Friday, June 19, 2015

To Greatness and Beyond: In Anticipation of Inside Out, Ranking Every Pixar Movie

Buzz Lightyear and Woody got Pixar started back in 1995 with "Toy Story"
Pixar is the only movie studio that has achieved brand recognition. You never hear people say that they're excited about the new Fox Searchlight release or that they're lukewarm on the latest Warner Bros. picture. But Pixar, through a 20-year, 14-film run of (mostly) extraordinary and original work, has cultivated its reputation to the point that it's become the industry benchmark for animated fare. Read reviews of animated releases from other companies, and you'll invariably find comparisons to the gold standard, whether laudatory ("Looks just as good as any Pixar movie!") or—more commonly—derogatory ("It isn't bad, but it's no Pixar.").

This did not happen by accident. The studio sports a stellar success rate, both commercially and (more importantly, at least in this context) artistically. It is also a model of storytelling consistency, which should not be confused with sameness. The typical Pixar movie exhibits two key characteristics: breathtaking animation and inspired imagination. The rest of the world is gradually catching up on the first front—DreamWorks' How to Train Your Dragon 2 is an especially gorgeous example—but John Lasseter and his brilliant minions remain comfortably in the lead on the second. There is something magical about the studio's best works, an ability to transport you to worlds of limitless invention and possibility. But as innovative as these movies can be, they also often carry a profound emotional resonance, grounding their fantastical stories in recognizable human feelings. The old line on Pixar movies is that they're enjoyable for both kids and adults, but what they really do is temporarily transform curmudgeonly adults into joyous kids.

The studio's latest release, Inside Out, arrives in theaters today. Advance buzz is deafening (it currently sports ratings of 99% on Rotten Tomatoes and 93 on Metacritic), and I'm as excited to see it as any movie this summer. (UPDATE: The Manifesto's review of Inside Out is now available here.) In anticipation, I wanted to provide my rankings of the studio's existing features. The usual cautionary note about the arbitrary nature of list-making applies—ask me again next week, and this list might look slightly different—but it's still instructive to weed through the catalog and separate the good from the bad (or, in this case, the good from the great).

And so, here is the Manifesto's ranked list of every Pixar movie released thus far:

14. Cars 2 (2011, directed by John Lasseter). The only Pixar movie that I actively dislike, Cars 2 is just bad. Sure, it looks great, because every Pixar production looks great, but it's hard to notice when you're covering your eyes to hide from the putrid dialogue and banal plot. In fact, Cars 2 serves as important proof that even the most magnificent visuals cannot salvage an irredeemable story. And they're making another sequel? Get lost.

(Quick note: It's tempting to criticize Pixar for caving to commercial pressure (i.e., making money) by releasing sequels to established properties. The head honchos have vowed, however, to release one original film every year. This year, we get two; in addition to Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur will land in November.)

13. Cars (2006, John Lasseter). Sensing a pattern here? But while Cars 2 is dreck, the first Cars is perfectly pleasant, if ultimately harmless and unmemorable. It's a conventional sports movie, but it does a nice job building out its world—every character, even the bugs, is a motorized vehicle of some sort—and its race scenes have a propulsive energy befitting its gasoline-fueled universe. It doesn't really go anywhere, but it's an agreeable trip all the same.

12. A Bug's Life (1998, John Lasseter). The best thing about A Bug's Life is its weirdness. This is a movie about a misfit ant who recruits a traveling circus of insect performers to help protect his colony from sadistic grasshoppers. Yet as disarmingly peculiar as A Bug's Life is, its story never quite coheres, and its dialogue doesn't pop as in the typical Pixar feature. The result is a strange, engrossing movie that perplexes as much as it delights.

11. Monsters University (2013, Dan Scanlon). This prequel to the wonderful Monsters, Inc. both calls into question the durability of the Pixar brand and reaffirms the unique genius of that brand. The film's opening hour is adequately, terrifyingly ordinary, a familiar "slobs vs. snobs" story bereft of the studio's trademark wit. And then, with a remarkable and sudden shift of gears, Monsters University transforms into a true Pixar movie, lively and daring and even scary. It's an important reminder that even when the studio appears to be playing by the rules, it's just one reveal away from greatness. (Longer review included here.)

10. Brave (2012, Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman). Heartwarming, stimulating, and a little bit dull, Brave is a curious cocktail. Its central coming-of-age story is nothing special, and its tale of familial bonding is hardly revelatory. But Brave illustrates that Pixar's taken-for-granted craftsmanship can elevate its material to enviable heights. The animation on display in Brave isn't just immaculate—it's genuinely bracing, and it propels the film's narrative, generating palpable excitement and wonder. Brave's screenplay feels like it could have been written by anybody, but in its flawless execution, it is unmistakably a Pixar product.

At this point, I'm comfortable inserting a metaphorical divide. As much as I enjoy Brave and Monsters University, they still feel like lesser Pixar. The remaining nine movies on this list are all superior entertainments. They're why we hold the studio in such high esteem.

9. Toy Story 2 (1999, John Lasseter). The Toy Story franchise is vibrant, valuable proof that opportunistic sequels can be indispensable artistic works in their own right. I don't revere Toy Story 2 quite as much as its brethren, but it's still a winning achievement, expanding upon the canvas of the original in sly and surprising ways. (It also delivers one of the funniest Star Wars jokes of all time.) Even when working with preexisting characters, this sterling sequel always feels fresh and new.

