Since the release of its very first feature film, Toy Story, in 1995, Pixar has become one of Hollywood’s most celebrated animation studios. Ranging from superhero adventures to tales of a lonely robot on a post-apocalyptic Earth, the studio’s 23 movies to date have earned plaudits for being artistically adventurous and telling stories ostensibly aimed at kids that have just as many adult fans. Even Pixar’s lesser works usually have something to offer.
2020 has been a big year for Pixar, which had two new films come out, even with the movie business ravaged by a pandemic. The first one, Onward, which came to theaters briefly on March 5, is the tale of a pair of brothers on a quest, set in a fantasy world in which magic has been slowly drained away. The second, the jazz-driven adventure Soul, was delayed several times before its Christmas Day debut on Disney+. These came on the heels of the Oscar-winning Toy Story 4, which most likely brought an end to the studio’s most well-known franchise after 24 years.
And what better to do in a two-Pixar year than rank all of the Pixar movies from worst to best? So that’s just what the Vox Culture team has done; you’ll find our definitive standings below.
23. Cars 2 (2011)
The worst thing about Cars 2, even worse than the fact that it is 106 minutes of Larry the Cable Guy doing his unfunny Larry the Cable Guy shtick against a backdrop of borderline offensive clichés and regional stereotypes, is that the animation is frequently dazzling. It’s flashy, colorful, full of intricate and eye-pleasing detail, and far, far lovelier than this terrible movie deserves.
The first Cars movie was a tired story about a cocky race car who needs to learn humility from a bunch of small-town yokels, but it still managed to deliver at least some charm and character variety. In contrast, Cars 2 puts all of its energy into a bafflingly insipid mistaken-identity spy plot, entirely centered on Larry the Cable Guy, a.k.a. Mater. It’s North by Northwest by Hee-Haw, and no matter how hard you wish for it, there is no reprieve; Larry the Cable Guy keeps being in the movie, and the movie keeps happening, and the movie is 106 minutes long.
Here is a list of other movies that are 106 minutes long: Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, Gremlins, D2: The Mighty Ducks, Whiplash, Fright Night, Lars and the Real Girl, Something’s Gotta Give, The Lego Movie 2, Halloween (2018). None of them contain uncomfortably long bidet gags, or references to “pains in my undercarriage,” or a scene where Larry the Cable Guy’s talking tow truck character pees himself in public. This makes them all five-star movies by comparison; highly recommended. —Aja Romano
22. Cars 3 (2017)
For a movie that largely exists to allow Disney’s merchandising arm to create more toys, Cars 3 is better than it has to be. Like the other Cars movies, its world-building feels especially half-assed (unless you assume it’s the post-apocalyptic tale of a world where sentient cars have killed all humans). But unlike the first two movies, it’s a surprisingly involved story about aging, the dismantling of white male privilege, and our coming artificial intelligence-dominated future.
Befitting its characters, Cars 3 feels more assembled than gracefully created, and its distinctly episodic nature holds it back. But it’s the rare movie whose protagonist learns that winning at all costs isn’t the only thing. Consider it the computer-animated version of a classic sports film like Bull Durham. —Emily VanDerWerff
21. The Good Dinosaur (2015)
Even now, five years after its release, The Good Dinosaur can make a claim to being the most beautiful Pixar movie. Its photorealistic backdrops provide a gorgeous canvas for a story of a talking dinosaur and a silent human child trying to make their way across the American West to the dinosaur’s home.
