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.
17. Cars 3 (2017)
Pitch: Lightning McQueen is still one of the faces of the Piston Cup, but time is no longer on the active legend’s side. A wave of new, lab-trained supercars led by Jackson Storm has arrived on the scene to quickly dispose of the older generation of racers, and Lightning’s desperate attempts to keep up result in an injury that calls his racing future into question. But with the help of Cruz Ramirez, an energetic young trainer with grand aspirations of her own, Lightning prepares to prove himself yet again, for what might be the last time.
Cast: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Armie Hammer, Larry the Cable Guy, Nathan Fillion, Chris Cooper, Lea DeLaria, Paul Newman
All the Colors of the Rainbow: As Pixar’s kid-friendliest series, it stands to reason that Cars 3 would continue the tradition of bright, bold colors. And at times, it does so remarkably, in the sunlit ocean blues of the climactic beachside Florida race and in Lightning’s glossy new paintjob, which somehow makes his signature bright red even brighter. Yet some of the film’s more wistful scenes trade the high-gloss oversaturation for something more muted; the sequences in Thomasville, Doc Hudson’s old stomping grounds, are bathed in the nostalgic browns and understated greens of age and overgrowth, and the Thunder Hollow demolition is covered in muddy blacks, punctuated by bursts of fiery orange.
Easter Eggs: As always, the A113 homage is present, in the form of the office number for Fillion’s oblivious, bottom-line CEO. Otherwise, we’ve only had the chance to enjoy Cars 3 once, so we’re sure we missed some things when it comes to Pixar-based surprises. (For starters, the obligatory reference to another, upcoming movie blew past us at Lightning McQueen speeds.) However, there’s one other familiar easter egg to be found, during the demolition derby sequence: the Pizza Planet truck, one of a host of soon-to-be-doomed competitors.
Newman’s Own: One of the central storylines in Cars 3 is Lightning’s struggle to rediscover his inner champion without the help and support of Doc Hudson, the wizened old racer voiced by Paul Newman in the 2006 original. Newman passed away two years after that film was released, but with the help of some reconstructed voiceover recordings, Pixar manages to give the ol’ Hornet one more final ride. It’s an affecting tribute to one of the great movie stars, and dovetails perfectly with the film’s thoughts about your roots following you wherever life takes you.
The Thrill of the Race: For a franchise solely about living vehicles and their weird tongues and teeth, it took all the way until the third installment for the series to truly base its plot around racing. Of course, this isn’t to say that it hasn’t been touched upon, but the first film spent more time in Radiator Springs imparting lessons about the value of simplicity, and the second was a Bond homage. Cars 3 very specifically focuses on Lightning’s legacy as a racer, as well as Doc Hudson’s, and of the trilogy it’s the film that best captures the exhilaration of bumper-to-bumper competition.
Analysis: It’s not saying much to note that Cars 3 is an immense step up from the second installment, which you’ve already come across at the very bottom of our list. The Cars series is quaint by its very nature, more interested in reviving old thrills and sentiments than in the more ambitious vision of some of Pixar’s best work. Based on this, it’s easy enough to write them off, but what’s curious about Cars 3 is how far the film goes this time around in appealing to parents and older audiences as much as the kids who’ll undoubtedly fall in love with its racing-heavy story of downfall and triumph.
Cars 3 grapples with some weighty material, from Lightning’s struggles to age out of his prime with dignity, to Cruz’s thwarted racing dreams and the implied discrimination that kept her out; the film’s invocations of “I blew my only shot” make an intriguing parallel with so many people who’ve been written off after one failure where others around them were given opportunity after opportunity. Granted, it’s still couched in the pleasant (if sometimes rote) racing and sugary sweetness that’s been the series’ trademark for over 10 years now, but at least Cars 3 tries its best to bridge the gap between the brash new generation and the wiser old one. It’s better than the world’s doing with the same conundrum these days, at least.
16. A Bug’s Life (1998)
Runtime: 1 hr. 35 min.
Pitch: Flik, an underappreciated and inventive ant, and his colony are tired of being oppressed by the bullying and intimidating grasshoppers, so he mistakenly recruits a group of bugs that were cast out from a circus, who he misunderstands to be mighty warriors, to help.
Cast: Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Hayden Panettiere, Phyllis Diller, Richard Kind, John Ratzenberger, David Hyde Pierce, Joe Ranft, Denis Leary, Jonathan Harris, Madeline Kahn, Bonnie Hunt, and Brad Garrett
All the Colors of the Rainbow: As one would imagine, given that this film is on a miniature scale and about the lives of ants and other insects, there are a lot of earth tones at play here. We’re talking tons of greens and browns. Still, color and lighting are taken into consideration when providing visual distinctions between bugs of different classes. The working class is often surrounded by bright greens and browns; the circus bugs come from a poorly lit, grungy, and primarily brown or rust-colored environment; and the evil grasshoppers are often cast within a menacing purple hue, and in their royal chambers, the queen and princess sit under a blue, bioluminescent mushroom.
