(ED Note: This feature originally ran in June of 2018. It has been updated the include the latest Pixar releases as of January 2021.)
I’ve been a fan of Pixar for most of my life. Whenever Pixar gets around to making a new movie, whether it’s an original movie or a sequel, there are a few things you can be certain of. It’s going to make a fortune at the box office, it’s going to be beautifully animated (for the time), and there are probably going to be a scene or two that will make you cry or feel a feeling. Pixar has its tropes, like having two characters go on an adventure together to do the thing and learn about each other, but those tropes usually offer up imaginative worlds, interesting side characters, and compelling story beats.
With Toy Story 4 recently releasing, I wanted to take a look back at all of the other features that the studio produced over the past twenty years and rank them from best to worst. This is all subjective mind you, but even then, most of Pixar’s movies are great. Hell, you can easily take any of the movies in my Top 10 and make a case for it being their best movie and chances are I’d agree with you. Pixar has such a good reputation for a reason after all.
For the record, I’m not going to cover Pixar shorts because we’d be here all day, but I felt like giving a shout out to the best ones so you can track them down and give them a watch. Go and watch Geri’s Game, La Luna, and Sanjay’s Super Team, which released alongside A Bug’s Life, Brave, and The Good Dinosaur respectively. As for the feature films, let’s start by getting the worst one out of the way.
23) Cars 2 (2011)
In Cars 2, the Larry the Cable Guy truck gets mistaken as a super-spy and has to save the Owen Wilson car from being killed because of oil. It existed. Let’s move on.
22) The Good Dinosaur (2015)
Hey everybody! Did you forget that The Good Dinosaur existed? Well don’t worry, so did everyone else! It’s a visually impressive movie, like every Pixar movie honestly, but nothing really happened for its entire runtime. It played into every Pixar trope and had nothing of value to add. Despite this being a Pixar movie, barely anyone went to see it and I can’t even begin to tell you what happened in the movie. No seriously, I forgot basic story bits even though this was one of the last Pixar movies I saw for this ranking. It’s not bad, but this was by far Pixar’s dullest movie.
21) Monster’s University (2013)
Now this movie just plain sucks. I stand by saying that The Good Dinosaur is worse from a narrative point of view, but Monster’s University is bad by just being insufferable. It’s a prequel that no one asked for and takes some very likeable characters from the original and makes them into assholes. Sully is a jerk for most of the movie and all of the new characters are varying levels of annoying. Oh, and did I mention this is an Animal House ripoff? I remember seeing this in theatres and getting frustrated at how unimaginative this movie was. Then I saw it again and confirmed that yeah, this was just creatively bankrupt. Also, it contradicted basic elements from the first movie. Like… did the creators even watch the original movie and see how this prequel couldn’t possibly work? It’s not even that hard, but this prequel is shot down in the first five minutes of Monster’s Inc!
20) Cars (2006)
Look, I get that Pixar needed to make a franchise that could make bank and spawn a multimedia monster of toy cars, shorts, and two sequels that I had to sit through, and there’s nothing wrong with making a franchise designed to milk kids of their money. Hell, that’s what most kids shows do anyway. But could they have at least made Cars good? The Owen Wilson car (yes I know he has a name, but let’s be honest here, you’re just gonna call him the Owen Wilson car), is a jerk, and the story is the same boring story about learning humility and becoming a better person. The only thing keeping this movie from the bottom? It sure is a ton of fun to riff on with people!
19) Finding Dory (2016)
Finding Dory isn’t a bad movie by any definition, but it is pointless. It doesn’t need to exist, it adds nothing to the original, and it’s safe. Finding Dory is a safe movie. What makes this at least a little better than Monster’s University is that one, Dory is still a pretty enjoyable character, even if she can be grating at times, and two, it doesn’t directly contradict the original movie. It performs the basic functions of a sequel competently, and it cashed in on another massively popular Pixar movie. As you do.
Out of all of the recent Pixar sequels being made, The Incredibles 2 felt the most necessary. The point of the first film was watching Mr. Incredible learn that he’s not a one-man show and that he needed the help and support of his family in order to truly become a hero, so with a cliffhanger that teased the Incredibles fighting a new threat, of course I wanted a sequel. Yet when it finally came out, The Incredibles 2 left most audiences on the north side of meh. The tone is all over the place, juxtaposing the intrigue of the main plot with inconsistent slapstick that went on for far too long. That would have been fine, but the biggest problem was that it was a structural retread of the first movie. The family only really came together at the very beginning and the very end to stop the bad guys, wasting that interesting family superhero dynamic, only this time without a purpose. It’s fine, but it could have been so much better.
