Toy Story, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, Coco, Wall-E, Inside Out: Ranking the ten best Pixar films
With Toy Story 4 dominating the box office, it is worth looking back at ten of the best films that Pixar has produced and why each of them stands out.
In 1990, the Steve Jobs’ backed Pixar studio recorded a net loss of close to $8 million. The following year, the entire hardware division was laid off, all software development shut down. Four years later, with the help of a restraining yet life-saving contract with Walt Disney, Pixar produced the animation film Toy Story. With that, Pixar survived death and the rest is history.
Credited with some of the biggest and most imactful films (not just animation), the studio has produced a consistent line of box-office hits (10 to 11 depending on whose analysis you read). To an extent the studio has monopolised the family/coming-of-age space like no other. But Pixar has never been as tinselled as Disney’s own folksy tales like Aladdin and The Lion King. It has taken risks, pretty much reinvented itself and has in the process touched on topics and issues that animation simply did not associate itself with in its early days. Pixar’s greatest strength, you could say, is its storytelling more than its technical flair. To that effect many critics have called for certain Pixar films to be categorised as full-fledged features and not clubbed into the technological category of ‘animated’ alone.
As Toy Story 4, the fourth film in the series that the studio at one point declared it would never make, has hit theatres and done very well at the box office, it is worth looking back at ten of the best films that Pixar has produced and why each of them stands out.
#10 Monsters Inc (2001)
This film is probably as goofy and naughty as Pixar can get. An underground city of monsters where fear is currency, is as outrageous a concept as it is fun to watch. But Pixar never rests on its premise alone, however beguiling and intriguing it may sound. It focuses on characters, often misfits. Sully is a blue-furred natural at making kids scream at his ‘scream processing’ job. Inside, though, he is despondent and wants out. His friend Mike, a one-eyed green blob with legs, wants to do his peers proud by being genuinely scary, but can’t. Mike is nutty, Sully is smooth, yet they both see the glass half full, unknowingly filling that void with the company of each other. It’s sweet, preposterous and genuinely funny.
#9 Wall-E (2008)
For a number of socio-cultural critics Wall-E must be the top of their list. It addresses dystopia, after all, in what is presumably a kids’ medium. Climate change, as well. Wall-E is the story of an outdated robot M-O stuck on a deserted earth. He/It ‘falls for’ the floating feminine, android Eve. The two escape the planet aboard a ship where humans (lazy and overweight) live - did Pixar just predict the future? M-O and Eve fight their own robot-war in the shadow of a lethargic human species, coming out on the other side, looking more human than the ones who have survived. Only in the hands of Pixar could a mute robot feel so lifelike.
#8 Finding Nemo (2003)
Finding Nemo took Pixar underwater to tell the story of Marlin, a possessive father who loses his son Nemo and must go looking for him with the help of Dory, a fish suffering from short-term memory loss. Marlin works at a whale-cleaning station, and amidst all this chaotic and audacious events, Pixar managed to introduce, perhaps its greatest character trope ever – a bunch of Italian sharks, who like the Godfather, take care of dirty business. Except, in Pixar’s world, they are as ludicrously funny as anything you have ever seen. Finding Nemo is one good ride, with hilarious sharks thrown in for good measure.
#7 Coco (2017)
Pixar’s last big success was, perhaps, its most emotionally draining film till date. Tackling death, afterlife, and the tenderness of old age, Coco was as conceptually outrageous as it was emotionally relatable. In Coco, young Miguel passes over into the land of the dead, where he finds his great grandfather Hector, a legendary guitarist. For Hector to survive in this half, he must remain alive in Miguel’s dying grandmother Coco’s memory. Brilliantly, Coco addresses memory, grief and life after death. It is ludicrous and manipulative at times, but beautifully heart-wrenching.
#6 The Incredibles (2004)
Before Marvel did their thing and before Christopher Nolan did his with the Batman trilogy, perhaps the best superhero film out there, was one that subverted the genre itself. What jobs do superheroes go home to, what chores do they perform, how do they take care of families, how do they deal with other heroes and can superhero fatigue be self-referential as well? All these and many more questions were answered in the incredibly funny, yet judiciously mature The Incredibles. A superhero couple try to lead a normal life, yet their superhero roots won’t let go of them; secretly, neither can they. What gives when they can no longer run away from who they are?
#5 Ratatouille (2007)
A story about a mouse wanting to be a chef. The premise of Pixar’s most restrained yet ambitious film was difficult to buy even before the film came out in 2007. Sure, Pixar were good at selling the ludicrous, but this would perhaps have been a step too far even for them. For one it wasn’t a story insulated from another world. It was a mouse wanting to be a chef in a world where men and women did that sort of thing. How could they then pull it off? They quite incredibly did as a mouse took to the kitchen with tongs and condiments. There was also a rather self-aware, bourgeois’ food critic in the mix, through whom Pixar almost ridiculed the elite.
#4 UP (2009)
Up is the kind of film that despite being preposterous and fleetingly nonsensical, sticks with you. All because it has an emotional hook, a centrally pumped supply of empathy and sadness tossed in with an exemplary musical score. Up is not just wondrous, it is pure loveable. 70-year-old Carl pays homage to his wife by literally flying his house away to Paradise Falls, in the company of the unwitting boy scout Russell. How do the two fare in a house floating with the help of balloons? Up will certainly leave you on a high, bemused at what you’ve just watched and bewildered at just how charming something so outrageously inconceivable can be.
#3 Toy Story (1995)
The original Toy Story kicked it all, to the point that that some of Hollywood’s major directors called it a masterpiece. Before Steven Spielberg addressed artificial intelligence through his criminally underrated A.I. (2001), Toy Story, rather more lightly, addressed the quizzical nature of given identity - Buzz doesn’t know he is a toy. Woody knows his functional reality but the arrival of Buzz, a macho man with a saviour complex, threatens his rank in the house. The two lock horns, in what is often a subtle critique of quasi-masculinity in America. Not to mention the film also has the two sweetest talking potatoes around in Mr and Mrs Potato Head.
#2 Toy Story 2 (1999)
Love invades the world of toys amidst a rescue operation for Woody who realises history is just as big a conundrum as the future. Toy Story 2 raised the stakes and set the bar higher than ever before. It gave our favourite toys a mission, but it also introduced a dilemma of what must the future be anchored in – memory or imagination, old pals or new. Woody is taken away, but finds out he has a history he never knew. What would you do if you were him? Toy Story 2 is perhaps most humanising of the three films and set on a level that neither its predecessor nor the ones that followed can possible surpass. It’s just that good.
#1 Inside Out (2015)
Lists can often be debilitating because they ostensibly compare one to the other. There are a lot of mangoes and apples here, and we have to inevitably pick one over the other, however irrational that may sound. Inside Out isn’t Pixar’s most popular or most successful film. It is easily, though, it’s most thoughtful perhaps even adult film. Based on Pixar employee Ronnie Del Carmen’s story, Inside Out is a narrative within a narrative. It follows Riley, a young girl uprooted from her home to a new city. While she exhibits little emotion on the outside, inside Riley is all chop and churn. Her Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness, each get to play characters and each get to have an arc in this wildly imaginative, at times humbling film that deals with psychology, the subconscious, puberty and adulthood, all with the agency of nail-biting action. Inside Out is, quite simply, an ode to human imagination.
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