tier?
Only a week since its release, this summer sea monster adventure didn’t win me over immediately. It’s a slight, charming story about two monster boys looking to enjoy life on the surface world, with its biggest challenges involving a bike race and a growing rift between friends. It does have a lot in its favor – gorgeous animation, three complex lead characters, some casual disability representation, and a hilarious cat. But it’s hurt by an overly short run time – only 80+ minutes before credits – and a weak villain who takes a dark turn in the last act that doesn’t feel in line with the film’s gentle tone. I like a lot of what it was going for, but it doesn’t quite land it. It does deserve points for being one of Pixar’s most vivid depictions of a foreign country, but it lacks the emotional heft it would need to climb into the top tier.
17. Finding Dory
We stay in the ocean for our next entry, the much-awaited sequel to one of Pixar’s biggest hits, Finding Nemo. It’s a common Pixar move to shift the focus in a sequel to the sidekick/co-lead, and you could do a lot worse than Ellen DeGeneres’ forgetful fish. The undersea animation is as stunning as the first, even more detailed in some places. It also has some really strong messages about parenting a disabled child and supporting them as they find their own way. The original cast is strong, but the new characters are slightly lackluster (although Ed O’Neil as a cranky septopus provides some good laughs). The action-packed conclusion drifts a little too much into Dreamworks funny-animal logic for my tastes, too.
The fourth – and least – of the most storied Pixar franchise, this movie was a massive hit in its 2019 debut. It’s not hard to see why – the series has some incredible coattails. But this is also a cautionary tale of why not to push a beloved franchise too far. Coming off the powerful and final-feeling previous installment, this movie is essentially a downer coda to the franchise. Woody has another great storyarc, although the question of what to do when your family no longer needs you is kind of depressing even for Pixar’s weighty topics. Bo Peep, returning from an absence is the third movie, is reinvented in a great way and new characters like Duke Caboom and Ducky & Bunny provide top-tier laughs. But Tony Hale’s Forky wears thin quickly, and many of the iconic Toy Story characters like Jessie and even Buzz Lightyear feel like afterthoughts in this finale. I think many people would have been happier if the hopeful ending of the previous installment was where we left it.
15. The Incredibles 2
The third LONG-awaited Pixar sequel in a row on this list, this follow-up to Brad Bird’s retro superhero adventure doesn’t do too much wrong – but it doesn’t do too much right either. It makes the controversial decision to pick up right where the previous movie left off – literally the next day, as the superhero family explores the new status quo. It gives Elasti-Girl the lead in this one, but in some ways that feels like a corrective that wasn’t needed – she was a co-lead in the original and had many of its best moments. In doing so, it briefly relegates Mister Incredible to the role of bumbling dad and the kids to the background. The new villain Screenslaver provides some of the scariest moments ever in a Pixar film, but the mystery surrounding their identity is pretty obvious. Really, how you feel about this film will depend on a simple question – did you just want more Incredibles? Well, this movie delivers that, but it still feels like the world is under-explored.
A feminist fairy tale set in a beautifully-rendered Scotland, this was Pixar’s first entry into the Disney Princess canon, as well as their first attempt to see if they could play new owner Disney’s epic fantasy game. The answer is…yes, but with some caveats. The Princess Merida, the eldest daughter of a small Scottish kingdom, makes for an engaging and feisty lead, but that can tread on the line into unlikable at times. It’s not often a Disney Princess kicks off the entire movie by accidentally cursing her mother. She’s selfish and brash – and in many ways that’s what makes the movie work. Neither her nor her mother Ellinor are perfect, and they reflect the creator’s struggles with finding the right balance in parenting. A terrifying cursed bear adds some menace to the main plot, and most of the men are there simply to add some comic relief in different ways. It’s something very different for Pixar, and it mostly works due to a strong pair of lead characters and some stunning Scottish music. But hey, it’s guaranteed to be the best movie about bear transformations out of Disney.
13. Inside Out
What if feelings had feelings? That’s the question Pixar wants us to ponder in their most meta film yet. Turning a little girl’s mind into a control console populated by anthropomorphized emotions, it shows the chaos life upheavals can exact on kids. Set in two worlds, it strands Joy and Sadness in a collapsing mindscape as Riley tries to adjust to tweenhood and a sudden move across the country. This is as emotionally devastating as any of Pixar’s elites, but it often seems self-aware, as if it’s pressing a button to make us cry. This is nowhere clearer than in the subplot of long-forgotten imaginary friend Bing-Bong. It does have some good messages for parents about showing empathy for the small dramas of kids, and the world it creates inside Riley’s head is wildly imaginative. But its on-the-nose nature, plus the fact that four other sentient emotions are given barely anything to do, is just enough to keep it out of the top half of Pixar movies.
Stay tuned next time, as we enter the top half and find out which films fall just short of the elite tier!