I read a couple Disney-fan discussion boards and every time a new Pixar movie comes out, there is inevitably a thread or two in which everyone ranks all of their films to date. This is probably a result of the relatively few films they have made so far (9) and the game will likely start to die out as the number of titles makes it increasingly difficult. For now, I figured I’ll play along, but do it as a blog entry where I can be more easily verbose with explanations.
I do see a distinction between a list of "favorites" and "best" when discussing works of art or entertainment and this list is going to be favorites. What that means is that the order is based more on how much I enjoy the movies and am apt to return to them. Essentially, this is based more on the "fun" factor than on the full collection of merits. Finally, the rankings can’t help but be a bit arbitrary and I openly admit that the order could easily change, especially based on how recently I’ve seen each movie.
1. Monsters, Inc. – Of all the Pixar films, this is the one that I am most apt to stop and watch if I come across it airing on TV or cable. The film succeeds due to great casting, humor that hits the mark with an amazing consistency, truly exciting action sequences, and a story that takes place in a fully-realized and unique world of its own. Finally, the closing shot of this movie is right up there towards the top of the list of the all time best endings. While all of this is in service of a somewhat conventional buddy-movie plot, the whole package simply works.
2. Toy Story 2 – Pixar’s only sequel to date brilliantly expanded on the great characters and concept of the company’s first feature to create a more fully-realized film. The movie is uproariously funny (it has the most out-loud laughs of any Pixar film) and it also quite touching at times. The new characters created for the sequel (Jessie, Stinky Pete, and Bullseye) are not extraneous in any way, instead greatly expanding the overall storytelling. The movie also contains the single best musical sequence of any Pixar film with the highly moving "When She Loved Me". This is a very rare case of a sequel that surpassed the original, largely through the careful application of the experience that the Pixar artists had gained with their first two films.
3. Wall-E – If I were putting together a "best" list instead of a "favorites" list, I’m pretty sure this would top it. Pixar’s newest film is also their most bold an most creative. I’ve seen some online debate about whether the film (especially the first 20 minutes or so) is mainly charming and funny or if it is mostly dark and sad. The brilliance of the film is that it is all of those. They were able to take a fairly downbeat scenario and present it in a way that is both palatable and, ultimately, even optimistic. Much of this is accomplished thanks to the title character being Pixar’s most instantly endearing and sympathetic creation to date. The film’s use of visual storytelling and incredibly detailed sound effects design gives it an exhilaratingly unconventional feel. I can see the possibility that this one could move up on my favorites list as well with additional viewing and the passage of time.
4. Ratatouille – This one has the sharpest writing and most sophisticated story of all of the Pixar films to date. While all of Pixar’s films have appealed to a fairly broad age range, this one does seem to skew a bit older than their other films, probably because the appreciation for fine food that is at the heart of the story really has to come with age and experience. The film does still contain its fair share of visual gags and punch-lines, but it also contains a great deal of wit and character-driven humor. This one would likely be a close 2nd on my "best" list.
5. Toy Story – Pixar’s first film was a milestone not just because it was the first CGI-animated feature, but also because it still would have been an exceptionally good film even if it hadn’t been the first of its kind. In this way, it largely echoed Walt Disney’s accomplishment with "Snow White" many years before. While the technology of the film was obviously an accomplishment, the filmmakers realized that it was every bit as important to focus on providing top-notch stories and characters. With a clever concept and a well-chosen celebrity cast voicing memorable characters (Woody and Buzz Lightyear are now pretty much cultural icons), the end result was a film that succeeded as way more than just a technical novelty. While it has been eclipsed in many ways by some of the later Pixar films (including its own sequel), this is a film that is pretty much ensured to remain a classic work.
6. The Incredibles – Brad Bird’s first effort after joining Pixar provided a welcome change of pace at a time when their films were just starting to feel a bit formulaic. Of all of Pixar’s films, this is the one that most seems like pretty much the same film could have been made as live-action (probably with a huge special effects budget), but I felt that actually helped to demonstrate the flexibility of the medium. The film itself is a lot of fun and includes some very clever action sequences. I don’t think the characters are quite as memorable as in most of the other Pixar films, although that is alleviated by a somewhat larger, more ensemble cast as well.
7. Cars – I think this is probably the most formulaic of the Pixar films to date (the plot is essentially identical to the 90s Michael J. Fox movie "Doc Hollywood"), but it is redeemed quite a bit by setting the story in an exceptionally well-defined, internally-consistent, and generally interesting alternate reality. I also admit to a certain affection towards this film because it is the one Pixar film that my 4-year-old son has pretty fully taken to, both the film itself (which he has seen quite a few times on DVD) and the merchandise. As an adult male, it is not at all hard for me to understand, and even somewhat share, the fondness that a young boy is apt to have for an entire world of cars.
8. A Bug’s Life – It is hard not to see a bit of a sophomore slump in Pixar’s second film. The movie is absolutely beautiful visually and it has some appealing characters, but the whole endeavor just isn’t exceptionally memorable. I don’t think it was helped by its release being in such close proximity to Dreamworks’ similarly-themed "Antz", another good but not overly memorable film. I can’t help getting the two movies a bit jumbled in my mind, often having a hard time remembering what scenes or characters actually go with which movie. The movie is still a lot of fun, though, and on occasions when I’ve re-watched it I have found myself thinking that it is better than I remembered it.
9. Finding Nemo – Yes, I am ranking Pixar’s most financially successful film to date as my least favorite. To be clear, I like the film overall and can even see its appeal, but this is the only one of Pixar’s movies that I think is over-long and even tends to drag at times. As is typical for them, the film is an absolute treat visually, creating an underwater world that is both beautiful and convincing. The characters are memorable and well-defined, even more so than in some of the other films that I rank higher on this list. In fact, my son knows and likes the characters (and merchandise…) very much, despite the fact that he has shown very little interest in the movie itself. I feel like putting this one in last place on my list drives home for me how much this really is an exercising in ranking a group where all the members are top-notch. Even though it is last here, I certainly would never want anyone to think that it is even remotely a bad movie.