Easter Eggs: A Bug’s Life is only Pixar’s second film, so it doesn’t have a lot of source material to draw from in terms of company-referencing Easter eggs. It makes a couple nods to Toy Story with the Pizza Planet truck and other Pizza Planet branding, but it also references more traditional Disney intellectual properties, like the Lion King poster seen in the background of Bug City. The circus’ wagon is also made from a Casey Jr. Cookies box, a reference to the sentient train (named Casey Junior) that transports the animals in Dumbo.
John Ratzenberger is of course a part of this movie, and in it, he voices his all-time favorite Pixar character he ever played: circus owner P.T. Flea. He previously said of portraying the energetic insect, “P.T. Flea was just so unpredictable and nuts, and in real life I always get a kick out of those kinds of character, people who just go into a rage for [no] explicable reason. He was always on edge. His blood pressure was always way over the top, and everything that he did was done in a panicked state. So it was a lot of fun to play him.”
The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth: In Toy Story, Pixar established a plot archetype: Take an underdog and have them somehow triumph over insurmountable odds through ingenuity and teamwork. They continued that trend with A Bug’s Life, and these two early films’ success with this methodology established it as a Pixar staple, a road map that each subsequent production from the company would follow.
It’s easy to relate to a meek character, or at the very least, it’s more natural to sympathize with them and want them to do well for themselves. Flik is just a lowly worker ant, but he knows his skills can be of value, and when he gets the chance to show that in a meaningful way, he believes in himself and triumphs, even if he faces failure along the way. Rags-to-riches stories are what make Pixar go ‘round, and A Bug’s Life confirmed that Toy Story was more than just a fluke in its unbelievable success.
Listen to the Sound of My Voice: Toy Story had an illustrious voice cast headlined by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, and following the success of that movie, both commercially and creatively, A Bug’s Life was able to secure what may be the most underrated grouping of voice actors in the company’s history. There may not be anybody with the star power of a Tom Hanks, but every single role, even the less significant ones, were cast to perfection. Dave Foley is perfect for the ever-optimistic Flik, Kevin Spacey is delightfully sinister as Hopper, Phyllis Diller is an ideal, sassy, and experienced queen … really, there are superlatives for everybody in the voice cast, who helped populate the A Bug’s Life universe with as colorful a cast of characters as Pixar has ever seen.
Analysis: It would have been easy for Pixar to let the success of Toy Story get to its head and result in a sophomore slump. While A Bug’s Life is nowhere near as great as Toy Story, that’s mainly due to the heights that Toy Story has reached with time and not to any significant failings on the part of A Bug’s Life.
The film’s reception may have been hampered by the controversy surrounding it and the competing bug film, Antz, but when’s the last time you heard about Antz? A Bug’s Life is a classic Pixar film, both in terms of timeline and function. It features a vibrant world filled with diverse and engaging characters, each of which gets time to be the star in their own way. There’s drama, romantic tension, comic relief, and all the emotion and depth needed for parents to actually enjoy taking their kids to the latest movie of their choosing. At the very, very least, A Bug’s Life proved that Pixar was capable of more and that computer-animated movies were the wave of the future and not just a fleeting, unsustainable novelty.
15. Brave (2012)
Runtime: 1 hr. 33 min.
Pitch: Merida’s a princess, but she really, really doesn’t want to be. Forced — albeit lovingly — into a role that doesn’t suit her, she tries again and again to tell her parents how unhappy she is, but finally snaps. The result: a kingdom in chaos, the re-emergence of a mythical foe, and a mom who gets turned into a bear. Whoops.
Cast: Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Craig Ferguson, and Kevin McKidd
All the Colors of the Rainbow: Green, green everywhere. Like Merida, the animators clearly cherish the beautiful wildness of their setting, surrounding the princess with endless trees, sparkling falls, and rich, earthy browns. But the colors that most define Brave are those that seem the most out of place: the ethereal blue of the will-o-the-wisps and the fiery red of Merida’s hair.
Familiar Faces: One could be forgiven for having a Harry Potter flashback partway through the film. Merida herself plays a key role in that final Potter film — she’s the Ravenclaw ghost — but Mrs. Weasley, Professor Trelawney, and wonderful, wonderful Hagrid all turn up, too. While not a part of the Potterverse, kids will likely perk up at the sound of Craig Ferguson’s voice, too. They probably didn’t catch his late-night show, but they’ll surely recognize the voice of Owl from Winnie the Pooh and Gobber from the various and sundry How to Train Your Dragons.