The problem stems from how obvious it is that the story is cobbled together from the elements of other, better stories. Pixar made its name by taking wild scenarios that could only happen in animation — toys wake up, bugs have a secret society, there are monsters in the closet, etc. — and grounding them in old-fashioned, classic Hollywood storytelling. But The Good Dinosaur (which went through a tumultuous production process) doesn’t have much to add to the old tropes it’s updating. —EV
20. Cars (2006)
My 2-year-old nephew’s favorite movie — before he saw Toy Story, that is — was Cars. But then he saw Toy Story and he stopped talking about Cars (to my brother’s chagrin, since my brother loves cars, and Cars). I have to side with my nephew on this one. Cars is an absolutely fine movie, and it has a sweet affection for small-town, forgotten life by way of Radiator Springs. But Cars fails to match the ambition of some of its Pixar cousins, instead coming across as relaxed to the point of low stakes. And once you’ve seen any one of the studio’s other films, your love for Cars will most likely become but a passing phase. —Alex Abad-Santos
19. Onward (2020)
Onward takes place in a world that was once enchanted, but where the magic has faded away. The plot cleverly employs the structure of a campaign you might play in a fantasy role-playing game such as Dungeons & Dragons, with heroes, a quest, a number of obstacles and monsters, puzzles, spells, and some surprises thrown in here and there. The Tolkien-lite elements are mixed with more banal workaday realities. Set in a world populated by creatures like elves and centaurs and cyclopes — who live in the suburbs, where stray unicorns sometimes paw through the garbage — it’s both magical and hilariously ordinary.
Written and directed by Monsters University’s Dan Scanlon, Onward is gentle and fun. No, it’s not top-tier Pixar. But it’s better than most of the entertainment aimed at children that studios churn out these days. It doesn’t move at a frantic pace. It isn’t loud and grating or reliant on musical numbers that will eventually drive loving parents out of their ever-loving minds. It’s just a movie that has a big organizing concept — and it’s also got a heart. Onward gives a glimpse of Pixar’s likely future, but it still retains a spark of that old-time Pixar magic. —Alissa Wilkinson
18. Finding Dory (2016)
Over the years, Pixar — or more specifically director-screenwriter Andrew Stanton — has perfected the basic studio sequel formula of repeating the previous movie’s plot without making it feel like more of the same. Prime example: Finding Dory doesn’t have much to add to the original story of Finding Nemo, but it does have the great reveal that Dory really can talk to whales! Yes, that’s a small way to move things forward, but a fun one nonetheless.
The themes at the heart of Finding Nemo are still present in this film; there’s still an emphasis on the importance of found family, the unique challenges and delights of navigating life with a neuroatypical brain, and the vast and stunning splendor of the ocean. But Finding Dory diminishes Nemo’s philosophy of perseverance and communal kindness a bit, drowned out by a plot whose daring rescues frequently verge into the extravagant and often undermine the urgency of Dory’s quest to find her parents. That said, it’s still a fun kids’ movie, it’s still Pixar, and wow, the ocean: pretty cool, huh? —AR
17. A Bug’s Life (1998)
A Bug’s Life is something of a sophomore slump for Pixar. The studio’s follow-up to Toy Story was one of two animated movies about insects to hit theaters within months of each other, dampening some of the excitement around it. (The movie’s competitor, Dreamworks’ Antz, came out first.) That was a strange move on both studios’ parts: Ants and grasshoppers aren’t the most endearing or marketable main characters. But few (if any) of the characters from A Bug’s Life are likely to rank among Pixar fans’ favorites.
The film culls from an old Aesop fable, The Ant and the Grasshopper, to tell a story that feels much folkier than Pixar’s more modern fare: Flik is an inventor who wants to help save his home from invading grasshoppers in an effort to prove his worth to his suspicious neighbors. Instead of recruiting real fighters, he collects a traveling circus group of other bugs and tries to pass them off as the saviors his fellow ants are looking for … an amusing premise, but ultimately not one that really sticks.
There’s still some value in watching A Bug’s Life, if only just to see how much Pixar’s animation and storytelling have evolved in the years since. And the movie does have some unique touches, like an explicitly romantic ending and a villain, the terrifying Hopper, that straight-up dies. Otherwise, A Bug’s Life is but a quirky footnote in Pixar’s catalog. —Allegra Frank
16. Monsters University (2013)
One of Pixar’s lesser follow-ups is this college-set prequel, which fails to leave as much of an impression as the film it’s based on. Mike Wazowski and his future BFF James P. “Sulley” Sullivan are college freshmen who, as we know from Monsters Inc., are about to become lifelong pals. The stakes are low as a result, and in the end, it’s not all that interesting or exciting to watch their friendship develop. The college setting doesn’t really expand on the world of Monsters Inc., and watching these characters flail as their younger selves hardly adds to a story already defined best by its humor.
