With its thoughtful and meticulously detailed imagery and rich, complex storytelling, Pixar sets a high bar for animated movies. Other studios may have the same state-of-the-art graphics and big-name stars voicing characters, but Pixar films always feel as if they are made with a nod and a wink to adult tastes and sensibilities, as much as pure entertainment for children.
The little ones may not appreciate the mid-century Eichler-inspired houses or the George Romero references, but it's those touches that have us big kids hooked. Here's what we grown-ups think of all the Pixar Animation Studios movies, from meh to amazing.
21. Cars 2 (2011)
Ugh. The sequel features too much of the tow truck Mater—a caricature of an uncouth American—who gets mistaken for an international spy while accompanying his best friend Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) on an European car rally. It's an uncharacteristic misstep of offensive stereotypes and lame humor.
20. Monsters University (2013)
The prequel to Monsters, Inc. charts how James P. "Sulley" Sullivan (John Goodman) and Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) first met and became friends. Fans of the first movie will be disappointed by the inconsistencies in character development and may find the increased presence of Crystal's comedic schtick to be grating.
19. Cars 3 (2011)
The film feels as directionless as the lead character of aging race car Lightning McQueen, voiced again by Owen Wilson. At the heart of it, however, the story tackles the issue of representation (or lack of it by anyone not part of the white male patriarchy)—for that, it gets props.
18. A Bug's Life (1998)
The good guys bravely give the villain (voiced by Kevin Spacey with a dash of extra creepy) his comeuppance but, with the exception of a portly caterpillar with a vaguely Austrian accent, you won't fall madly in love with any of the characters.
17. The Good Dinosaur (2015)
What if the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs missed? In this sweet but slightly forgettable tale, apatosaurus Arlo gets separated from his family, and, with the help of a cave boy who he names Spot, must dig deep to traverse raging waters and fight off vicious pterodactyls to find his way home.
16. Finding Dory (2016)
Set mostly in a West Coast aquarium, there are fewer expansive underwater scenes and the journey feels less epic than that of Finding Nemo. Even the charming positive attitude of Ellen DeGeneres's character Dory (a blue reef fish who suffers from memory loss) is not enough to make up for the tiresome forgetfulness schtick.
15. Brave (2012)
My beef with Pixar's first and only attempt (so far) at a princess movie is that the feisty Merida, an archer and the daughter of a medieval Scottish king, is forced to find a way to an undo the curse cast on her due to her desire to fight patriarchal norms. On the flip side, she does it heroically and, in the end, emerges stronger and wiser.
14. Incredibles 2 (2018)
Unfortunately, this long-awaited sequel has hopped onto the recent superhero-movie bandwagon with its nearly two-hour running time (can we please get back to efficient storytelling and a tight edit?!). The Incredibles are called upon again to save the world. As with the first film, family drama propels the storyline. This time, it revolves around the female characters: Violet's teenage struggle with wanting to be just like everyone else, Elastigirl coming into her own and the bitter sister up to no good.
13. Ratatouille (2007)
With the help from an anthropomorphic rat gifted in the culinary arts, a bungling talentless cook lands a spot on the line of a prestigious restaurant in Paris. The movie does its best to capture the aroma, heat and choreographed chaos of the kitchen.
12. Toy Story (1995)
Animation has advanced since Pixar's first movie but our introduction to cowboy doll Woody and his gang of toys, who talk and go on adventures when humans aren't looking, still holds up. This film establishes what will become classic Pixar storytelling: An interloper challenges preconceived ideas of the group and must go on a journey of self discovery while helping to deliver justice to a dastardly villain—in this case, the bully next door. The movie ends on another signature Pixar move (one that rivals any scene in George Romero's Night of the Living Dead) acknowledgement that adults are watching, too.
11. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
James P. "Sulley" Sullivan and Mike Wazowski are best friends and team #1 at Monsters, Inc., the factory that powers Monstropolis by harnessing children's screams. When a little girl from the human world crosses the closet threshold into the monster one, panic ensues and Sulley must help Boo find her way home. Their adventure includes a botched sushi date and a high-speed chase on topsy turvy conveyor belts of doors. In the end, they forge a sweet monster-girl bond and discover an alternative source to keep the city's lights on. Hooray for cruelty-free energy!
10. Toy Story 2 (1999)
In the second movie of the Toy Story franchise, we meet the rootin', tootin' cowgirl Jessie, who has one of the saddest backstories. Here, the story touches on the notion of toys as adult collectibles and objects of desire but not affection. In the end, heart wins.
9. Cars (2006)
Breathtaking vistas and iconic Route 66 architecture are the backdrop for a story about cocky race car Lightening McQueen (Owen Wilson) who finds heart with the help of the folksy townsfolk led by a retired speedster voiced by Paul Newman.
8. Inside Out (2015)
The movie reminds us that the internal world of children is no less complex or fraught than the mind of an adult and reinforces the importance of empathy—an undervalued quality in today's world. The highlight of the film is the engaging and highly-animated voice work (the best in the Pixar universe) of the personified emotions of joy, sadness, fear, disgust, and anger performed by Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, and Lewis Black, respectively.
7. Up (2009)
A tale of a grumpy old man and the cheerful little scout that breaks through to his sad, broken heart. Queue the waterworks.
6. The Incredibles (2004)
Our introduction to Mr. Incredible and family delights with a cool mid-century modern backdrop, charming family drama and scene-stealing Edna Mode (the stern fashionista based on famed costume designer Edith Head).
5. Toy Story 4 (2019)
The funniest one in the series edges out the original and sequel thanks to the comedic contributions of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as Ducky and Bunny. Again, Pixar plays on adult fears—creepy dolls and ventriloquist dummies —as well as universal themes of loss and love. The characters of Gabby Gabby and Bo are more complicated than the female toys from the previous three movies. Plus, Keanu Reeves lends his distinctive vocal stylings to the proud Canadian daredevil Duke Kaboom.
4. Finding Nemo (2003)
This gorgeous movie is Pixar at its best: a beautifully-rendered underwater universe, a moving story of an unfunny clownfish (pulled off expertly by comic genius James Brooks) looking for his son Nemo and a cast of charming sea creatures, including sharks in Carnivores Anonymous, a totally chill group of sea turtles and a forgetful blue reef fish voiced by Ellen DeGeneres.
3. WALL-E (2008)
Set in the 29th century, the haunting landscape of a lifeless Earth populated solely by robot WALL-E recalls the isolation and momentous quiet 0f Stanley Kubrick's space epic 2010: A Space Odyssey. His further isolation is short lived when a probe named EVE visits the planet and WALL-E falls in love. He journeys across the galaxy to be with her and save the human race from continued moral apathy and physical atrophy. It's both a cautionary tale of the effects of environmental selfishness and a hopeful one of how love on a small scale can affect change on a larger one.
2. Toy Story 3 (2010)
So effective are the foreboding score, the animated facial rendering, and the claustrophobic background that nearly a decade after its initial release, a pit still forms in my stomach when I watch the treacherous conveyor belt ride to doom at the apex of the movie. In this third installment of the adventures of Woody and his toy gang, they prepare for the worst as their owner Andy packs up to leave home for college. We, along with the characters, must not only mourn the loss of childhood but come face to face with the existential question: "What is our life's purpose?"
1. Coco (2017)
Culturally rich storytelling, an expansive and glorious universe and a sweet earworm of a song are why this wondrous movie nabs the top spot. On Day of the Dead, a significant day of remembrance in Mexican culture, a young boy accidentally enters the underworld and must find his way back. The movie illustrates a powerful message about the bonds of family and the price of holding a grudge.
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