Ranked

Every Pixar Film, Ranked

With their latest, Soul, now on Disney+, Ella Kemp braves the entire Pixar canon and sorts the misfires from the masterpieces...

The world has been graced with a new Pixar film almost every year since 1995 – and they’re showing no signs of slowing down. And why would they? When you can mine depth and sensitivity from bugs, monsters, fish, rats, robots, skeletons, and more, there’s always a new world to discover. There are other animation studios rising in the ranks, of course, and no disputing the might of Studio Ghibli, but for this exercise we are here to celebrate the Disney subsidiary that has warmed and broken our hearts for over two decades.

It’s important to note that even the bad and worst Pixar films still have merit, visual and technical sophistication many will dream of for their entire lives. But when the films get good – great, even – there's a unique brand of magic. And so, to coincide with the release of Soul and its promises of life-altering existentialism, it’s time to look back on every Pixar film to date, ranked from worst to best. It’s subjective, it’s emotional – it’s exactly as it should be.

*this article was originally published on December 21, 2020. It has been updated to include Soul

 

23. Cars 3 (2017)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Perhaps considered as an individual film Cars 3 might have greater merit than its predecessor, but the fact remains that a third installment in a universe that never managed to offer any emotional depth was never going to impress. The story about your own expiration date, the yearning to always look fitter, better, stronger, happier, might have found some relevance elsewhere, but the execution here is just sterile. Shiny, but hollow, it’s time for this franchise to end.

 

22. Cars 2 (2011)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

The problem with Cars 2 is that John Lasseter failed to learn his lesson with the first film: there are simply too many cars, and not an ounce of soul in these metal, rigid, motorised machines. It makes no sense for us to care about them – and a convoluted storyline involving international espionage and the conspiracies around sustainable energies does little to make things easier, with plot devices in turn patronising and just plain exhausting.

 

21. The Good Dinosaur (2015)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

There is a gorgeous image of a father and his son (both dinosaurs, of course) running through fields as fireflies dance and twirl around them. But that's the only good bit in The Good Dinosaur, a film with an unlikable protagonist hunting for a sense of self and sharing a friendship with a caveboy that lacks the necessary chemistry to make us care.

 

20. Cars (2006)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

There should be a specific word for the disappointment that occurs when all the best ingredients still cannot make a project work. Cars has a stellar voice cast, a pretty sleek design for 2006, is lively and ambitious in its portrait of a power-hungry superstar suddenly forced to look at the bigger picture – but it just never comes together. The novelty quickly wears off, and it never makes sense for cars to be talking, no matter how you look at it. Where do you go from there?

 

19. Brave (2012)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

The intentions are noble and the visual detail is impressive (the hair!) but there’s just not enough weight in the ideas here – a princess fighting back against traditions and battling against magical anomalies – for Brave to stand the test of time as a mould-breaking origin story. It’s fortunate for us, and unfortunate for Brave, that Wolfwalkers now exists.

 

18. Monsters University (2013)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

It’s certainly not a bad sequel by any stretch – and this is technically a straightforward prequel – but so much of the fun of the original Monsters Inc. lies in not knowing where the next scare will come from. Here, as we see how Mike and Sully became friends at college, we're treated to an undeniably energetic journey, but it leaves you shrugging your shoulders a bit as to, well, the point of it all.

 

17. A Bug’s Life (1998)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Maybe we should all be socialists? Undoubtedly Pixar’s most political project, A Bug’s Life offers a sharp analysis of the powers that community can bring together, and the vibrancy of the animal kingdom. For kids discovering this for the first time, there’s plenty of delicate and intricate visual work to latch onto (the German caterpillar is an endless source of comedy). But reappraising this as an adult, the political allegory couldn’t be clearer.

 

16. Finding Dory (2016)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Dory’s distinctive personality trait – her short-term memory loss – was always ripe for further exploration in Finding Nemo, and so the sequel focusing on the little blue fish’s journey to find her family is as poignant and robust as we might have expected. There’s charm and wit, but also plenty of existential heft, too.

15. Up (2009)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

If Up spent more time on its romantic montage of the first 10 minutes – set to the most heartbreaking theme Michael Giacchino has ever written – it would soar to the top of the ranking. But it loses steam as the house takes off, and Carl sets out on a mission to reach the wilds of South America for one last adventure. It’s not bad, but the adventure is certainly a lot less compelling than Carl and Ellie’s beautiful love story.