To the movie’s credit, there is a nice theme of learning to make peace with yourself when you fall short of achieving your dreams. Mike wants to be an accomplished scarer of humans, just like Sulley is — and again, we already know that isn’t to be. But when he realizes it’s not quite in the cards for him, he chases another passion instead. It’s not necessarily the most uplifting message from Pixar, but it plays out nicely (and realistically) enough. —AF
15. Brave (2012)
It felt, and in a way still feels, like so much was riding on Brave: It was Pixar’s first female-driven film, the first film with a girl as the hero, the first film with a woman as director. But Brenda Chapman, presiding over a depressingly gender-imbalanced art production team, found herself abruptly replaced in the director’s chair, on the orders of a CEO who later resigned from Pixar following allegations of sexual misconduct and accusations of “open sexism” that referenced Chapman’s firing.
Did Brave manage, then, to live up to expectations despite that production hurdle? I vote yes: Brave, by Pixar standards of excellence, is a delight. You feel the lovingly detailed animation in every curl on Princess Merida’s head, in every stitch of each intricate wall tapestry. Its story, about a fiery Scottish lass whose desire to fight and hunt like her father inadvertently leads her mother to be cursed and transfigured into a bear, is as interesting as the studio’s best. Its stakes — the restoration of Merida’s family and, oh, just her lifelong happiness and ability to be treated with respect in a violently patriarchal society — are as high as ever.
The plot isn’t as tightly wound as those of other, more highly regarded Pixar films, but that’s just fine. Brave takes its time reinforcing its emotional connections, lingering on the bond between Merida and her mom, and building Merida into one of Pixar’s most fully realized characters. Brave did everything the boys’ movies did, and it did it backward, in high heels, while frequently fending off inappropriate workplace behavior. If you want a better movie, well, here’s what you can do. —AR
14. Monsters Inc. (2001)
Remember how Monsters Inc. lost the first-ever Oscar for Best Animated Feature to Shrek? Awards aren’t everything — not to mention they’re political and subjective — but the loss still feels like a sore spot in Pixar’s history. Unlike the movie that took the crown that year, Monsters Inc. holds up as something like an even more intimate Toy Story. It’s in part a platonic love story between an odd couple of monsters, the one-eyed Mike Wazowski and furry blue Sulley. Throw in a human toddler nicknamed Boo, who ends up in the guys’ care after getting lost in the monster world, and things get a bit more special.
Boo, Mike, and Sulley’s makeshift family is where Monsters Inc. wrings out its most emotional moments, even if it may be easy to cynically consider her a human plot device meant to inspire coos from viewers and create drama between her two fumbling monster dads. But Monsters Inc. is charming, funny, and often moving nonetheless.
In contrast to the more meme-friendly Shrek, Monsters Inc. doesn’t have an extensive internet legacy. And maybe that has clouded some folks’ memory of its quality — there’s nothing like Shrek’s “All Star” sequence. (A high-energy musical number from Billy Crystal’s Mike comes really close, though.) But there’s a reason Pixar revisited the film with a (much less engrossing) prequel: Mike and Sulley are as classic a pair of best friends as Buzz Lightyear and Woody. It just may be harder to remember it because there’s no goofy alt-rock song attached. —AF
13. Incredibles 2 (2018)
It took 14 years for director Brad Bird to return to the world of 2004’s The Incredibles (one of Pixar’s finest films), and in that time, the world had gone absolutely gaga for superheroes. So this sequel engages with questions of what we’re looking for from superhero storytelling and from our current superhero boom.
But it’s also interested in a whole host of other questions, like what it means to be exceptional and how to balance the needs of the self against the needs of the community. That it wraps all this up in a zippy plot filled with brilliant action sequences and is centered on Holly Hunter’s Helen Parr (a.k.a. Elastigirl) gives the movie plenty of visual and storytelling verve. It’s messier than the first film, and at times, it’s hard to parse exactly what its villain’s motivations are. But that pales in comparison to all the stuff that works, because it works so, so well. —EV
12. Toy Story 4 (2019)
If Toy Story 4 is the end of the Toy Story franchise, it will be a satisfying one. While its predecessors are more ensemble-focused, this movie is really about Woody, the pull-string cowboy, as he comes to terms with his own obsolescence. Bonnie, who inherits Woody at the end of Toy Story 3, doesn’t love him as much as his original owner, Andy — leaving Woody to look for meaning in a life that doesn’t match up with the way he’s always believed it was supposed to go. Woven into the plot are vulnerable moments about how we deal with love, our feelings, and relationships that fall off with age.
