Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we engage in an animated rundown of all 21 Pixar films.
Nearly 25 years ago, Toy Story heralded the arrival of a new force in studio animation. Pixar was sustained by Disney, but they sure weren’t making movies that felt like your traditional Disney movies. The studio prioritized imagination and creativity over all else, making sure that the movies they made wouldn’t just be your favorite movies during childhood, but that they could follow you as you aged and even offer you new and different things as you did.
Since 1995, the studio has turned out 21 films, almost all of which are successful to one degree or another and none of which are outright forgettable. They’ve pushed against boundaries, whether related to storytelling or animation or technology, and redefined what a movie made for all ages can and should be. They’ve found magic at the bottom of the ocean, in your childhood bedroom, back in the ages of dinosaurs and Scottish royalty.
They’ve imagined that the monsters under your bed are real and wonderful, that a sewer rat could be a five-star chef, that a working-class bug could make a real difference. They turned two movies about talking cars into a merchandising juggernaut. They made a movie that almost sent some of your most beloved childhood creations into an incinerator and made even the hardest hearts catch some feelings. That they’ve accomplished so much while other studios have attempted to ape their style for years to typically middling returns speaks to just how good Pixar is at what it does.
As their 21st film hits theaters with Toy Story 4, it seems like as good a time as any to dig deeper into what’s made Pixar the juggernaut it is. From the obsessive easter eggs, to the distinct and sometimes iconic color palettes, to the stories told in unforgettable fashion, this is a dissection of what makes modern animation’s foremost powerhouse tick. So come along, get that snake out of your boot, and take a walk through one of the most consistently excellent filmographies of any production house. And let’s remember the friend we’ve had in them, and continue to love.
21. Cars 2 (2011)
Runtime: 1 hr. 46 min.
Pitch: Lightning McQueen is back, as the speedy automobile is goaded into joining an international grand prix to determine who the best racer in the world is, sponsored by an eccentric industrialist promoting his alternative fuel. But the star of the show is Mater, who’s along for the ride but finds himself sucked into a globetrotting espionage adventure, where a case of mistaken identity leads him to join forces with a pair of spies to uncover a conspiracy that threatens his best friend’s life.
Cast: Larry the Cable Guy, Owen Wilson, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, John Turturro, Eddie Izzard, Thomas Kretschmann, Joe Mantegna, Peter Jacobson, and Bruce Campbell
All the Colors of the Rainbow: Cars 2 changes up its color palette with each new locale. The scenes set in Tokyo are bathed in neon of all shades; the visit to the Italian Coast is resplendent with ocean blues and coastal greens, and London features a bevy of stormy grays and sharp reds all around the cityscape. The different color schemes distinguish these locations from one another, and contribute to the map-dotting flavor of the film.
Easter Eggs: During the group’s stop in Paris, the restaurant from Ratatouille (appropriately renamed “Gastow’s”) is visible in the background. When McQueen and Sally are out in Radiator Springs, they go past a drive-in theater that’s playing The Incredimobiles, a spoof of Pixar’s superhero flick. And in one of its few, more animated appearances, the Pizza Planet truck shows up as a guest on the Tire Talk TV show.
When Life Hands You Lemons: In one of the film’s nicest small touches, Cars 2’s mafia-influenced villains are primarily “lemons,” i.e. cars that are regularly maligned or laughed at for frequently breaking down. Though a hint of redemption would have been nice, this detail at least gives the film’s jealous antagonists some solid motivation apart from the duller sabotage plot and helps connect their resentment to Mater’s own insecurities. The film does little to capitalize on all of this, but it’s a nice way to unite and distinguish the baddies, rather than simply rendering them as generic henchmen.
It’s All Downhill from Here: The movie’s best scene is its first, and in a move true to Cars 2’s spy thriller influences, it recreates the opening-mission excitement of a Bond film. Watching Finn McMissile (Caine, who seems to put about as much effort into this film as it deserves) skulk around an oil rig and make a daring escape is as enjoyable as Cars 2 gets. That initial bit of fun captures the rhythms of a trademark 007 adventure, and though McMissile’s automotive-based espionage is a bit of a stretch, the film still translates the double-agent tropes to the world of cars fairly well. That opening sequence shows how much more enjoyable this film might have been as a pure genre riff than as a showcase for the prior film’s comic relief.
