Since debuting with Toy Story in 1995, the Pixar movies have become so unerring good that, like the Marvel movies that followed them, the only accurate measure of their bar-raising quality has become themselves. It’s no fair to compare the latest Pixar movie to, say, the latest Blue Sky movie or the latest Illumination movie or even the latest Dreamworks movie. There’s a reason why the Best Animated Feature Oscar has been jokingly referred to as the Pixar award since almost the moment since it was introduced.
And, looking back on their peerless work over the last twenty-odd years, their only stumbling blocks have generally been their not-quite-as-excellent sequels. Other than that, they have seemingly produced nothing but wall-to-wall classics: yes, that includes A Bugs Life (1998) too. It’s actually kind of terrifying how well they have formulized the 3D animated feature during a stretch when nearly every other outfit in Hollywood thinks that they can slink by with funny mascots and some crazy pop songs.
5. Incredibles 2 (2018)
This one’s likely to catch me some flack when all is said and done. There are so many great Pixar movies to include that a few classics were bound to miss out. Predictably for me, this won’t be the highest-ranked Incredible here and the (spoiler alert) lack of Toy Story will likely grate on peoples’ nerves. And truth be told, it was a really close call for the cutoff. The simple truth of the matter is that I had more fun with this outing than I did with any toy-to-life story from Pixar’s storied past.
Despite the ridiculous time between entries, this one was very nearly worth both the wait and the hype. Between its not-quite-too-familiar A-plot with Elastigirl fighting for supers’ rights and the gut-bustingly funny B-plot of Mr. Incredible trying to take over the family’s domestic duties – coupled with some absolutely amazing comedy beats for the previously sidelined Jack Jack – genuinely makes this one for the ages. It might not live up to its celebrated forebear, but it comes damned close at times to doing so.
4. Coco (2017)
Although this South-of-the-border adventure bears some passing resemblance to the also-great Book of Life, such comparisons are ultimately more inconsequential than anything. But, yes, on the surface, both narratives are centered on a musically inclined protagonist, struggling with the draconian wishes of his more traditional family members, journeying into the Land of the Dead on Día de los Muertos to reunite with his deceased ancestors and right the wrongs done to those in the Land of the Living.
Coco is both more personal and more adult-oriented than its 2014 counterpart, to the point of risking some genuine scares to some its younger viewers. Rather than taking a more epic fantasy bent to its characters and story, it tells the intensely personal quest of a young shoemaker trying to come to terms with who he is as an individual compared to who he is as a member of a large, well-to-do Mexican family. It is thematically rich and emotionally cathartic in the way that only Pixar seems to be capable of pulling off.
3. The Incredibles (2004)
Although it lacks the visual depth and technical flourishes that have been perfected in the decade and a half since its debut, The Incredibles holds up as well as it ever did: even with its own sequel now taking to theaters and showing us what Pixar can really do with these characters with all the experience they’ve banked in recent years. The animation, though dated, is crisp, dynamic and entrenched in a retro-futurist aesthetic that I simply can’t get enough of. The story is exciting, the characters compelling and the action fist-pumpingly excellent. Seriously, this thing gives any of the Marvel movies a solid run for their money in terms of on-screen quality.
And despite multiple attempts to make the team work on the big screen, The Incredibles remains the best and truest-to-form version of the Fantastic Four – Marvel’s first family of superheroes – that we’re likely to see before Fox sells them the super-team’s film rights back to them. The characters were richly developed, the world both lived-in and realistic and the action scenes some of the best to be found in either live-action or animation.
2. Finding Nemo (2003)
If Toy Story was what sold Pixar’s unique vision to the world, Finding Nemo was what cemented it into something concrete. What Toy Story tried to portray, Finding Nemo pulled off seemingly effortlessly. And what Finding Nemo achieved more than a decade ago, Pixar has scarcely been able to touch on to this day.
The problem with these kind of movies – epic quests to the far reaches of the world – is that there is very little that grounds them in what we all know to be real. This goes double for the “talking animal” movies that Western animators seem so incredibly fond of making. But Finding Nemo was different. It’s characters felt, perhaps more than any animated film that came before it, genuine. Their tragedies were poignant, their arguments familiar and their struggles as emotionally charged as anything seen on the big screen.
1. Inside Out (2015)
By the time Inside Out came along, Pixar was a known quantity. We had been taught, through decades of repetition, what to expect from the animation studio: the stories, the characters, the emotional beats and even the tangible borders of its high-concept premises. All of that, however, was turned inside out for this knockout punch of an adventure.
Although everybody seems to love it, nobody ever seems to give this movie enough credit for the masterstroke of storytelling that it managed to pull off. Yes, it is ostensibly about anthropomorphic emotions struggling to come to terms with each other and the unexpected changes that have consumed their lives. It is, however, also an intensely introspective look at one girl’s depression: how the emotional turmoil from the changing world around her shuts her off and isolates her from her family, nearly destroying them in the process. And when the bullheadedly optimistic Joy gives into Sadness – allows herself the cathartic release that she has denied herself for her entire life – it is one of the most powerfully moving scenes of any film ever released.