17) Onward (2020)
Onward is a weird movie that seems to be at odds against itself at several points. It has an interesting fantasy world, one that’s almost identical to our world, but instead of really doing anything truly unique with that concept, it turns into yet another Pixar buddy road trip film. This is really one of the few times that Pixar really created an intriguing and fresh world, only to do so little with it. It seems to be in a weird mid-space for the studio, not quite commercial enough to merchandise, but it doesn’t have any passion that you would see from some of their more original fare. Without that love, you just have left a fairly disappointing movie that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.
16) Brave (2012)
Brave is a really weird movie. I feel like it was the prototype to Frozen, swapping off two sisters that are trying to understand each other for a mother and a daughter. And while the first half of the film is really good with Merida trying to be a proactive character and butting heads with her mother, everything kind of goes off the rail by copying, of all things, Brother Bear. There are a lot of bears in this movie. Bears. And while the movie wasn’t unbearable after the halfway point’s twist, I was just sitting in my chair thinking that something clearly wasn’t right. It feels like two concepts were smashed together into one movie and it barely works. The ending is effective and Merida is a great character, but man oh man did I feel like I dropped some acid 45 minutes in.
15) Cars 3 (2017)
If I’m being perfectly honest here, Cars 3 is a pretty okay movie. It’s nothing mind-blowing, but it’s the best of the Cars franchise if only because it decides to put the focus away from the pre-established characters, who were usually the worst part of the previous movies. Instead, the Owen Wilson car has already gone through legitimate character development and actually deserves to be called a halfway decent character. The new characters are fairly interesting, and while it pretty much is the exact same plot as the original Cars, there are definitely stronger character beats. Plus the Owen Wilson car is actually a mentor of sorts, which is kind of cool seeing him go from a punk to a wiser car. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s the best Cars movie. I don’t really know if that’s a backhanded compliment or not, but a compliment’s a compliment.
I’m the kind of man that loves food. I love all kinds of food, and I love seeing some good animated food. Ratatouille is a charming, if forgettable, Disney movie that gets by on its charm and endearing main characters alone. That may be fine, but what really propels this movie up a few rankings is the ending. The last 10 minutes of Ratatouille, as well as that final monologue, are just plain fantastic. There’s so much heart and soul put into the ending that it’s arguably one of the best endings in Pixar. I mean, it’s attached to a so-so movie, but a solid ending can really make up for a lot of problems.
13) A Bug’s Life (1998)
Now this is a major throwback for me. This was the first Pixar movie I ever saw and I watched it on VHS all of the time. I loved it. Looking back on it now, it holds up pretty well. This may be due to some nostalgia, but I thought that the whole cast was solid, Kevin Spacey was a damned good villain, and despite playing into a lot of bad tropes that Pixar eventually dropped like “the liar revealed” trope, when I was spending time with characters like Francis and Heimlich, I didn’t care. Yeah, the CG has aged considerably and it isn’t the prettiest movie to look at now, but I still had a fun time with A Bug’s Life, even though it’s clearly not perfect. Better than Antz though!
12) Toy Story 4
As soon as Toy Story 4 was announced, I think everyone was immediately apprehensive of it. Toy Story 3 ended the franchise on such a beautiful note that even the concept of a fourth movie seemed like a cynical cash grab by Pixar to milk the franchise for all it was worth. And it is. This is a cynical cash grab to milk the franchise for all it’s worth. But it’s also a pretty fine movie too. My biggest issue with the movie is that it recontextualizes the franchise as being Woody’s story and not the story of Andy’s toys, sidelining all of the toys for new ones with famous voice actors! It makes me want to roll my eyes, but then I see how gorgeous the movie looks, how funny certain scenes are, and the ending that Woody receives, and I have to admit that I still liked what I saw, though I don’t think I’m causing any chaos when I say that it’s easily the weakest of the series and feels like a TV special but with a bigger budget.