Analysis: Would you like to spend nearly two hours with Larry the Cable Guy? If so, you might be an eight-year-old, and thus the clear target audience for a movie that feels like a shameless, toy-driven enterprise, rather than a film intended to match the heart and the cleverness of its Pixar brethren. The humor in Cars 2 is extraordinarily broad and pitched at a level below the average fifth grader. Its story is simplistic, without the elegance or hidden depths that can make simplicity a virtue in children’s cinema. Make no mistake. In a franchise fueled by marketing rather than critical success, Cars 2 isn’t even aiming at the cheap seats; it’s aiming at the elementary school auditorium.
With a different protagonist, Cars 2 might have at least been mediocre, rather than an utter slog. Its generic “always be yourself” message is perfectly fine (though not delivered in a particularly novel way), and its around-the-world racing and bumbling-yet-effective spycraft are capably executed, if lacking the usual flair of Pixar’s aesthetic and narrative creativity. But Larry the Cable Guy’s tired shtick drags down every moment he’s in the film, and while most of Cars 2’s lowbrow material at least plays to his strengths, he lacks the range necessary to make the weak attempts at slightly more emotional moments land. Mater is an incessantly annoying albatross around the neck (or chassis) of a film that feels like the Pixar equivalent of the producers of Star Wars asking, “If our last prequel wasn’t as well-received as we might have liked, why don’t we make Jar Jar the star of the next one?” Good riddance.
20. The Good Dinosaur (2015)
Runtime: 1 hr. 41 min.
Pitch: In an alternate timeline where a meteor never hit Earth millions of years ago and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, an Apatosaurus family tends its farm and braces itself for the oncoming winter. But after one member is tragically lost in a flash flood, Arlo (the runt of the family) is forced far away from home and has to find his way back with the help of a feral human child named Spot.
Cast: Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Steve Zahn, Marcus Scribner, Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin, and Jack McGraw
All the Colors of the Rainbow: Whatever one could possibly say about The Good Dinosaur, a cross word about the film’s rich visuals won’t be it. Against a bracingly realistic backdrop of mountains and hills and rivers is Arlo, whose cartoonish features and bright green skin deliberately stick out. This is true for most of the dinosaurs; the orange T-Rexes and bruised-purple pterodactyls Arlo encounters all stand starkly against the film’s naturalistic settings.
Perhaps the best illustration of this divide can be found in the scene when Poppa takes Arlo to the field of fireflies. They’re lit in silhouette by the moon, barely visible against the nighttime forest dark, until the glow of bright, green fireflies lights them and the surrounding sky. These flashes of color make for some of the studio’s more striking recent design work.
Easter Eggs: The Good Dinosaur has one of the studio’s funnier Easter eggs; in that breathtaking opening shot of an asteroid belt, one of the smaller rocks is actually the Pizza Planet truck, presumably from its titular home planet before it ever came to Earth. And the hallucinatory berries Arlo and Spot eat in the forest look a lot like the Luxo ball.
The Production Merry-Go-Round: The iteration of The Good Dinosaur that made it to theaters in late 2015 is a very different film than the one it was when production began. One of its original co-directors departed the project, and a number of actors, including John Lithgow and Neil Patrick Harris, came and went as the film experienced numerous delays.
At one point, the story was to involve a whole dinosaur society and feature Arlo as an outcast within it; only echoes remain of this idea. Rumors surfaced in 2014 that the film had been dramatically overhauled, to the point where much of the voice cast left the project or moved on to other Pixar work, and several Pixar directors had hands in completing it. That might explain the film’s half-dozen story credits.
The Quiet One: Due to the repeated delays, the film had the misfortune of coming out just a few months after Inside Out, and it may be due to the inevitable gap in quality between the two films that The Good Dinosaur became Pixar’s lowest-grossing film both in the US and globally. It almost feels fitting that a movie about an unassuming, gentler kind of Pixar protagonist would quietly come and go.
Analysis: Before getting into any of the narrative stuff, any discussion of The Good Dinosaur must include the acknowledgment that, for all of its production woes, it may be one of Pixar’s most visually accomplished films to date. At least the backgrounds are; drawing on natural influences in the northern and central parts of the US, the studio reassembles an earlier world, one friendlier to natural predators than ours and one that could just as easily have been shot on location. Some of the vistas the film assembles are truly breathtaking.
