The Top Ten Pixar Movies
Unlike those of other websites, our Top Ten lists are created from the empirical data of our global rankings.
Pixar Animation Studios has become synonymous with all-ages CGI storytelling featuring big ideas and bigger heart. It’s a brand trusted by families to inspire their children and warm their hearts, without resorting to the more pedestrian antics that characterize so many of the movies aimed at younger viewers by other studios. Pixar has become a franchise all its own in the minds of many fans and with their latest work, Monsters University, set to open in theaters today, June 21st, we take a moment to see what the Flickchart community has decided are the Top Ten Pixar Animation Studios Movies of All-Time.
The first full-length CGI feature film is still tops with viewers. (In fact, it’s the only film on this list that can boast being in the global Top 100 on Flickchart.) The premise is as simple as it is brilliant: “What if toys are alive?” Kids often imagine what their inanimate objects might do when they’re not around to bear witness, and Pixar finally answered the question. First generation viewers who identified with Andy have since become young adults who find that the film’s simplicity and sincerity have aged well.
Travis: I was in my late teens when this one opened, but the novelty of its premise appealed to my friends and me enough that we shirked any self-consciousness at going to see a kids’ movie. Toy Story didn’t just speak to my inner child; it reawakened him. When I left the theater that evening, my self-consciousness about kids’ entertainment never bothered to come find me. Whenever this one comes up in a Flickchart match for me, my bias isn’t that Toy Story is a favorite film. It’s that Toy Story is an old friend.
Nigel: Buzz and Woody killed Snow White. Toy Story brought a new art form to mainstream cinema that has all but killed off one that I hold more dear. All joking aside, even though this one already starts to look dated in terms of its technique (watch Toy Story back-to-back with Toy Story 3, you’ll see what I mean), its story and its characters are timeless. The CGI animation brought us to the theaters; the friends we found keep us coming back.
Pixar took some flak from some viewers for pushing a heavy-handed ecological agenda with WALL·E, but that didn’t stop it being named one of the American Film Institute’s ten selections from 2008, winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature or being the fourth highest-grossing film of 2008 (barely $4 million behind Hancock). It’s also the third highest-ranked film of 2008 on Flickchart, after The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Cynics may have balked at the social message of the film, but only the coldest heart resisted the charm of the titular WALL·E and his endearing relationship with Eve.
Travis: Talk about bold storytelling! Just imagine the meeting where writer Pete Docter said, “Okay, so we know the given audience is going to be young viewers ages 5-12. There’s not one spoken word for the first twenty minutes or so, but we think it’ll be alright.” Then, after much staring and blinking, someone said, “Sounds good. Do it!” AND THEY DID. I saw firsthand as an entire auditorium of children sat rapt and quiet as proverbial church mice. It was an affirmation that skillful and big-idea storytelling, done right, is still a magical, spellbinding thing.
Nigel: The first half of WALL·E is magic. The second half may run off the rails a bit, but is still zany fun. WALL·E himself is the most adorable non-speaking robot since R2-D2…which only makes sense, as they were both given “voice” by the same man, brilliant sound designer Ben Burtt. Couple this with poetic Pixar animation, and yeah, you’ll believe a walking tin can can fall in love.
#3. Finding Nemo (2003)
The big sell of Finding Nemo was that animators were finally daring to tackle not just colorful sea life, but water – the last remaining environmental challenge for CGI. The story was built around an emotionally compelling premise, to boot: A father scours the entire ocean for his missing son.
Travis: You know, this one kinda troubles me. The moral of the story ultimately is, “Hey, sometimes getting kidnapped can be a blast so don’t worry about it!” I mean, Marlin had every right to jump at shadows: his entire family save Nemo was murdered before the film’s title came on screen. That was a pretty dark opening. Marlin learning that there is still good in the world despite the darkness was an acceptable life lesson, but I feel like that gets drowned out in the excitement about sea turtles and wave-riding.
Nigel: In 2003, my jaw was on the floor. Eight feature films later, I still think this is the studio’s most visually beautiful outing. And yet, I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen it, because the story keeps me coming back. My first child was born not long after I first watched Nemo, and in the intervening decade, I think the story has only come to resonate with me more. Yes, there are sequences in Nemo that are almost unrelentingly bleak (that opening chief among them), but the lesson here is that we cannot stifle our children. No, you can’t always protect them…but you cannot be afraid to live.