Toy Story 4’s message to viewers is that we don’t have to stop loving someone just because they’re not in our lives anymore. And even if those relationships end, it doesn’t make them any less special or powerful. While one could argue these themes were already explored in the second and third Toy Story movies, Toy Story 4 still stands out with its rich storytelling and focused story. —AAS
11. Inside Out (2015)
When it was released in 2015, on the heels of a rough patch for Pixar (from when 2011’s Cars 2 became the only Pixar movie with a rotten score on Rotten Tomatoes to when The Good Dinosaur had to abandon a late 2014 release date due to production problems), Inside Out felt like the studio finally righting its way. Its depiction of the emotions guiding the inner life of a girl on the cusp of adolescence was clever and visually innovative, while its cast (including Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, and Bill Hader) was perfectly chosen.
The movie’s superb storytelling introduces incredibly complex ideas — like the notion that two emotions can combine into some third emotion, more complicated than either of them alone — in ways that make instant sense to the audience without tons of exposition. And the message that sometimes feeling darker emotions like sadness and anger is necessary is a meaningful one. Inside Out has its problems (particularly its perhaps too simplistic view of the divide between men and women), but on the whole, it’s a sneakily devastating good time. —EV
10. Toy Story 3 (2010)
Toy Story 3 is a heartbreaker. It’s the perfect culmination of a story that, when it came out in 2010, had been 15 years in the making. Andy, the kid who owned the franchise’s familiar ensemble of toys, grew up and out of his once-beloved playthings. As viewers, maybe his choice to ditch his toys as he preps for college feels unfair, even cruel. We love Woody and Buzz, after all — doesn’t Andy remember that he once did, too?
Of course he does. But as he enters a new phase of life to be filled with new people, new memories, new loves, his toys must accommodate him. And they have to come to terms with their own growth too; as new residents of Sunnyside Daycare, they’re about to meet new kids and learn to love them, as scary as that can seem.
As a viewer around Andy’s age when Toy Story 3 came out, I found the film beautiful, if very difficult to watch. Yes, it’s beautiful and emotional at any age (there’s a scene toward the end with an incinerator that should be used as a sociopathy test, because if you don’t cry, there’s an issue). But watching it as I sat on the cusp of college myself, I found it to be the most affecting, realistic portrait of the transition to adulthood I’d ever seen in animation. This was the dramatic, necessary conclusion that Pixar had been building toward since the first Toy Story. All apologies to Toy Story 4, but Toy Story 3 will always feel like the series’ true finale. —AF
9. Coco (2017)
Coco doesn’t get enough credit for being one of the most beautiful films of Pixar’s entire run — if not the past 25 years overall. That first glimpse of the soaring, stupendous, and sweetly spooky Land of the Dead is breathtaking. But a failure to fully recognize Coco’s beauty could be blamed on how wonderfully Coco tells a story about how crucial our families are to who we become.
Miguel, the movie’s plucky protagonist, travels to the underworld to find out about himself and his family’s history, but ends up finally understanding his grandmother and, for the first time, truly discovers who she is. Through the journey, he realizes that love is the only way for him, and for those who have died, to forever remain in the world of the living — at least in spirit. In Coco’s world, and in ours too, love, life, and survival are one and the same. —AAS
8. Toy Story 2 (1999)
Toy Story 2’s magic lies in its ability to add world-shattering wrinkles into the fabric of everything we thought we knew about Toy Story. In this installment, Woody’s going through an existential crisis, as he has to choose between leaving Andy to “live” (a loose interpretation of the word) in a Japanese museum forever or staying with Andy, despite Woody’s fears that Andy will outgrow him. The narrative twists and trapdoors in making Woody more cognizant of his own existence, and his wants and desires, are equal parts stress-inducing and thought-provoking for those of us who have grown attached to the pull-string cowboy. The creativity, adventure, and emotional depth in Toy Story 2 make it, in the eyes of some viewers, the best Toy Story of all time. [Ed. note: Our collective ranking suggests otherwise, but it’s all subjective, right?] —AAS
7. Up (2009)
One of my favorite things about Up is the delighted conversation my friends had upon its release about Kevin the Bird. Granted, there are lots of reasons to love Up: It’s masterful at wrangling its openly bittersweet emotions, particularly showcased in Pixar’s best and most memorable opening montage. It’s dotted with faint touches of magical realism that befit its South American locale, and many of them are warmhearted surprises: Balloon-ship houses! Dogs that can tell you they love you! “Squirrel!”