And yes, Ratzenberger’s in this one, and so is that Pizza Planet truck. Sensing a theme?
Crown-troversy: Merida became the first Pixar character to be included in the Disney Princess line, a choice that some found contradictory to the film’s central theme. Pixar’s first female protagonist spends her film fighting for the right to choose her own destiny, and many objected to the idea that such a character be included in a roster of women whose stories are largely focused on romance. That said, her choices are actually in line with many of the other Disney heroines, fighting for independence while feeling the pull of doing what’s right for their families or communities. And she is technically a princess, so there’s that. But either way, the film spurred a larger conversation about gender roles in the stories we tell children, which is never a bad thing.
Apples and MacGuffins: Pixar dedicates Brave to the late Steve Jobs in the end credits (“Dedicated to the memory of Steve Jobs, our partner, mentor and friend”), but the tributes pop up earlier than that. Ferguson’s character, one of the three visiting lords, bears the name Macintosh, likely a reference to the personal computer that Jobs unveiled in 1984. Additionally, Merida gets interrupted before she can bite into an apple on several occasions, likely in reference to the iconic Apple logo.
It’s not the only in-joke to be connected with the names of the lords. McKidd’s characters, Lord MacGuffin and Young MacGuffin, out the real purpose of the competition through their names alone. The film sets up the idea that the central thrust of the story will be the young lords competing for Merida’s hand, but whoops, that’s a MacGuffin: The real story exists in the rising tension and battle of wills between Merida and her mother, and that MacGuffin is just a means to an end.
Analysis: Brave doesn’t pack the emotional punch of Pixar’s best offerings, but it’s a worthy story nonetheless. Rather than any conspicuous flaw in the story itself, any disappointment one might feel about the film comes from what it might have been, rather than what it is. True, Merida and her mother come to an understanding they would never have had without their adventure through the woods, but the conclusion doesn’t hit home like it should, proving neither bittersweet nor triumphant, but somewhere in between. Pixar’s first female protagonist has plenty of fire and energy, and her eventual realization that sometimes what you want needs to be put aside in service of a greater good should hurt a lot more. But by splitting the difference — by making the Queen realize that Merida can forge a different path and marry for love — the story collapses on itself a bit, satisfying everyone without making anyone truly happy.
Of course, just because the final act falls a bit flat doesn’t mean the journey’s not a lot of fun. Mor’du is a truly terrifying villain — this is the third Pixar film to land itself a PG rating — and all the voice actors, Emma Thompson in particular, give tremendous performances. The animation, too, is impressive, from the wild strands of Merida’s unruly hair to the delicate embroidery of the tapestry the slices through in anger. And any Pixar film that becomes the centerpiece of a truly batshit theory must be doing something right.
14. Ratatouille (2007)
Runtime: 1 hr. 51 min.
Pitch: A rat in the kitchen is normally cause for alarm, but Remy, a very unusual rodent with a taste for the finer things, makes his way from the sewers to a fancy restaurant in the heart of Paris, where he hopes to become a chef. With the help of Linguini, a down-on-his-luck garbage boy who Remy uses to help realize his dream, this unusual cook’s dishes capture the public’s imagination, but also draw the ire of Linguini’s disapproving father, a suspicious head chef, and the city’s skeptical restaurant critic.
Cast: Patton Oswalt, Ian Holm, Lou Romano, Brian Dennehy, Peter Sohn, Peter O’Toole, Brad Garrett, and Janeane Garofalo
All the Colors of the Rainbow: The scenes where Remy wanders around Paris, particularly in the evening, are filled with dusky purples, pinks, and grays, letting the City of Lights shine as a place of wonder amid the fading dark. By contrast, the kitchen at Gusteau’s is warm and bright, replete with mustard yellows, leafy greens, and loud reds that help make Remy’s “studio” feel like a place of creation, where things are humming and alive. The contrast between the two creates a sense of the different worlds that Remy feels stuck between.
Easter Eggs: The dog who barks at Remy when he’s escaping from the sewers is Dug from Up, and the mime that Linguini and Colette skate past is Bomb Voyage from The Incredibles. Additionally, you can see the Pizza Planet truck on the bridge as Chef Skinner is chasing Remy through the streets of Paris (and into the Seine).