#4. The Incredibles (2004)
“Pixar does superheroes.” That three-word premise was more than enough to energize moviegoers who were thrilled by The Incredibles. Writer/director Brad Bird had created The Iron Giant for Fox before coming to Pixar to make The Incredibles. Bird confidently spoke to viewers older than previous Pixar films; a daring move, but one that worked terrifically.
Travis: I remember seeing the first trailer and hearing John Barry’s main title music from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. That was a shorthand for me that told me everything I needed to know about the kinds of ideas that I would find in the film, and boy did Bird deliver! The Incredibles is as much a love letter to 1960s James Bond as it is to Superman, the Fantastic Four or anyone else from the superhero milieu. The action is at least as good as, if not better than, the film’s live action contemporaries, but it’s the film’s emphasis on the humanity beneath the superpowers that really makes it so special.
Nigel: The Incredibles in one word? Fun. With action sequences to outdo any superhero or superspy flick (yeah, I’m even looking at you, The Avengers and Skyfall), this is one zany, zippy treat. It also features a family dynamic so potent, and so real, no wonder it speaks to people.
#5. Toy Story 2 (1999)
The third Pixar feature film was also the studio’s first sequel. Production was an absolute nightmare (chronicled in the terrific documentary, The Pixar Story), but audiences were oblivious to all the eleventh hour work that went into the continuing adventures of Woody and Buzz. Like the first film, Toy Story 2 asks, “How does one redefine oneself when the world changes?” That question is at the heart of the Toy Story series, and each time they’ve explored it so far, they’ve managed to connect with audiences who have found themselves at their own crossroads.
Travis: Two words: “Jessie’s Song”. If you can sit through that and not just want to bawl your eyes out and clutch someone you love, then you’ve got ice in your veins. The jokes here venture more toward pop culture than in the first film (witness the shot of Rex in the side mirror, or Zurg telling Buzz about his parentage) but the emotion is even rawer. If the characters became friends in Toy Story, they became family in Toy Story 2.
Nigel: Rare is the sequel that tops its predecessor, but if Toy Story 2 doesn’t quite manage that, it comes darn close. Factor in the delightful cast of new characters, that extra emotional punch mid-film, and the endlessly creative toy’s-eye-view action sequences, and one becomes intensely grateful that Pixar chose not to compromise their characters, and rescued this film from the ignoble direct-to-DVD release for which it was originally intended. (Let’s just not think about how they sold out with Cars…)
#6. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Just as Toy Story answered the question what our toys do when we’re not around, Monsters, Inc. dared to look in our closet doors and under our beds to see if there really were monsters. As it turns out, there are. Once again, the simplicity of the story’s starting point made it instantly accessible to audiences. The animators also evolved; the fur in Sully’s coat is impressive eleven years after the film’s release. Fun fact: Though nowadays Pixar is almost a lock for the Best Animated Feature Oscar from year to year, Monsters lost the very first award in that category to DreamWorks’ Shrek, but it outranks Shrek by six slots on Flickchart’s list of the Best Movies of 2001.
Travis: I can’t connect with this one. For whatever reason, whenever I hear John Goodman or Billy Crystal speak, I mentally envision them in a recording booth. I never accepted Sully or Mike as characters in the same way that I accept pretty much every other animated character ever, and I don’t know why. Still, that door chase scene? Astounding. Also, kudos to Pixar for daring to create a one-eyed monster as a main character. I still can’t believe they actually did that.
Nigel: This is Pixar’s flat-out funniest film. Consistent chuckles. And yes, that jaw-dropping chase scene is one of the remarkably inventive sequences that are one of the hallmarks of the studio’s work. Monsters, Inc. earns extra points for its poignant finale: When Sulley pokes his head through Boo’s closet door, we ache a bit, because we want to see her, too.
Once more, a simple enough childhood daydream provides the impetus for the story: What if you could actually tie enough balloons to a house to make it fly? What none of us anticipated going into the theater in 2009 was that its opening montage of the friendship, courtship and married life of Carl and Ellie would grab our hearts Mola Ram-style and leave us weeping in the theater before we ever left the ground.
Travis: One of my friends insists that the Carl and Ellie prologue should have been a short film all its own and that if it had been, it would probably be at the top of this entire list. I think he may be right. As my former language arts teachers can attest, I often struggled with symbolism as a reader but it all clicked with me throughout Up. There’s a lot here that reminds me of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, which in retrospect became a richer film for me after seeing Up. I never really cared for all the dogs, though. I was fine with the interpreting collars, but when we got to bone-shaped airplane yokes, I was taken out of the movie.