But none of them top my excited group of friends explaining to me, a clueless white person, how funny it is that Russell, the eager boy scout who accompanies grieving widower Carl on his mission to the Venezuelan tepuis, names the exotic bird they find “Kevin.” Russell is a tiny Asian kid, they explained, and Asian guys named Kevin are a whole Thing. To me, Kevin was just a bird named Kevin; to them, it was an entire sly cultural in-joke.
Look, Up is only the second animated film ever nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, deservedly, and it’s my favorite Pixar film because of its warmth, its humor, and its painful truths about grieving and letting go. But it’s also full of small coded details like “Kevin,” and they remind me that it might be even more special for eager Asian kids like Russell than it is for me. I love Up all the more for that. —AR
6. Ratatouille (2007)
Ratatouille is best remembered for its triumphant finale, which serves as a thesis on the nature of criticism — one that almost feels like director Brad Bird is speaking to film critics directly through the intimidating food writer Anton Ego. But Bird isn’t thumbing his nose at critics or their work. Instead, his film’s message is that love for art of all forms is what inspires all critics, professional or otherwise; that’s what drives us, and that’s what we mustn’t forget.
What makes this remarkably strong takeaway so effective is that Ratatouille works as a great example of why film critics are so drawn to the medium. The movie is a work of art on its own — beautifully animated, with a well-constructed story. And its characters, from the dopey cook Linguini to “little chef” Remy the rat, each tell us something about art itself. Art is an opportunity to share our passion, and it can offer pleasure, no matter the bona fides of its origin.
This resonates even if you aren’t a critic by trade. In all art, we seek entertainment, or joy, or excitement. And Ratatouille offers all of that in spades. The movie benefits from the work of a Pixar crew performing at its height, even if its high-concept, slightly bizarre story — a rat that cooks? It’s weird! — could suggest at first that it may not sing for audiences quite as beautifully as some of Pixar’s other stories. Not the case: As Anton Ego says, “A great artist can come from anywhere.” Ratatouille is a great artist, and great art. —AF
5. Finding Nemo (2003)
Finding Nemo’s greatness can be measured in the sheer number of characters — minor and major — that you think about long after the movie’s over. There’s Nemo, Dory, and Marlin, the core trio, but there’s also Gil, Bruce, and even smaller characters like Peach, the Allison Janney-voiced starfish, and Pearl, the baby octopus who inked herself. Nemo succeeds in not only capturing the natural beauty and wonder of our real-life ocean but also telling a story about parenthood and friendship and, to our own deep sadness, the fragility of life in a way — and through diverse, myriad characters — that we don’t usually think about. —AAS
4. Soul (2020)
It feels terrifying, even a little gutsy, to say that a movie arriving this many years into Pixar’s oeuvre might top some of the studio’s classics. But I think Soul’s position is merited, for a few reasons.
It’s a story about a jazz musician and souls in search of a “spark,” and it may be the most philosophically complex of the studio’s work. Director Pete Docter (who also made Inside Out) and co-director Kemp Powers tackle a traditional theme in family-friendly animated movies — finding your unique purpose in life — and turn it on its head, subtly challenging our culture’s focus on “doing what you love” as your occupation. Instead, they think with more complexity about the many things that make us human, and they do it with humor, grace, and subtlety that feels uncommon in animated storytelling, even from Pixar.