The same cannot be said for the film as a whole, but that’s for no lack of effort. Long stretches of The Good Dinosaur unfold with little to no dialogue, and it’s a lovely stylistic choice that highlight’s Arlo’s general loneliness in the world, outside of Spot. But where the film aims for understatement and eloquence, Arlo’s various encounters with other dinosaurs and assorted beasts play as so cartoonish that they feel culled from an entirely different movie with a less pensive, delicate tone. Put another way, these scenes make The Good Dinosaur feel like a typical, banter-heavy Disney movie in a way that’s asynchronous with the rest of the film.
The film moves from one familiar studio beat to the next: the menacing pack of wild, taunting animals, the tragic loss of a loved one that informs the protagonist’s growth, the “boy and his dog” relationship between Arlo and Spot. And it’s not that the film is entirely unaffecting; some of its more muted moments land as effectively as they possibly could. But The Good Dinosaur marks a rare instance in which Pixar’s “what if” storytelling doesn’t yield much in the way of satisfying, imagination-expanding answers.
19. Cars (2006)
Runtime: 1 hr. 57 min.
Pitch: A successful, spotlight-chasing race car in a world full of sentient motor vehicles learns the value of slowing down and appreciating the bygone ways of living when he crashes into a Route 66 tourist town abandoned by the forces of progress and populated by salt-of-the-earth types.
Cast: Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, John Ratzenberger, Michael Keaton, and George Carlin
All the Colors of the Rainbow: In keeping with its tale of reformation and rebirth, Cars strips its color palette down into earthy browns and beiges when Lightning McQueen finds his way to Radiator Springs, with the occasional splash of faded color for maximum dead-town resonance. It’s a welcome reprieve from the bright, garish style of the film’s first act, its car cities and racing stadiums covered in an aggressive neon gloss. The modern blues and greens leave the car utopia feeling like the Grid in the Tron universe, cut through by Lightning’s apple-red paint job.
Easter Eggs: Cars is full of Pixar Easter eggs, including the key presence of Dinoco (the gas company that owns the local stations in the Toy Story world) as the corporate sponsor Lightning so desperately covets. Also, as the jets fly over the Piston Cup race, Pixar’s animation compound is visible from the air, albeit quickly. The Pizza Planet truck shows up in a parking lot outside of the Piston Cup, and the customary A113 tag can be found on Mater’s license plate.
And since Pixar is forever tied to Apple, they get some nice product placement during one of Lightning’s races, on the hood of a rival car.
The Most Popular Pixar of Them All: Actually, not only is Cars the most popular Pixar movie in terms of its overall merchandising, but it’s actually among the most popular Disney films, period. If that gives you pause, consider how easily the Cars IP can translate across national borders, tap into things little kids love like bright colors and toy cars, and can be custom-fit for virtually any demographic. Cars 2 essentially exists because of this marketability, though, so it’s a double-edged sword.
A Word on Sentient Cars: In short, they’re terrifying.
To elaborate, and accepting that this is a gross over-reading of a generally cute Pixar movie about talking cars, the physiology of any given car in Cars is fascinating. Why do they have tongues? Why, for that matter, do cars salivate? What does it accomplish? What turns food into fuel for them, if they do in fact eat and drink? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. These cars are seemingly capable of feeling everything from rage to desire to love to nostalgia, all traditionally human functions. What god and/or evolutionary process made them this way? If cars are indeed still built in this world, where do they come from? Is it a Near Dark situation where some of them are built/born into the bodies of child cars, but they’re actually substantially aged and have to carry that burden forever? If they’re not built as such, do the cars procreate? Is it as Southland Tales once imagined? This universe leaves a lot of context unexplained, is what we’re saying.
Analysis: Cars is built with the soul of a Norman Rockwell painting, and as such it’s a paean to a kind of Americana that’s become either an ironic punchline or altogether unfashionable as the years have gone by. In at least that respect, it’s well within Pixar’s wheelhouse: Take an easy concept that people naturally disregard, and make it palatable to them in a way they haven’t seen before.
But where so many of their films fully explore the emotional ranges of their worlds, there’s just not the same dramatic heft to Cars. After its cacophonous early minutes full of debatably necessary plot, the film improves considerably when it collides with Radiator Springs; there’s an easy charm to the film’s loping, fish-out-of-water story that works even as it’s cut from a distinctly predictable cloth. It’s one of the studio’s weaker outings as characterization goes, but John Lasseter and Joe Ranft (for better or worse) created a monster with the partnership between the snarky Lightning and the down-home Mater, an empire of toys and childhood fantasies.
