On Christmas day, Pixar is premiering its 23rd feature film, Soul, on Disney+. The film, an exploration not of the afterlife but of life itself, featuring the voice talents of Jamie Foxx and Tina Fey, has been getting good reviews so far. But, the thing about Pixar is, that even when a movie is incredible, outstanding, and universally beloved, it still might not crack the studio’s Top 10. That’s how acclaimed Pixar, which released its first film and pushed the limits of what computer animation could be way back in 1995, has become.
We’ll soon see how Soul fares compared to the rest of Pixar’s filmography, but in preparation for the film, we’ve ranked all 22 of the studio’s previous feature-length films. This isn’t a normal list, where the entries at the bottom are considered “bad.” With perhaps the exception of Cars 2, every Pixar movie is, at a minimum, very good. When the competition includes so many masterpieces, being in the bottom half ain’t half bad.
It’s hard to remember now what with all the monster universities and Dory-finding, but there was a long time when Pixar didn’t do sequels other than the Toy Story ones, which made a certain amount of sense given that Woody, Buzz, and the gang made up the studio’s first and most beloved franchise. Cars 2 was the first non-Toy Story sequel, which was a little worrisome. Cars was fine but it wasn’t exactly the most acclaimed movie Pixar had made, and now it was getting a sequel? What gives?
Well, Cars merchandise made Disney/Pixar $10 billion in the five years after the first movie’s release, so even the most die-hard defenders of Pixar’s artistry had to shrug and accept the sense of making a Cars sequel. The movie itself, a James Bond pastiche that relied way too much on Larry the Cable Guy, is the closest thing Pixar’s come to making a creatively bankrupt movie — even if you can almost give them a pass since it’s pretty clear money, not artistry, was in the driver’s seat.
Weirdly intense first trailer aside (did Lightning McQueen just die?), Cars 3 is miles better than its predecessor. The movie, which wisely shifts Mater back to being a supporting character rather than the lead, deals with Lightning’s fears about becoming obsolete, and although it’s still far from Pixar’s best, that parable about growing older is miles better than an inexplicable spy story.
The Good Dinosaur
On paper, The Good Dinosaur sounds like it should be an Apatosaurus-sized hit. An alternate history where the dinosaurs never died? Almost photo-realistic landscapes mixed with intentionally cartoony characters? Pixar’s take on a Western? But, while the movie has beautiful moments, it’s ultimately a little too confused and, unfortunately, disposable-feeling to really take a dinosaur-sized bite out of any of the concepts it introduces. (And, not for nothing, but the Ice Age franchise’s existence probably doesn’t help.)
Please don’t ask any questions about how the Cars universe actually works. That’s not the point. Cars was, for a long while, Pixar’s most overtly commercial film (again, $10 billion in merch), but even so, the film has a worthwhile engine powering its plastic appeal. Lightning’s eye-opening (windshield-wiping?) drive through the folksy town of Radiator Springs is a classic sort of story, bolstered by some fun visuals and engaging (if again, confusing) worldbuilding. A solid story and an engaging cast, including Owen Wilson, an honestly well-deployed Larry the Cable Guy, and Paul Newman in his final performance, give these automobiles enough life that Cars is a smooth ride.
There’s so much ocean to explore, but Finding Dory doesn’t really ever make a case for why Pixar dove back into this particular world rather than finding something new. Finding Dory has its moments, sure — the aquarium setting is neat and the movie ultimately manages to add depth to Dory, which is no small feat given how tricky it can be to saddle a comic relief side character with carrying the main plot and emotional arc of a sequel. Still, Finding Dory largely feels like a repeat of Finding Nemo, and while it’s refreshing to take another dip in the pool, it’s less exciting if all you’re doing is swimming laps.
Monsters University is another Pixar sequel that didn’t really need to be made, but at least the college setting is a nice change of pace. It’s Pixar’s take on Animal House or Old School, only family-friendly! Have some harmless antics and collegiate shenanigans! Helen Mirren voices some sort of insectoid dragon! It’s fun! Monsters University isn’t trying to be the best Pixar’s ever done, magna cum laude-style, but we’re all having a nice time watching some boys have fun in college and learn a little something. C’mon, don’t be a nerd! It’s Monsters University! It’s fine!