 

14. Soul (2020)

Where to watch it: Disney+

There are shades of Inside Out in Soul, Pixar’s most philosophical film to date – which is no mean feat. The warm and ambitious existential journey hopscotches between “The Great Before” and real-world New York, as our protagonist Joe Gardner, an aspiring jazz musician, dies on the day he finally gets his big break. Soul alternates between glowing metaphysics and more grounded musings on enjoying the journey more than the destination in our everyday lives – which means it’s sometimes devastating, sometimes a little too neat. The double score from Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross and Jon Batiste is an all-timer, but too much of this feels a little incomplete to soar much higher in the ranking.

 

13. Monsters Inc. (2001)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Broadening the idea of the child afraid of a monster hiding in the closet, by seeing the monsters shriek in fear at the sight of a small human, is genius. Monsters Inc. is also texturally beautiful, the sea-green fur on Sully’s back visibly soft and flowing, the glint in Mike Wazowski’s single eye shining bright and sharp. The way the film suggests humans are harder to scare due to our reliance on screens is handled subtly, but the film's greatest asset is, of course, the relationship between Sully and Boo. The tiny child radiates love and energy and the verbal gibberish is, somehow, precisely engineered. It’s soft, big-hearted, smart and vibrant.

 

12. Coco (2017)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Coco boldly grapples with the fear and pain of losing someone, the ways we can hold onto those we love simply by remembering them. The music is terrific, the twinkling lights of the afterlife are some of Pixar’s most beautiful creations, and Gael Garcia Bernal shows off his musical chops all over again. The only thing letting this one down is Miguel, the young boy at the centre who dares to cross the wishes of those in the afterlife – he unfortunately suffers from a familiar try-hard syndrome found in far too many young protagonists. Let the skeletons do the talking instead, I say.

11. Onward (2020)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

At this stage in the ranking it must be made clear that the difference between every ranked entry is determining which films are “great” and which films are “really, really great.” Onward is Pixar with their heart on their sleeve, telling a story of brotherhood and memory via two elf teenagers on a hunt to save the memory of their late father. Magic, adventure and loyalty course through the film – it’s easy to love, beautiful to look at, and the ending is perfectly poignant. A treat.

 

10. Finding Nemo (2003)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

The determination that drives one tiny clown fish to find his even tinier clown-fish son propels Finding Nemo to great heights (or depths?). The inadequacies that come with the literal elements of being a small fish in an enormous pond make Marlin’s weariness feel incredibly real, as his sudden need to muster more energy and courage than ever before holds a genuine weight. Dory remains one of the most memorable and loveable sidekicks in the studio's history, and Nemo’s new ragtag family at the dentists’ surgery easily sets up endless spinoffs. And as with all great Pixar films, the score really solidifies its heart: Thomas Newman has never composed anything better.

 

9. Toy Story (1995)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

There is, of course, no denying the game-changing qualities of Toy Story, but it is my personal belief that when you revisit the original film, it’s more thrilling to see just how much the studio were able to build from here. The foundations are perfect – the story taps into a wish, or a fear, that so many children have in terms of imagining a life for their toys. It’s this kind of storytelling that works best for Pixar: noticing what exists, and infusing it with magic. Tom Hanks and Tim Allen are the two best actors you could imagine to give their voices to Woody and Buzz, and their friendship – the fragile male egos, the insecurity, the jealousy – blooms perfectly. We are so lucky to have grown up with them.

 

8. Toy Story 3 (2010)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

We always knew this third installment was coming, but the chapter in which Andy had to say goodbye to his childhood toys still felt like ripping off a plaster. Seeing the toys come to terms with a new reality away from their home comforts earned its emotional weight, and the climax still stands as the apex of drama for Pixar. Lotso the strawberry-pink teddy bear might seem a bit familiar as a shady villain, but the comedy found in Spanish Buzz alone makes this a diamond of a Pixar movie.

 

7. Ratatouille (2007)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Did Brad Bird accidentally invent ASMR without any of us realising? Few films capture the haptic pleasures of food better than Ratatouille: feel the heat of the steam coming off a pot of soup; the way your eyebrows soften when tasting something delicious; the sound of spring onions splashing into a sauce; the “symphony of crackle” as you break open a baguette. They do say that animals have heightened senses, after all – and so the story of Remy, the little chef who also happens to be a rat, thrives on its hyper-sensitive sensations. You’ll never look at ratatouille the same way again after seeing the finely-sliced vegetables on display here. Delicious.