8. Monsters, Inc. (2001, Pete Docter). As imaginative concepts go, it's hard to top Monsters, Inc., a film about a metropolis populated by monsters that is literally powered by the screams of children. That sounds like an awfully scary place, but Monsters, Inc. is never less than delightful, whether in its witty construction of a monster-centric world ("Can I borrow your odorant?") or its offhand references to classic horror movies. But there's real heart here too, not only in the tender bond that develops between John Goodman's Sully and Boo, the human child he inadvertently adopts, but also in the relationship between Sully and Billy Crystal's Mike Wazowski. Monsters, Inc. is a movie about between a furry beast and his bulbous one-eyed companion, but in exploring the close, complicated friendship between these two monsters, it is startlingly human.

7. Up (2009, Pete Docter). Let's be clear: The first few minutes of Up constitute one of the greatest opening sequences in the history of cinema. This brisk, powerful prologue—a near-silent depiction of love and death—will melt even the steeliest of hearts into a puddle. And while the remainder of Up can't hope to match the astonishing potency of its opening, it is nevertheless wonderful on its own terms, a thrilling and whimsical story of friendship and adventure. (It also has this.) Up features flying houses, talking dogs, and chocolate-loving birds, but it is its affection for its characters that makes it truly soar.

6. Ratatouille (2007, Brad Bird). I'm trying to imagine Brad Bird pitching Ratatouille to studio bosses: "I want to make a movie about a rat who's also a virtuoso chef." Yeah, good luck with that. But Ratatouille shatters expectations, turning its bizarre premise into a funny and affecting story about the virtues of perseverance and open-mindedness. It also features one of Pixar's greatest foils, the legendary Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole), a towering figure of oppression and classism. His ultimate redemption is also our own, and it reveals those of us who scoffed at Ratatouille's premise as the fools we are.

5. Toy Story 3 (2010, Lee Unkrich). If Up destroys me with its opening, Toy Story 3 obliterates me with its conclusion. The ending of this film is one of the most poignant moments I've ever experienced in a movie theater. But even before that, Toy Story 3 is rousing entertainment, complete with colorful characters, a legitimately scary villain, and even a Great Escape montage. Pixar has announced plans for a fourth film, and by now I've learned to be trusting. But as things stand right now, Toy Story 3 is a triumphant capper to one of cinema's greatest trilogies.

4. The Incredibles (2004, Brad Bird). The Incredibles is pure, unadulterated fun, and it is impossible not to be swept up in its infectious enthusiasm. But as is always the case with Pixar, there's more going on beneath the invigorating action sequences and relentless ingenuity. In this case, it's a profound and powerful look at the nuclear family. The Incredibles is really just another story about parents trying to help their kids, and kids trying to understand their parents. But it deftly transplants this universal theme into its brilliantly specific universe, one replete with eye-popping environments and rich history. Your eyes will be dazzled, but if you squint hard enough, you may see yourself.

3. Toy Story (1995, John Lasseter). The movie that started it all still holds up today. Toy Story created the Pixar blueprint: the clever concept (toys come to life when no one is looking!), the whip-smart dialogue, the strikingly detailed and supple animation, the wry and subtle humor. But viewing Toy Story solely as the springboard for Pixar's future films is a mistake, because it ignores the staggering achievement that is the movie itself. Tom Hanks's Woody remains one of American cinema's greatest heroes, and his tempestuous rivalry with Tim Allen's Buzz Lightyear is as insightful and touching a relationship as you're likely to find in literature. Toy Story 3 forces us to acknowledge that people grow up, but Toy Story itself is timeless.

2. Finding Nemo (2003, Andrew Stanton). Finding Nemo has everything you could want from a movie. Its animation is arguably Pixar's best, rendering its watery environments with breathtaking detail and shimmering splendor. Its search-and-rescue story is exciting, unpredictable, and occasionally agonizing. Its dialogue is consistently hilarious. And its character dynamics—the complex father-son relationship between Albert Brooks's neurotic Marlin and his rebellious son; the evolving friendship between Marlin and Ellen DeGeneres's cheery Dory—are both delicately nuanced and beautifully pure. There is no point dancing around it: Finding Nemo is a rush of undiluted joy.

1. Wall-E (2008, Andrew Stanton). You were expecting something else? Wall-E is less a movie than a miracle: a largely silent love story about two robots living in a dystopian wasteland. Bring your kids! But as audacious as Wall-E may be, both conceptually and thematically, it's critical to remember just how remarkable it is as a movie. It feels like a treasure: Every frame is lovingly textured, every clever detail perfectly placed, every exchange of beeps and bleeps between Wall-E and Eve so funny and touching and true. Wall-E is a marvel, and its placement at the top of this list is almost a disservice to it. This is not simply the best movie Pixar has ever made. This is one of the greatest movies I have ever seen. (Full review here.)

That's my list. What's yours?


JohnnyG said...

I completely agree!

I'd like to see a rank of top 10 scenes. Clearly, the scene with the fire extinguisher is the best. I have goosebumps just thinking about it.

This movie was also ahead of it's time: everyone is more glued to their screens and oblivious to the world around them. I'm surprised that we don't see selfie sticks anywhere.

Jeremy said...

My favorite scene is when Eve is captured, and her captors start reviewing her security footage from her time on Earth, and she sees for the first time how Wall-E cared for her while she was catatonic (e.g., holding an umbrella over her head when it was raining). It's incredible how, even though she doesn't have a face, you can see the emotion written all over her.

Anonymous said...

This movie is one of the best Disney/Pixar for a while, the movie hit me right at the feels more then Toy Story 3, its funny, nice for kids (well not the butt scene) and finally for the first time after Cars 2 and Frozen, the lesson is easy to know and fits in with its nice animation, speaking of animation, the characters and their animation are god damm amazing, very colorful and very detail and for once it looks and feels like a Disney movie unlike Cars 2 (If you like Cars 2 and get mad at me, look its ok but why try to put guns in a lesson kids movie detail? anyways) its one of best movies of 2015 before Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakes, it really need to get awards for great animations, great lovable characters, great plot, and great voice actors.

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