A Bug’s Life
Pixar’s sophomore outing suffers because it’s not the groundbreaking triumph that Toy Story was, nor does it shoot for the stars as much as future movies would. Yet, despite being a “small” story, A Bug's Life manages to hint at a greater and grander destiny — both for Flik and the world outside his ant colony, and for Pixar, which would only grow to be something more (not unlike a certain beautiful butterfly).
Brave was Pixar’s first movie with a female lead, and the studio’s first film to resemble a classic Disney story, as the princess-led adventure had more in common with the fairytales of the House of Mouse’s heyday than any of Pixar’s more genre-bending fare. By that metric, Brave is a success, and Merida is a welcome, fiery addition to the Disney Princess canon. And yet, Brave never quite elevates things to the next level viewers have come to expect from Pixar. Merida is a worthy heroine, but the only things that makes Brave feel special compared to its peers are that there isn’t a love interest and this heroine’s mom is still alive — and even then the impact of Merida and Queen Elinor’s mother-daughter drama is somewhat lessened by the ursine detour.
Toy Story 4
Toy Story 4 could have so easily cheapened Toy Story 3’s touching ending. Luckily, it doesn’t — or at least, not that much. The trick is that, while Toy Story 3 (and to a certain extent, the first two movies, too) is about how to move on when the world around you is changing in sometimes scary ways, Toy Story 4 is about Woody responding to a change in himself. No longer the top toy in the box, Woody finds a new purpose when he reencounters Bo Peep in an unexpected place, ultimately saying goodbye to his friends because it’s time for him to move on of his own volition, rather than because things have simply changed around him. In some ways, making that conscious leap is scarier than Toy Story 3’s more reactive themes, and the fourth and final Toy Story movie rises to the challenge of bringing it to life. And, as an added bonus, Toy Story 4 introduced Forky, who in turn went on to star in Forky Asks a Question, the most incredible and delightfully deranged show on all of Disney+.
As the years went by, Pixar’s movies kept getting bigger. Finding Nemo covers an entire ocean in a father’s quest to find the titular Nemo, but even as Pixar was increasing the scope of its films — and testing the limits of its technology, as water has always been notoriously tricky to animate, especially so back in 2003 — the studio made sure to never lose sight of the emotional core. Finding Nemo may literally be about Marlin’s journey to recover his son, but the heart comes from their emotional reconnection as much if not more so as it does from their physical reunion. Add in Dory, some Aussie sharks, and a tubular turtle, and you’ve got a classic film.
Unlike the original 14 years earlier, 2018's Incredibles 2 premiered in a time when superhero movies were the blockbuster norm, rather than the exception. As such, it needed to both be a worthy sequel to an incredible (pun intended) original and justify itself amidst all the Marvel and DC films that were dominating the box office and cultural conversation. And, Incredibles 2 largely succeeds. It doesn’t quite delve as deeply into the more mundane, human aspects of the characters that made the first movie such an incredible story about a family, but even so, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl’s domestic role reversal strikes a chord. Incredibles 2 pivots away from any potential marital strife just a bit too early for the film to be truly great on that level, but in terms of superhero action, Incredibles 2 just blows pretty much every competing movie out of the water. If most of our MCU or DC blockbusters are going to end in extravaganzas that are almost entirely CGI, give or take a ball-covered stunt double in front of a green screen, can’t they at least embrace the fluidity of animation? Incredibles 2, perhaps more than any other Pixar movie, makes the most dynamic use of its medium — Elastigirl’s motorcycle rescue especially stretches the limits of what you think a chase scene can be.
