The wizards of Pixar invented digital animation, and for 21 years now they have owned it. Give or take a movie or two (hello, “Shrek”!), they’ve made the hallmarks, the masterpieces, the defining films of the genre. In the gallery that follows, Variety chief film critic Owen Gleiberman ranks all 18 Pixar films from best to worst. Let the arguments begin!
The one Pixar film that seems to have been targeted exclusively to little kids. Arlo, who looks like the blander, more rounded-off version of an Aardman Studios creature, is the youngest son in a family of brontosauruses, and when he gets tossed out into the world, he must learn to conquer his fear. But Arlo never shows much dimension beyond his goggle-ish innocence. It’s a perfectly sweet little thunder-lizard-comes-of-age fable, but it’s also the only Pixar movie that you could call product.
It had been seven years since John Lasseter directed a movie, and maybe that's why he jam-packed his sequel to “Cars” with enough busy storytelling buzz and rowdy slapstick frenzy to fuel half a dozen sequels. The candy-colored visuals are often extraordinary, and Lasseter proves that he can juggle a hundred narrative balls in the air at once, if that's your idea of a good time. The result is one part entertaining, two parts exhausting.
It was only the second Pixar film (after the impossibly tough act to follow of “Toy Story”), and it seems to have been built around a creative meeting that posed the question: Now that we're done with toys, what creatures with hard shiny surfaces can we animate next? The answer — insects! — proved to be a visual masterstroke, though the studio fumbled when it came to devising a storyline that could make us care about the ladybugs, caterpillars, and stick bugs, as well as the monster grasshoppers that Flik, the renegade ant hero, has to rescue his colony from.
The world may not have needed a prequel to “Monsters, Inc.,” but given that Pixar decided to make one, it could easily have turned out to be a lot less amusing. The college days of Sulley and Mike, still working on their fear factor, becomes a formulaic (at its worst) but rousing (at its best) tale of monster geeks doing everything in their furry mutant power to find their place.
It was wonderful that Pixar decided to make a movie with a grown-up female heroine. If only it wasn’t the first Pixar film after the studio’s merger with Disney that felt as if it had more Disney DNA in it than Pixar! In the Scottish highlands, the princess Merida boldly rejects the marriage that has been arranged for her; she then uses a witch to turn her mother into a bear. Can she unbreak the spell? Maybe so, but the film papers over the anger that led her to cast that spell in the first place.
Lightning McQueen, voiced by Owen Wilson with his inimitable scratchy jocularity, is now past his prime — a celebrated stock-car racer who’s been doing what he does for so long that he barely realizes the rest of the world has raced him by. There is, of course, a new kid on the block, a jet-black sports-mobile named Jackson Storm (voiced with unctuous palsy bravado by Armie Hammer). After Lightning wipes out, “Cars 3” becomes a tale of mentorship, of learning how to give up your ego in order to bolster somebody else. As such, it’s touching in a pleasantly formulaic, pass-the-torch way. It turns out to be a girl-power movie: Lightning’s new trainer, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), never believed in herself as a racer, and it’s up to Lightning to set her straight. The movie is sweet and polished, unfolding with a by-the-book emotional directness.
It was hailed by many as a masterpiece, but Brad Bird's shiny culinary tale about a rat who becomes the chef at a Parisian restaurant is more audacious in concept than execution. Remy, the foodie rodent, is a little too straight and nice a character, which may be why the figure most everyone remembers best is the snooty critic Anton Ego. The film's signature moment is built around his Proustian memory of the title dish, and it's a great scene, all right: Any movie that can make a recipe for ratatouille seem mouth-watering has wrought a miracle.
The rare Pixar movie with no pretensions up its sleeve. It wants to be nothing more than a shaggy beastie romp, and that's what it is — though it has a resonance almost in spite of itself: Watching these genetically outsize monsters run around, we're cued to giggle at how arbitrary — and, yes, beastly — the human form itself really is. When a little girl enters the parallel city of Monstropolis, which is fueled by the screams of children, Sully and Mike, a fuzzy blue giant and a walking phosphorescent green eyeball, do everything in their power to get her home. This is Pixar literally letting its hair down.