 

6. The Incredibles (2004)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

The Incredibles might have the best film score ever written. Not just because of the jazzy theme, but because of the sheer power in horns that never quit, in the strings that have never been more animated. It’s a superhero story that understands family values – a movie that grapples with the weight of idealising someone and the bitterness of not being recognised as an equal. Visually, Elastigirl is the most dextrous thing Pixar has ever done, while Edna Mode is undoubtedly the most iconic. The thrills never cease, while the kid on the tricycle who watches as the Parr family home goes up in flames says it best: it was, and still is, “totally wicked.”

 

5. Inside Out (2015)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Inside Out is smart, sharp, vulnerable, existential and important. A lot of Pixar movies hide complex messages behind their bouncy protagonists, but the flux of emotions – more negative than positive – is captured in simple and brilliant terms here. As a teenage girl, Riley, moves to a new city and deals with a flurry of anxiety, loneliness, rage, disgust, uncertainty, we follow the emotions in her head (little glowing people) as they adjust to the new reality. It packs a serious punch in terms of the emotions we’d usually bury without trying to process, and it makes you realise just how complex and urgent self-awareness can be. Bing-Bong, Riley's imaginary friend voiced by Richard Kind, is the undoubted MVP.

 

4. The Incredibles 2 (2018)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Picking up a few seconds after where the first masterpiece left off, The Incredibles 2 instantly came out fighting. It is, simply put, a feminist triumph. Exploring fragile male egos and subverting gender stereotypes, Brad Bird’s sequel smartly weaves these themes into the narrative, rather than falling trap to any derivative or performative redundancies. Elastigirl’s quote from her very first film reel (“Leave the saving to the men? No, thanks”) is finally given room to stretch here. But it’s also electrifying fun, socially aware satire, warm and patient when it comes to family politics, and laser-sharp in terms of superhero devices. Rarely is a “woman first, man second” dynamic deployed without seeming forced or fake – but here the film offers a quiet education without losing any of the original film’s spark. This will age wonderfully.

 

3. Toy Story 2 (1999)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

It was the first film to question the lifespan of a toy, one that actually engaged with the lifelessness of plastic within this world, and the ease with which one can be replaced. This would then be deployed further throughout the Toy Story series, but the rivalry between Woody and Buzz, the pang of loneliness Woody feels, the new dynamic with Jessie – these were all at their best in Toy Story 2. There are a few aesthetic flourishes that remain among Pixar’s best work as well: the “Fixing Woody” scene is still celebrated for its haptic qualities across the internet, and good luck finding any song, anywhere, that is more heartbreaking than Sarah McLachlan’s “When She Loved Me.” It’s the kind of film you don’t realise is perfect until the credits start to roll – and you immediately miss watching it.

 

2. WALL-E (2008)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

This might be one of the most romantic films ever made. WALL-E is simple, poignant, hopeful, and a plainly beautiful story of care and loyalty delivered with visual aplomb. To start, the first act’s total lack of dialogue is nothing short of spellbinding, forcing you to look closer and appreciate the beauty in the mountains of rubble. The film asks you to look at what our world could become if we don’t take care of it. What might happen if we don’t take care of ourselves. And yet WALL-E never antagonises or intimidates, it merely paints a picture of how beautiful the world really can be if only we choose to look in the right places. As WALL-E and Eve dance among the stars, sheets of metal flying in thin air and foam swirling round and round, it’s easy to see why so many people think Pixar are the cream of the crop.

 

1. Toy Story 4 (2019)

Where to watch it: Various streaming services

Many will find a greater emotional connection with a number of other Pixar titles, but Toy Story 4 has been crowned the best, here, because it should never have existed in the first place. The trilogy was neat, it felt complete, and yet the fourth film somehow came along and blew everything out of the water. Instead of wondering how toys exist when a different child starts playing with them, the question now is: what is the point in their existence, at all? On his mission to find a missing friend, Woody gets to wonder about why some things might not want to be found. It’s about knowing where your love is needed, knowing when to let go, when to say goodbye because you are meant for other things. It’s the most delicate, gorgeous thing the studio has created: Bo Peep’s porcelain sheens under the sunlight, specks of dust sparkle, the smooth curves around Woody’s kind eyes have never felt more tangible. Soulful and existential, Toy Story 4 grapples with the arrival fallacy: the belief, or doubt, that when a goal is reached, you’ll be much happier. There are no easy answers, but the questions have never been asked so beautifully. Twenty years in the making, it’s romantic, charming, thoughtful, heartbreaking, and hopeful – absolutely, the best Pixar have ever been.

Soul is available to stream on Disney+ from 25 December.

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