Toy Story 3
Please don’t yell at me, but Toy Story 3 is overrated. It’s still an incredible film and a testament to Pixar’s filmography that a near-masterpiece could fall outside of the Top 10, but Toy Story 3 tries a little too hard to weaponize the inherently powerful theme at its core. Andy has grown up, and it’s time for him to move on and leave the toys that audiences have come to know and love behind. The inexorable march of time — and how that can make things that once felt comfortable and safe suddenly feel scary — is a powerful thing to grapple with, and Toy Story 3 does a good job of showing how Woody, Buzz, and the gang react to this new reality they can’t change, try as they might. At the same time, moments like the undeniably effective incinerator scene threaten to overshadow the quieter, more intimate parts of the film. In other words, people remember Toy Story 3 for the part where beloved toys join hands as they face oblivion, but the movie really clicks in the less heated parts, like when Andy and Woody part for the last time, both having accepted not a fiery death, but change.
It used to be that Pixar was the anti-DreamWorks. Pixar made imaginative movies with unexpected heart, while DreamWorks made, uh, Shrek. However, that comparison stopped working as Pixar’s cannon grew to include an increasing number of sequels and as DreamWorks Animation produced some worthy rivals, like How to Train Your Dragon and Kung-Fu Panda. The first half of Onward, though, feels like a DreamWorks movie in a bad way. The premise (“what if fantasy, but mundane and in the modern-day”) is sweaty and seemingly too reference-heavy to work. Luckily, almost magically, Onward does cast an incredible spell with its second half and unexpectedly heart-wrenching reveal that audiences — and the protagonists (Chris Pratt and Tom Holland) — have been focusing on the wrong relationship all along. It’s a story of brotherly love, and all the Dungeons & Dragons references are just garnish.
Though it seems quaint by modern Pixar standards, Monsters, Inc.’s premise — industrialized, workaday monsters scaring kids at night to power their cities — is so imaginatively delightful. If the secret life of toys or bug adventures were innovative spins on familiar tales, Monsters, Inc. was Pixar’s movie with a hook that most audiences probably hadn’t thought of before. John Goodman and Billy Crystal’s monstrous duo are fun coworkers, and Monsters, Inc. remains a sterling example of clever worldbuilding that serves to aid an engaging story, rather than to make up for a weak one.
The movie that started it all, Toy Story still holds up — just don’t look too hard at the human characters, as that’s where the nascent CGI shows its age the most. Toy Story is more than just a technical achievement, though. In its very first feature-length effort, Pixar showcased a sense of curiosity and empathy that would guide the studio into the future. The film isn’t just interested in answering the fun question of “what if toys were alive?” It’s deeper than that, asking more human questions of its plastic protagonists. “What if toys could feel jealous? What if toys struggled, sometimes, to find their true purposes?” A big idea, told in a seemingly small, unexpected way, utilizing cutting-edge animation technology. Watching Toy Story now, decades later, and it’s clear that, with a start like this, Pixar was destined for infinity, and beyond.
The first 10 minutes of Up are an absolute masterclass in storytelling economics. To call the story of Ellie and Carl’s meeting, love, and tragic parting “emotionally manipulative” misses the point: If it were easy to make audiences care this much about characters this quickly (and using very few words, to boot), every movie would do it.
The rest of Up, the part that’s a better homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World than anything Jurassic Park ever produced, can’t compete with that opening scene. But, don’t discount it, either. The bulk of Up is a fun, pulpy adventure — one that’s always grounded, despite the name, by the touching pathos of the first few minutes.
Toy Story 2
The best Pixar sequel (and arguably one of the best sequels ever made), Toy Story 2 builds on the original by expanding Woody and Buzz’s world and dialing up the pathos. Before there was Carl and Ellie’s story in Up, there was Jessie’s heart-wrenching abandonment montage. Toy Story 2 does what you want a sequel to do — bring back beloved old characters and introduce new co-stars and new adventures for them. What makes it such a good sequel is that it goes above and beyond just being a retread of the first film, exploring new themes about self-worth and the meaning of existence. Not bad, given that Toy Story 2 started life as a direct-to-video sequel that Disney was going to make without Pixar’s involvement before the studio stepped back in and turned the film around in a tight nine months!
Coco is both an incredibly specific story (the Día de Muertos-inspired setting and Latino voice cast gives the film a true sense of weight and identity that’s appreciated in contrast to other, more imaginative premises) and also a universal one (the people we love are never really gone if we remember them). It’s a profound film, both in terms of what it means as a piece of representation and for what it’s saying about life, love, and legacy. And, Coco has some of the most amazing and touching music you’ve ever heard in a Disney movie, which is saying something!
