By Noah Gittell
Next week sees the release of “Luca,” a new Pixar movie set on the Italian Riviera. This is good news. For over 25 years, nothing calms the worried moviegoer more than seeing that singular Pixar logo at the start of a film. It’s a signal to relax: what you’re about to see is safe for children, engaging for adults, and stunning to look at. Still, even within the wall of excellence that Pixar has produced since its first feature in 1995, there are some segments that stand out. Here then is my official, inarguable ranking of Pixar’s ten best films.
10. “Finding Nemo”
Time and time again, Pixar has proved itself a master of casting. Getting Albert Brooks to play the anxious widow and father of a missing child, and pairing him with Ellen DeGeneres, who to that point had an awful track record in movies, was one of its first strokes of genius.
9. “Toy Story”
This is where it all started. Pixar films succeed because they appeal to children and adults equally, but unlike those lesser animated films that simply sneak in adult-themed jokes that will go over the heads of little ones, Pixar movies don’t cheat. They simply create stories with dual appeal. There is no better example than “Toy Story,” which brought toys to life as proxies for the parents in the audience, who fear becoming irrelevant to their children more than any plastic cowboy ever could
8. “Toy Story 4”
As a huge fan of the franchise (see above – and below), I was initially worried about this one. There’s no way they could make another perfect film about these characters, could they? Trying to add on after a perfect trilogy is risky business. But the franchise found a new sense of purpose in its fourth installment, which continues the film’s metaphor of toys-as-parents by positioning Woody as an empty nester who must find a new passion in his life once his kid. Now I’ll start worrying about “Toy Story 5.”
7. “A Bug’s Life”
In its second feature, Pixar riffed on “The Magnificent Seven” (by way of “Three Amigos!”) for a story about a group of circus bugs who are mistaken for actual tough guys by an ant whose colony is in need of protection against a grasshopper thug. It’s a tried-and-true story that again demonstrated the studio’s expertise at voice casting. Dave Foley and Julia Louis-Dreyfus were born to play cartoon ants.
It’s on this list just for the first 20 minutes alone, which is some of the best filmmaking – animated or otherwise – you’re likely to ever see.
Maybe I’m biased, since this is the rare film with a sympathetic portrayal of a critic. That would be Anton Ego (Peter O’Toole), the ornery food critic who in the film’s finale rediscovers his soul after eating a meal whose flavors transported him back to childhood like Proust’s madeleine.
4. “Toy Story 2”
This is the one that proved Pixar could do sequels well. Building out the world of the original, “Toy Story 2” introduced us to Woody’s extended family, Jessie (Joan Cusack), Bullseye (Kelsey Grammar), and Stinky Pete (a dog). It also features the mournful “When She Loved Me,” the Sarah MacLaughlin-penned song that was the first two-hanky moment in the Pixar universe.
3. “The Incredibles”
Most Pixar films are about chosen families, but it speaks to the team’s versatility that they are able to be just as innovative and insightful when dealing with traditional domestic units. Anchored by the actually incredible voice work by Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter, “The Incredibles” is the studio’s first action movie, featuring kinetic chase sequences that push the boundaries of animation.
In describing this Best Picture nominee, in which a naive robo-trashman falls in love with a female-ish robot named EVE, critics threw names around like “Chaplin” and “Keaton” as points of comparison. It was high praise that was well-earned. For much of its runtime, it’s a silent film with a big heart, sharp insight into our environmental crisis, and expert comic timing. What more can you ask for?
- “Toy Story 3”
There is no more surprising, heart-wrenching, and redemptive moment in any Pixar film than the scene that finds Woody and the gang are moments away from (what seems to be) certain death and, instead of fighting against the inevitable, they simply hold hands, close their eyes, and accept their fate. Somewhere along the line, the toys became wiser than the humans, and Pixar became the gold standard for commercial filmmaking.
All Pixar features are available to stream on Disney+.