11) Finding Nemo (2003)
I’m going to come right out front and say this; I think that Finding Nemo is completely overrated and I feel like I’m the only one who thinks that. When people talk about this being one of the best Pixar movies, I just have to scratch my head. I mean yeah, it’s fun, pleasant, and inoffensive, but half of the movie is straight-up boring. Half of the time we’re with Nemo in the fish tank and chilling with all of the other sea creatures plotting their escape, which is awesome, but the other half is watching Marlin and Dory fart around and do nothing. Oh sure, we’re told that they’re getting closer, but all of the set pieces they encounter like the sharks, the jellyfish, and the whale just don’t do anything for me. It’s harmless at best and boring at worst. Still, I can’t deny that half of the movie is pretty good, the opening is solid and dark, and you feel like both Marlin and Nemo develop substantially by the end of their adventures. It’s good, but not that good.
10) Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Another childhood classic! When I think of how imaginative Pixar can be with the premises of each of their movies, I think of Monsters, Inc. All of the monsters have great designs and I love how the whole idea of there being a monster in your closet is just a day job for the monsters. They scare kids, scares generates power, the power runs the monster’s world, it’s kind of brilliant. Plus Mike and Sully are just such a great pair to watch. They’re silly enough for the kids and they feel like honest to god friends from the second they appear on screen. Not only that, but this is actually one the funniest Pixar movies around. The humor holds up really well and I was laughing way more than I did at Monsters University. The only thing that kept it any higher was that the villains were pretty run of the mill and the climax was just okay. Not the ending where Sully has to say goodbye, I’m talking about the fight scene with all of the flying doors. Great in concept, but the execution was just a bit off. Still, highly recommended.
9) Toy Story (1995)
The one that started it all. To say that Toy Story is one of the most important movies in animation history is a massive understatement. And really, what else can I add to this that hasn’t already been said before? Buzz and Woody are great characters, played perfectly by Tim Allen and Tom Hanks respectively, the other toys are full of personality, and the premise is out of the park. Plus it was brilliant for Pixar to use toys as the basis for their first animated feature since the concept would cover up some of the wonky animation and technology. Still, looking back on it now, Toy Story has not aged particularly well, especially the humans. Sid looks absolutely horrifying and Andy looks dead inside like 90% of the movie. Also, yeah the plot is kind of basic, but that’s just because the other movies in this series really upped the ante in the drama department. You can’t blame Toy Story for being a product of its time and it’s still a fantastic movie to sit through.
8) The Incredibles (2004)
The Incredibles has the honor of being the one Pixar movie that I thought got better as I got older. When I watched it for the first time, all I saw was a fun superhero movie where every family member had a unique power, but each member of the Parr family actually felt like a person. Violet was a relatable teenager, Dash was the kid that everyone wanted to be, and Bob and Helen were well-natured parents that just happened to be superheroes. But after rewatching it for the first time in a decade, there are so many sexual innuendoes between the two of them and Mr. Incredible’s mid-life crisis was pretty effecting. He used to be king of the world, but now he runs a desk job. The movie does a fantastic job of showing us the world through his eyes, but also it makes a point to show us the rest of the family and the lengths they’ll go to stay together. It’s a family film about family that actually succeeds, making me pretty excited for the sequel’s release.
7) Coco (2017)
Pixar’s tribute to Dia de Muertos also just so happens to be one of the best movies it has ever made. I was a bit hesitant to put Coco up this high given how comparatively recent it is to its peers, but there’s no denying how powerful the movie is. I’m a sucker for movies about music, and Coco delivers that in spades. I don’t even need to say how gut-wrenching it is to hear “Remember Me” for that final time after hearing it throughout the movie. But even looking past how effective the music is, there’s just so much energy in every frame. This may be a movie about the dead, but it all feels so alive and bright! The Land of the Dead is, in my opinion, the best world that Pixar has ever made, and seeing how much detail was put into this world is jaw-dropping. I literally paused the movie multiple times just to see certain set pieces in stills. Yes, it can be predictable with its twists, especially relating to Hector, but like Ratatouille, the payoff is easily worth it.
THIS MOVIE. If you ever wanted to bawl your eyes out, this is the movie to watch. Even if you never grew up with Toy Story, watching Toy Story 3 is probably one of the most difficult movies to get through because of how melancholy the whole movie is. It’s a movie about growing up and becoming an adult, which means having to leave behind parts of your childhood. I could go on about analyzing the themes and ideas and that tear-jerker of an ending, but like a lot of Pixar’s movies, while the ending is fantastic, the middle… not so much. Toy Story 3 introduces a lot of new characters and lets us spend time with the characters we know and love, but a lot of it felt off. Spanish Buzz is there for the kids to laugh at, but he really doesn’t serve much of a purpose throughout. The movie really just boils down to waiting for that last third to come, which may be my second-favorite ending in all of Pixar. I still love being with the toys, but it felt like I was being manipulated to cry my eyes out. Don’t get me wrong, I had no problem with being manipulated, but forcing emotions out instead of letting them come out naturally isn’t ideal.