Nigel: If the first half of WALL·E is magic, the first ten minutes of Up are cinema perfection. The rest is insane, but you know what? I love it. And it is precisely because I became so invested in Carl Fredricksen as a character that I was able to go with it. Because in the midst of all the craziness – flying houses, talking dogs, every bizarre bit – is a character I deeply care about and cling to. I WANT Carl to see his adventure through, and it gives a reality anchor that keeps me from getting swept away from the film in the gonzo nuttiness. Add to that the perfect encapsulation of “dog” in the form of Dug, and this movie zips from one of Pixar’s most heartbreaking to easily one of its most entertaining.
#8. Toy Story 3 (2010)
They had us all at the title, but when we learned that the premise was to reflect Andy’s growth in age and what that meant for the toys, there came a sense that this was the finale for an entire generation. Which, really, was kind of weird since it had been a decade since Toy Story 2 and no one really asked what became of the toys until Pixar came along and told us. Sometimes in life, you don’t even realize what it is that you want until it presents itself.
Travis: What makes Toy Story 3 work is that it goes back to the central theme of the previous two movies. The world has changed again, more dramatically this time than ever before, and how do the toys make sense of that? How do they define themselves? That silent moment when they all share muted looks and hold hands with one another? I admit, I teared up. Not in the theater, mind you…but on my second viewing, at home on Blu-ray, by which time I already knew how it ended and that it would be okay.
Nigel: Good gravy, this was like experiencing those first ten minutes of Up repeatedly throughout the film’s runtime. With my son in my lap, I bawled like a baby in the theater. Watching little Andy on his mom’s home movies, playing with his toys, I got misty about my own childhood, and thought about my kids growing up before the film had even gotten started. Add a truly despicable villain to the mix, and a monstrously powerful finale with our favorite toys in an incinerator, and I suppose it just speaks to great film-making, but this one put me through an emotional wringer that I didn’t appreciate. Yet, simultaneously, it features some of the flat-out funniest gags in Pixar’s entire oeuvre. Was I just having a bad day?
#9. Ratatouille (2007)
Who else but Pixar would even try to make a movie with a target demographic of children about a Parisian rat who dreams of becoming a world-class chef? Better question: Could anyone else have actually pulled it off?
Travis: Ratatouille gets unfairly drowned out when I think of Pixar’s works. I really did enjoy it, but there are half a dozen other Pixar films about which I feel much more passionately. I think what I love most about this one is just the audacity of its premise. If it had been a short film, I wouldn’t even be impressed by the idea but for a feature? That’s pretty ambitious, really, because like a souffle, it could very well have fallen flat in the end.
Nigel: The first thing I recall when I think of Ratatouille is how amazing that rat fur looks when wet. That sounds really weird, but a sequence with Remy and his dad talking in the rain is the best showcase for this film’s amazing animation. The sheer audacity of the story is also a miracle in its own right. This movie shouldn’t have worked, but it does. On every level.
#10. A Bug’s Life (1998)
Pixar’s second feature film doesn’t seem to come up often in casual conversation as much as some of the others that it beat out to make this Top Ten list, but it’s proven itself with the Flickchart community. Partially inspired by the old tale of the grasshopper and the ant, A Bug’s Life is built around perhaps the biggest idea of them all: How can each one of us make the world a better place?
Travis: I was kinda ho-hum about A Bug’s Life for the longest time. I finally revisited it in August 2012 during the bitter election cycle. That time, I saw A Bug’s Life as a commentary on social mobility and castes. There’s the grasshopper domination of ants, for one thing, but there’s also Flik’s revolution of the marginalized circus performers. The film also encourages individuality while being mindful that we’re still our brother’s keeper – a value that seemed entirely forgotten by many at the time of my 2012 viewing of the film. There’s a lot of social commentary in A Bug’s Life, and for that I really do appreciate it.
Nigel: The biggest disadvantage A Bug’s Life has is that it came immediately after Toy Story. It’s wildly different from its predecessor, though. It’s just as inventive with the gags, and Hopper (voiced brilliantly by Kevin Spacey) is a thoroughly despicable villain. This is middle-of-the-road Pixar through-and-through…but middle-of-the-road Pixar is vastly better than a large majority of movies. Antz, released the same year as the inaugural film from DreamWorks animation, with a superstar voice cast, is trumped in almost every way by Pixar’s bugs.
There’s no other studio with a track record like Pixar’s. Though their target demographic is, ostensibly, children, they succeed because they aren’t afraid to tell a story that appeals just as much to adults.
Monsters University will no doubt continue Pixar’s hit-making streak, but where will it wind up on this list? Time – and your rankings – will tell.
Monsters University opens today.