They also do it with incredible visual imagination. Segments of Soul bend visual conventions that we are used to seeing from Pixar, evoking other dimensions and planes of being with different sorts of art. And even when the characters are just moseying along the streets of New York, the landscape is rendered in such detail and with such attention to texture that the specificity feels almost startling. The biggest joy of animation is that you can do things with it that you can’t do with live-action, and Pixar pulls out all the stops in crafting Soul’s world. —AW
3. Toy Story (1995)
Rare is it that a film studio gets its first-ever feature just right. But Pixar came out of the gate as a unique breed: a studio that dared to release a full-length animated movie created entirely with computer-generated graphics. In 1995, that was unheard of; traditional animation was still dominant. Despite having little competition on that front, Pixar wowed audiences not just on the basis of Toy Story’s impressive novelty but also through the film’s sheer wit, storytelling, and maturity. Its introduction of Woody and Buzz Lightyear, opposites who very much repel each other until they naturally attract, contends with love, friendship, and the meaning of life in funny and thoughtful ways.
While Pixar’s work has become more technically advanced in the past two decades, I’m still so drawn to how the original Toy Story feels lived-in and expansive, like every nook and cranny of Andy’s room could be worth exploring. As a kid, I found that world to be, well, a world: somewhere I felt safe and comfortable and excited to see more of. That’s something I continue to look for in movies, particularly animated ones; while Pixar continues to craft living, breathing universes for its stories, Toy Story’s remains the one I feel as though I know best.
It helps that Toy Story is the longest-running franchise in Pixar’s oeuvre, just slightly edging out Cars. What makes Toy Story so essential where Cars feels exhausting, though, is the toys. Watching Buzz and Woody’s friendship grow is an emotional experience; the 90-minute journey they take to accepting one another remains powerful. Above all, their relationship is why the toys’ (and Pixar’s) inaugural outing remains as funny, dazzling, and satisfying today as it was in 1995. “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” indeed. —AF
2. The Incredibles (2004)
Brad Bird is the closest thing Pixar has to an auteur filmmaker, who makes movies with a strong, personal vision that keep returning to the same ideas over and over. And his first movie for Pixar, The Incredibles, showed off his talent for large-scale action sequences balanced against small-scale domestic comedy, in a tale of a family of superheroes living in a world that’s made superpowers illegal after some unfortunate incidents and massive amounts of property damage.
What’s great about Incredibles is how it balances the two sides of its personality, while also allowing for a surprisingly meaty dive into ideas about what it means to be “special” and making room for other people to have their own sense of specialness. The ideas in this film have gotten Bird accused of being a Randian objectivist, but what’s so smart about The Incredibles is how Bird never pins himself too thoroughly to any one point of view. This is a movie that can be read on many different levels, from a simple family comedy to an action movie imbued with philosophy to a genuine war of political principles that manages to pack in some great sight gags. —EV
1. Wall-E (2008)
All by itself, Wall-E’s sublime, dreamy opening sequence, in which a lonely android compacts trash on a desolate planet while enjoying the strains of Hello, Dolly!, would warrant its place at the top of our list. Like a little mermaid who’s been collecting human gadgets and gizmos for several hundred years, Wall-E has managed to retrieve something like a soul out of all that discarded refuse; like us, he’s entranced by musical theater, baffled by sporks, and full of love. This image of an adorable Curiosity-like rover keeping his spirit alive after centuries of solitude is simultaneously full of heartbreak and hope, and the film rides that delicate balance all the way through its wrenching highs and lows as Wall-E and his fellow android Eve fight to bring humanity home.
Pixar’s finest movie trusts frequently in its purely aesthetic storytelling, keeping viewers absorbed through long, dialogue-less scenes that marry stellar animation, intricate world-building, and superb sound engineering. Its perfectly humanistic androids have deeply human hearts, in contrast to actual humans, who’ve been cruising in space for so long that they’ve fallen into a lethargic simulacrum of real life. Writer Andrew Stanton has constructed one near-perfect story after another for Pixar over the years, but with Wall-E, he gets closer than ever, simply by presenting the dystopian future as a product of everyday environmental mismanagement, corporate greed, and out-of-control consumption and wastefulness, and letting the results largely speak for themselves.
Even as it dives into conversation with Kubrick and Sagan, Atompunk and Heinlein, Wall-E never fully feels retro because it never stops asking painfully contemporary questions. We need its dose of clear-eyed, restorative faith, perhaps even more now than we did a decade ago. —AR
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