5) Soul (2020)
Pete Doctor has been responsible for some of the best Pixar movies since the studios’ inception (one oh which has yet to appear on this list) and Soul is no exception. Sporting a much more metaphysical concept, one that is admittingly a bit hard to wrap one’s head around, the movie eventually unfolds to be an examination of what it means to live a life well-lived. Featuring plenty of soft and poignant moments, as well as some exceptional jazz music, I left Soul feeling grateful for the life I’ve lived so far. It doesn’t really feature any one stand-out moment I can point to to support my feeling besides that overview of New York City towards the end of the movie, but Soul emblemizes a mood over a story, and what a mood it is.
4) Toy Story 2 (2000)
Toy Story 2 is the best movie in the Toy Story series (thank you Toy Story 4 for stopping me from calling this a trilogy) because it fixes all of the problems of the first movie without being as manipulative as the third, as well as actually having a reason for existing unlike the fourth one. The animation is at the perfect point in time for the toys to actually look like toys and for the people to not be abominations and using that animation to tell a perfect story for Woody. Woody was always the most interesting character of the original story due to his larger than life personality and his reactions to Buzz’s seriousness. Separating him from the other toys should have been a death sentence, but they put him with two brand new characters that held the movie up spectacularly. Stinky Pete was a great mentor figure. And Jessie? Jessie’s backstory is undeniably one of the saddest things Pixar has ever created. It’s so sad that even just hearing the song that plays through the sequence is enough to make me hold back some tears. I could go on and on about Toy Story 2 for days, but it told a perfect adventure starring a bunch of cute little toys and the existential dilemmas they go through.
Wall-E may be a bit too preachy about environmentalism. Now that I got my one criticism out of the way, let’s gush about how Wall-E is a beautiful love story between two robots. This was the first time I actually sat down to watch Wall-E all of the way through and I was floored. The first half of the movie, where Wall-E is on Earth, is easily the best part of the movie. With barely any dialogue, I was able to feel for Wall-E and it only got better when EVE popped up and slowly warmed up to him. Once they left Earth, I still had a great time watching these two little lovebirds stick together and look out for one another. There’s just so much beauty in watching Wall-E and EVE fly around in space together. I know a ton of people adore Wall-E and would easily call it Pixar’s best film, but there were two others that shined just a little bit brighter in comparison.
A movie that teaches kids about the intricacies of psychology in a welcoming and fun way? Sign me up! Inside Out may not exactly be the saddest or funniest Pixar movie, but it instead focuses on giving us a rock-solid plot in a world that is beyond rich and complex. Following Joy and Sadness on a journey throughout the teenage girl they inhabit’s mind is a literal trip, with the two of them travelling to different parts of Riley’s subconscious. No matter what happened, I was always engaged with what the plot threw at me. With three separate plots about Joy and Sadness’s adventure, Fear, Disgust, and Anger trying to manage Riley, and Riley dealing with being a new girl in a big city, there’s at least something to like. The fact that all three of these plots work so well is nothing short of spectacular. Still, it didn’t have as much of a punch as my favorite Pixar movie…
1) Up (2009)
I think everyone kind of forgets the fact that Up was the first Pixar movie nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. Whether or not a movie got nominated at an awards show has no impact on whether or not I’ll like a movie, but Up is a deeply personal movie for its protagonist, Carl. The first ten minutes are dedicated to telling his story from childhood to adulthood, and it’s both uplifting and devastating. Jessie’s scene might be the saddest scene in Pixar’s history, but Up is just brutal on an entirely different level. By the time the actual plot begins, we already know everything we need to know about Carl and what he’s been through. The following adventure is fun and whimsical, but it’s tinged with this layer of grief and a desire for closure on his part. The side characters are fun, especially Dug and all of the other dogs, but Carl is the driving force of this movie. He’s a surly old man who’s lived a long life and wants to fulfill a promise that he’s made to someone dear to him. We’re rooting for him the entire time. That’s what makes Up the best Pixar movie. Pixar movies are movies for the entire family. Both kids and adults can have fun and sympathize for its characters, and Up is the epitome of that idea. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, it’s sad, it’s heart-warming, it’s Pixar. What more can be said?