The beautiful, rambunctious, and fully felt sequel to “Finding Nemo” overcomes the challenge of how to make a Pixar follow-up chapter the same…but different. The difference is in Dory, the blue tile fish whose comic-fuse-blowing amnesia has now become a serious disability. As she searches for her parents, her memory starts to return — but only in tiny jolts, like acid flashbacks — and she's transformed from a comic sidekick into a true-blue heroine whose peculiar grace is that she knows what she doesn't know.
As much as the opening D-Day sequence defined “Saving Private Ryan,” the extended flashback mini-movie that opens “Up” — an old man's lifetime of memory compressed into 10 incandescent minutes you'll need an entire box of Kleenex to get through — is the way that most people remember the film. Well, that and the transporting balloon journey! But once this tale of friendship, old age, and rebirth reaches the wilds of Venezuela (with nearly three quarters of the movie to go), it gets a bit poky. It's a Pixar goodie, just maybe not as good as you remember.
This enormously engaging and friendly-spirited auto comedy was regarded in some quarters as a comedown for director John Lasseter, perhaps because the film is no “Toy Story” (then again, what is?). Yet it remains a supreme favorite of children, and of many enlightened adults as well. The race cars, with their goggle eyes and big grins, have an uncanny anthropomorphic resonance, and Paul Newman arguably gave his last great screen performance as the crusty, not-quite-used-up Doc Hudson.
The tale of a charmingly grumpy clownfish who swims through hell and high water to locate his lost son is an odyssey of emotion and delight, and one can hardly overstate how succulent the animation is: It submerges the audience in a sublimely colorful and tactile sea world. Navigating this rippling wonderland, it doesn't hurt to have tour guides who pop as much as the lovable worrywart Marlin and the hilariously forgetful Dory.
The movie that demonstrated just how soul-stirring a Pixar sequel could be — a lesson that even Pixar needed to learn, having originally planned this “Toy Story” follow-up as a straight-to-video throwaway. The second chapter of the studio's defining saga is the first to confront the theme of obsolescence. It's a dizzying action rescue film, but it's also a fable of of fraying self-worth, with Woody embracing his immortality in a toy museum on the road to seeing the role he was truly meant for.
Most of Pixar's characters are ebullient chatterboxes, but not WALL-E: He's a binocular-eyed robot as innocent as E.T. and as sage as a silent-movie hero. He starts off stacking junk in a rusty wasteland. But when he meets a ghostly machine named EVE and lands on the spaceship Axiom, he becomes the center of a transporting parable about where, exactly, our culture is headed — to a different sort of wasteland, an automated happy-face theme park of clueless couch potatoes.
Inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl turns out to be most deliriously funny and exciting place there is in Pixar's cracked and ingenious fairy tale. Seated at a control panel, Riley's five emotions — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger — are hellzapoppin' characters who engage in a contest of wills that hammers out her identity. No movie has better captured the melancholy beauty of what it means to grow up.
With Andy off to college, Woody and his pals are dispatched to a daycare facility, where they commence their darkest and, in many ways, most moving journey: a thrill-ride from discarded irrelevance to redemption. The wit has never been sharper, but the film ultimately turns into a kind of toy noir prison escape, with an ending that will melt the heart of anyone who has a heart.
Brad Bird's spellbinding domestic superhero fantasy is Pixar at its most superfun. It has the brainiac patter of a screwball comedy, the stretchy-limbed slapstick genius of a sci-fi Buster Keaton film, and the touching emotional trajectory of a family saga about four exceptional beings who come together only by daring to do their very best.
The movie that started it all remains, after two decades, the quintessential expression of the Pixar vision. Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and their fellow plastic playthings incarnate the magic of digital animation in their very being (they're fully synthetic and fully alive at the same time), and the comedy of Buzz's delusion — he's a toy spaceman who thinks he's real — has never been more relevant than in the age of Trump. For all that, it's the oddly sympathetic Sid, the damaged boy next door who creates a Frankenstein's menagerie of toys, that completes John Lasseter's yin-and-yang vision of what the imagination really is.