The Speech de Résistance: The peak of Ratatouille is Anton Ego’s monologue at the end of the film, where he reviews Gusteau’s after learning the secret of who cooked his meal. Delivered with aplomb by the inimitable Peter O’Toole, the speech takes a few shots at us humble critics, but also captures the way in which great art can transcend our biases and expectations and “rock us to our cores.” Ego’s review offers a laudable sermon about embracing the new, the bold, and the different. He, and by extension the film’s creators, encourage the viewer to accept the idea that great artists can come from anywhere, and this directs us to welcome lesser-heard voices in the kitchen, in the cinema, and everywhere else.
I Like This New Jerry, But Where’s Tom?: One of the most impressive aspects of the film is how it translates the verve and traditions of the old cat-and-mouse cartoons into a three-dimensional environment. The film features many scenes where Remy is being pursued by some attacker, whether it’s a shotgun-wielding old lady or the head chef of the restaurant. For many of these scenes, the “camera” stays tight on Remy as he scurries about his environment, which not only helps to drive home his diminutive size in relation to his surroundings, but also communicates the frantic sense of motion as he darts from obstacle to obstacle in these sequences.
Analysis: The basic story at the heart of Ratatouille, where the creature most abhorred in the kitchen ends up wanting only to belong there, is a superb one. Remy’s journey from field mouse to the toast of Paris is endearing, and despite the cartoonish implausibility of his marionette scheme with Linguini, the film does well both at making it work and naturally connecting it to Remy’s initially uncertain but eventually great success. At the same time, Gusteau and Ego work well as the proverbial angel and devil of the film and draw out Ratatouille’s themes of accepting the new – whether food or art – that comes from unusual or unexpected places.
The only problem is that everything in the film apart from Remy’s story feels superfluous or even strained. Linguini is a big nothing at the center of the film, and there are not nearly enough other colorful characters there to pick up the slack for him. An underdeveloped romance, some plot-moving questions of parentage, and the sitcom-esque conflicts between Linguini and his “Little Chef” only detract from the intrigue of the main narrative. Appropriate for a movie centered around the glory of food, Ratatouille is a film with a strong story at its center, but which otherwise feels a bit flabby.
13. Toy Story 2 (1999)
Runtime: 1 hr. 32 min.
Pitch: When Woody is stolen by a toy collector, Buzz and the gang team up to save him. But having been reunited with the other characters from Woody’s Round-Up, Woody starts to wonder if maybe it wouldn’t be better to stay safe and pristine inside a collectible box, rather than watch Andy outgrow him.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, Annie Potts, John Ratzenberger, and Wayne Knight
All the Colors of the Rainbow: The biggest change in color from the first Toy Story comes in the terrifying trek through Al’s Toy Barn. Sure, the familiar, muted primary colors are all still there — these are toys, after all — but lots of grays and dark blues convey the vast emptiness of the place, a palette that’s then echoed in the trip to the airport. There, the blues are bluer, the grays more menacing, because the vastness of those slick, shiny aisles pales in comparison to the massive luggage system or the terrifying open space of the sky. As with the first film, when the toys step out of their safe haven, things suddenly feel a lot less warm.
Easter Eggs: All Pixar films have their fair share of Easter eggs, but Toy Story 2 is among the Easter-eggiest. A113? Check. The actual address of Pixar Animation? Check. Jurassic Park reference? Check. The Luxo Jr. lamp? Check. John Lasseter’s birthday, a Steve Jobs reference, hidden Mickey, and A Bug’s Life toys? Check, check, check, and check.
As with the other Pixar sequels, the majority of the voice talent returns from the first, with the most notable new characters being Jessie (Joan Cusack) and The Prospector (Kelsey Grammer at his most menacing). But while most of Andy’s toys return again in Toy Story 3, there’s one sad change in personnel: Jim Varney passed away after the film was released, making this Slinky Dog’s last appearance with his original voice.
The Sob Section: Most Pixar movies have a moment that punches you in the gut — see: Up, opening sequence; Inside Out, Bing-Bong’s farewell; Finding Nemo, everything — but Jessie’s flashback is easily among the most potent. One of Randy Newman’s biggest heartbreakers soundtracks Jessie’s memories of being loved, played with, and eventually forgotten by her owner, Emily, and Sarah McLachlan’s vocal performance does all the things you remember from those awful animal abuse commercials. The sequence manages to convey not only the ache of being left behind by someone you love, but the inevitable tragedy of growing up (and getting old). We all leave our childish things behind.