Aside from Toy Story, which deserves all the credit in the world for proving that you could make a whole movie with computer animation (and a great one at that), Wall-E might be the purest encapsulation of what Pixar can do. The pitch is, in many ways, audacious. Earth is a trash-covered wasteland, and mankind ditched it years ago with the hope that automation would make things good again. Our hero in this desolate world is an impossibly cute, essentially mute robot on a Sisyphean mission to clean the planet.
The second half of Wall-E, after Eve’s arrival and especially once the pair travel into space where they meet the rotund remainders of the human race, is an impressive and subtly challenging bit of filmmaking, but it’s that opening — an almost dialogue-free short film set in unusual circumstances — that proves just how much faith Pixar has in itself. And, perhaps more importantly, in its audience, trusting that they’ll follow their story as it travels to places they might never have imagined.
The Incredibles came out in theaters four full years before there was a Marvel Cinematic Universe. That may sound like an unnecessary statement of facts, but it’s important to remember that, when The Incredibles came out in 2004, it wasn’t “just another superhero movie.” The Incredibles — which captures the spirit of Marvel’s first family, The Fantastic Four, better than any official FF movie will ever be able to — was on the vanguard of cinema superheroics. The Incredibles used this comic book setting (and extremely mod, art deco aesthetics) to tell one of Pixar’s most mature stories. It just so happened that there was also punching and a supervillain.
With The Incredibles, Pixar gets to what’s so special about superheroes, using their high stakes and tremendous powers to heighten a very human story. The Incredibles is about a superhero family, with emphasis on the second word, not the first. It’s a movie about love and longing, and how marriage and having children means leaving things you loved behind while finding new things to love. It’s about infidelity and faithfulness. It’s about life and death. And, yes, it’s also about why you should never wear a cape while crime-fighting.
So many Pixar movies tackle big, heady themes in ways that you wouldn’t necessarily expect a kids’ movie to be dealing with. Capitalism is going to ruin the planet and humanity! Being sad is good, sometimes! You’ll be remembered when you die! Even in Pixar’s proven hands, it can sometimes feel like a bit much, like watching a Pixar movie is some type of intellectual and emotional test. And then there’s Ratatouille, which is about a rat who wants to be a chef. This, to me, is fantastic.
Even though it’s comparatively less outlandish or epic than other Pixar movies, Ratatouille still has an unexpected premise (rats in a kitchen weren’t exactly a marketable concept, pre-Pixar). This is a movie that’s about what it means to have a dream, and how a small dream can feel as big as the world to the person (or rodent) who yearns for it. And, in 2020 especially, Ratatouille is a love letter to restaurants and dining. Relatively simple as it may be, Ratatouille is an absolutely charming film that shouldn’t be overlooked when compared to Pixar’s flashier oeuvre. As Anton Ego learns in the climax, just because a thing is simple doesn’t mean it can’t be incredible. Indeed, sometimes that quaintness is the secret ingredient.
There are two real tear-jerking moments in Inside Out, Pixar’s best film. The first comes when Riley’s imaginary friend, Bing-Bong, sacrifices himself to save Joy in the hopes that she’ll “take her to the Moon for me.” This sort of thing happens a lot in movies — characters die, offering themselves up in service for a greater good, and the audience cries. Bing-Bong’s death is gutting, but it can’t compare to the second moment, when Riley says the simple phrase, “I miss home.”
Inside Out is a movie about emotions, literally, and its ultimate message is that it’s OK — important, even — to feel sad. It’s a sneakily big truth to lay on any kids in the audience, and odds are adult viewers might need a reminder to internalize this message from time to time. It’s fitting, then, that Inside Out’s great, tearful triumph is cathartic, not tragic. Riley’s admission and her parents’ subsequent reveals that they too miss Minnesota, are necessary. Inside Out is a sublime film on a narrative level, but what really pushes it to the top of this list is how it turns its story into an example, letting us all feel good about feeling sad — the exact thing that Riley and Joy learn on their adventure through the mind.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.