In a sense, Cars is an easy target for critics and audiences alike. It’s simple, it sings the praises of small-town life without a hint of irony in its being, it’s quintessentially American Southern in a way few mainstream films (or works of art in general) are, and it’s a movie squarely aimed at children when so much of Pixar’s more well-regarded work aims to bring in all audiences at once. It’s a film to which it’s easy to condescend, but while it’s far from the studio’s most accomplished work, it still has its innate charms. And it’s still the best film in the offshoot franchise it would go on to spawn, which counts for something.
18. Monsters University (2013)
Runtime: 1 hr. 44 min.
Pitch: In this prequel to 2001’s Monsters, Inc., a young Mike Wazowski fights for his chance to become one of the elite Scare Students at Monsters University, a task complicated by his tall, furry, blue rival, Sully. Mike has determination, pluck, and plenty of smarts, but will it be enough to compensate for his lack of inherent scariness?
Cast: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Helen Mirren, Joel Murray, and Steve Buscemi
All the Colors of the Rainbow: Like its predecessor. Monsters University uses color to tell us, pretty much right off the bat, that none of these dudes are particularly scary (powerful roars aside). Here, however, the cotton-candy color palette plays off of a brick-and-ivy feel, lovingly adopting not only the tropes of the college movie, but the look as well. Particularly effective: all the classroom scenes in which Helen Mirren’s Dean Hardscrabble swoops in, removing all the vibrant color from the world — except for that which exists in Mike and Sully’s very being.
Easter Eggs: Well, you know, it’s a prequel, so Goodman, Buscemi, and Crystal are all returning. But there are some familiar voices from outside the realm of the first Monsters: Listen for Peter Sohn, aka Ratatouille’s Emile, as well as the ever-present John Ratzenberger. Oh, and there’s also Nathan Fillon, Aubrey Plaza, Charlie Day, Bobby Moynihan, Dave Foley, Sean Hayes, Alfred Molina, Bill Hader, Bonnie Hunt, John Krasinski…
…Seriously? A Prequel?: Yep. And it totally works. What’s most effective about Monsters University is how unabashedly it sticks to origin stories, from the history of scaring itself to Mike and Sully’s friendship, which while inevitable, seems impossible early in the film. But while Mike and Sully are rightly the focus, and a pack of new characters (particularly the monsters of Oozma Kappa, the fraternity Sully and Mike are forced to join) also command attention, it’s the simplest and briefest of origin stories that’s the most interesting.
Remember Randall? He’s the villain of Monsters Inc., a slithering, often invisible monster voiced with expert sliminess by Steve Buscemi. The film cleverly sets up the identity of Mike’s roommate as something of a non-mystery — clearly, it’s going to be James P. Sullivan — only to suddenly reveal a not-so-scary “Randy,” who Mike instantly befriends. By painting Randy as a friendly, eager, but ambitious guy whose ego gradually overcomes his better qualities, the film paints a much more interesting portrait of a character who was previously a great villain, but not much else.
Hard Lessons: One of the great strengths of Pixar is its refusal to dumb things down for kids, but even by their standards, the lessons of Monsters University can be tough to swallow. Want to follow your dreams? Great. Go for it. But heads up: No matter how hard you work, there are things you’re just never going to be able to do. Yikes. Luckily, the flash through time at the end shows that dreams can come true, albeit in ways you never expected — Mike gets on that scare floor by finding the right places to apply his talents, by helping a friend to harness his own untapped potential, and by accepting that, while he might not be scary, he sure is smart.
Analysis: It’s one of Pixar’s lesser films, to be sure, but Monsters University knows exactly what it’s doing and does it well. All the familiar beats are there — Mike’s childhood as an overlooked nerd, the moment he falls in love with scaring, the chirping orientation leaders at the college directing students to their dorm rooms, the party where the nerds get punked, the mistake that almost ruins his future, the enemy who out of necessity becomes an ally, the training montage, the underdog victory, and so on. It’s by-the-books stuff, but formulas become familiar for a reason: They work.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Pixar movie without subverting some of what’s most familiar. That’s where the Oozma Kappa guys come in. Sure, they learn to embrace who they are, but the means through which they do that are so chaotic, so odd and sometimes uncomfortable — looking at you, Squishy — that the film’s not without surprises. You probably skipped this one. Time to remedy that.