Okay, You’re Allowed to Be Cocky: One can understand Lasseter and company’s desire to take a bit of a victory lap. Toy Story was an instant classic (and it’s still ahead on our list), and Pixar does a bit of strutting about it in Toy Story 2, gently thumbing their noses at the retailers that didn’t stock enough dolls when the film didn’t seem like a hit and referencing other blockbuster franchises, from Jurassic Park to Star Wars. But the unkindest cut of all is aimed at Mattel, who refused to allow Barbie to appear in the first film. Barbie’s here as a tour guide — Mattel even released Tour Guide Barbie in conjunction with the film’s release — but she’s a bit, shall we say, vapid. She’s no Bo Peep, that’s for sure.
Analysis: Hitting the screen several years before the weep-fest that is Finding Nemo, Toy Story 2 was the first indicator that Pixar was prepared to really twist the knife with audiences. Sure, A Bug’s Life and the first Toy Story have their Kleenex moments, but when it comes to the kind of emotional warfare we now associate with Pixar, this is where it all began. This is a film that starts with Woody’s arm being torn off, which means he doesn’t get to go to Cowboy Camp. Then he contemplates life as a collectible, something he would have previously found abhorrent, just so he can avoid the inevitable heartbreak when Andy doesn’t need him anymore. And that’s all before we get to Jessie’s big moment. Woof.
But while the melancholy moments of Toy Story 2 loom large, this is also Pixar in full-on playful mode. The airport sequence is mostly frightening, but the chase through Al’s Toy Barn is equal parts frenzied and fun. Seriously, that Jurassic Park joke? That thing is solid gold.
12. Finding Dory (2016)
Runtime: 1 hr. 37 min.
Pitch: Dory’s happy living alongside Marlin and Nemo’s anemone, glad to have friends and a place to belong. But when a long-lost memory drifts to the surface, she sets off — friends alongside her — to find her family, and no amount of forgetfulness will stop her.
Cast: Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Hayden Rolence, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Idris Elba, and Dominic West
All the Colors of the Rainbow: Building on the remarkable range of blues employed by its predecessor, Dory still spends a lot of time underwater and colors its world accordingly. However, there’s a great deal more focus on what’s going on above sea level, giving the animators a new palette of plasticine orange shades, damp concrete surfaces, the gleam of glass or the dull shine off a vinyl seat. Imagine Nemo, but with some time spent driving to Pizza Planet (or running away with Riley).
Familiar Faces: Repeat viewings will certainly reveal more and more Easter eggs, but there are two that no Pixar movie is complete without. Check out the license plate on the truck for the first. The second? Ratzenberger, naturally. Dory marks the first Pixar follow-up in which Ratzenberger plays a different character between films, as the School of Fish fails to make an appearance, and the Ratz instead plays a crab.
However, he’s not the only repeat cast member playing a new role. While very little time has ultimately passed between Dory and its predecessor, more than a decade has elapsed for the rest of us, and so Alexander Gould is now no longer an adorable child and thus cannot voice Nemo. He’s there in a cameo role instead, playing the descriptively named Passenger Carl.
Seriously, Cut Apart Those Six-Pack Rings: Nemo certainly argued for conservation, though the public didn’t always listen. Dory more than doubles down, from the first brief sequence where the heroine finds herself caught in one of those dreaded six-pack rings to considerable time spent in a Marine Life Rescue Institute. The film is never preachy, but it’s fair to say that the folks at Pixar have no desire to damage the environment through fandom.
PG? I Thought Nemo was G: It was. Dory is the first Pixar follow-up to snag a different rating than its predecessor, but that shouldn’t put families off. Sure, there are a few scary moments — one undersea monster is particularly spooky — but the rating is most likely the result of some heavier emotional stuff. Like Inside Out, Finding Dory packs a few moments that will sting even the hardest of grown-up hearts, let alone kids. But nothing here is nightmare fuel.
Analysis: It’s not as innovative as the films that top our list, and it’s a far cry from top-tier Pixar — though here, as elsewhere on our list, that’s more a testament to the tremendous filmmaking than a dig against this particular gem. But Finding Dory sticks with a winning formula and ups the ante — more locations, great new characters (here’s lookin’ at you, Hank), another hero’s quest, and great lessons learned by all. With a character this good — heck, with characters this good, as it’s not like Marlin and Nemo aren’t also delightful — sometimes all you need is a good story. And why not throw in some 3D for good measure.
But while Dory just keeps swimming down Nemo’s stream, it doesn’t rest on what works. Where Dory excels is in its desire to create differently-abled characters, from a near-sighted whale to a seven-legged octopus to a really nutty bird, and have what would in a lesser movie define them as just one element of a well-rounded character. Dory won our hearts not because of her memory loss, but because of her warmth, her compassion, her inventiveness, and her bravery. Here, we see that the source of much of that beauty comes from exactly what some would say holds her back. That’s a hell of a moral.