With Elemental in theaters, I could not help myself. It’s time for a Pixar ranking, one that I’m sure will be very cool and not upset anyone. The animated studio is responsible for a minimum of 5 all-time classics and seems to be in a down period with audiences (even if critics are higher on the films). However, the modern box office seems to have shifted, and Pixar may not be what’s in vogue anymore.
With increased competition in animation, primarily from Illumination, Netflix, and Sony, the number of animated films has ballooned. This is good for the medium, bad news for Pixar. Of note, at the time of writing, I have not seen Elemental either. Sadly I may be part of the problem, but hopefully, this will be remedied by the time we publish. Due to this, I’ll be releasing this with the 26 other Pixar films. Without further, here is our list!
Tier VII – The Bad One
26. Cars 2 – Directed by John Lasseter
The only Pixar feature in a tier by itself, because it is inexplicably difficult to watch. The most annoying character moved center stage in the most absurd way possible, with everyone but John Turturro showing up for a paycheck. Only outright bad Pixar movie to date.
Tier VI – Bad Sequels and Missed Opportunities
25. Finding Dory – Directed by Andrew Stanton
Even as I wrote this list, I struggled on Finding Dory. The animation is beautiful at times, specifically on Hank the Octopus. However, the story did not need to continue after the original film, and this instead feels like the worst kind of retread.
24. Monsters University – Directed by Dan Scanlon
A fun little flick, it does not seem to understand the timeline of the first film. Even taken on its own, the voice acting from Krystal struggles to land. Excellent score by Randy Newman to create a full collegiate soundtrack.
23. Onward – Directed by Dan Scanlon
Gets a slight edge as an original concept, and the emotion is clearly here. However, character design and poor voice acting hold this one back. Chris Pratt, Octavia Spencer, and Dan Scanlon are blameless. Check our Onward Podcast review.
22. The Good Dinosaur – Directed by Peter Sohn
A misfire but what a gorgeous misfire. Bumped up a couple of spots because of the Berry tripping scene and the fear-inducing sequences. Jeffrey Wright with a god-tier vocal performance.
Tier V – Bit Off More Than They Could Chew
21. A Bug’s Life (1998) – Directed by John Lasseter
The big-inspired remake of Seven Samurai certainly earns some bonus points for ambition. It does not feel like the animation was quite there for the ambition on display. Grasshoppers are all-time Pixar bad guys. Check Josh’s retrospective.
20. Lightyear (2022) – Directed by Angus MacLane
Amazing visuals paired with a mediocre story. However, the real issue here came in the messaging/over-explanation of the idea of the movie. If it was not part of the film, we would not care, but it’s the opening crawl. Either reboot or don’t, and leave it at that. Regardless, the plot remains mediocre. Read our review from last year.
19. The Incredibles 2 (2018) – Directed by Brad Bird
Outstanding visual action set pieces, but again, a questionable plot. Weirdly, the improved animation of our super family makes them look worse than the original. Some top-tier sequences are under-minded by some laughable character motivations. Read our review.
Tier IV – Sequels and Strife
18. Toy Story 4 (2019) – Directed by Josh Cooley
At first, this read as one of the most emotionally fulfilling films of the Toy Story franchise. However, only 2 characters really get their moment: Gabby and Woody. Everyone else is along for their ride. Considering how much it reduces Toy Story 3 (a redux itself), it’s a shame that we could not shift a little more. Forky is an A+ character. Listen to our old podcast review.
17. Cars 3 (2017) – Directed by Brian Fee
Everything that works about Cars 3 begins and ends with Cruz Ramirez. What a character, what a story, eat your heart out Tom Cruise/Maverick. An actual emotional closing of the book for Lightning McQueen would have pushed this up a tier, but it chooses to have him randomly win as well.
16. Brave (2012) – Directed by Brenda Chapman and Mark Andrews
The beautiful Scottish setting makes for a wonderful experience. Mordu wins for the most terrifying creature that Pixar’s ever created. It might feel like Scottish Finding Nemo, but when it lands its punches, they are incredible.
15. Cars (2006) – Directed by John Lasseter
An homage to Monument Valley and small-town America is actually quite fitting. Much of Pixar’s history has dealt with trying to reinvent a medium while pushing it forward with new techniques. As a subtle examination of CGI animation eclipsing and making hand-drawn Animation irrelevant (for a time), Cars has a lot of interesting ideas on its mind. Mater is a curse on this franchise.
Tier III – The All-Stars
14. Toy Story 3 (2010) – Directed by Lee Unkrich
One of the two films Pixar films nominated for Best Picture is quite incredible in its final act. However, too much of the plot stems from the same motivations of the second film, which has a superior emotional through line. The final act makes pushes this above the rest of the pack, but the movies above it are more complete and original.
13. Soul (2020) – Directed by Pete Docter
Soul represents many of Pixar’s best moments. It features the single-best score in Pixar history. It is arguably the best animated in the history of the studio. Yet the casting of Tina Fey as 22 nearly undermines the whole film. It’s not even that she’s bad (I don’t think she is), but it destroys the Act 2 twist. If the role had been filled with an equally energetic woman of color, we would be set. It’s possible the movie does not get made with that as an option, but Pixar just misses what could have been their artistic triumph because of this choice.
12. Up (2009) – Directed by Pete Docter
A beautiful sorry about found family with the single most jaw-dropping story sequence in Pixar’s history. The rest of the film struggles to catch up to that moment. Yet a silent moment before the finale hammers home the point. We are all meant to have many adventures in life and never forget to appreciate the moments of happiness.
11. The Incredibles (2004) – Directed by Brad Bird
An unbelievable action flick, The Incredibles makes all Fantastic Four movies irrelevant. We love the 1950s and 1960s espionage homages, but the “Mr. Incredible” is fueled by his own ego is both rewarding and extremely frustrating to watch. Yet the rest of the family is so compelling you can overlook the one-note high school QB still stuck in high school.
Tier II – The Hall of Fame
10. Toy Story (1995) – Directed by John Lasseter
The one that started it all is still one of the best. The only real knock is that the animation and storytelling got even better in the decades that followed. It will always matter as one of the most transformational films in history, but it does not get bumped over the films that followed and made equally impressive technological breakthroughs.
9. Finding Nemo (2003) – Directed by Andrew Stanton
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Finding Nemo is just how good it looks in 2023. The CG had progressed just enough to allow water texture to filter into the visuals. The breakthrough of animated water cannot be understated. Additionally, the voice acting from Brooks, DeGeneres, and the ensemble might be the best Pixar ever compiled.
8. Luca (2021) – Directed by Entico Casarosa
The simple, round face, round boy animation trend has gone too far. Yet, this gorgeously animated feat bucks the trend in surprising ways. The subtext of the story, both as potential queer and immigrant stories, helps speak to the universal fears we all face. The final shot is Pixar’s very best in the history of the studio. As a young boy goes to live out his life, it rips your heart out and leaves you in a puddle of tears. Luca will always speak to me for its power on that level and gets a slight edge over more conventional choices because of it.
7. Monster’s Inc. (2001) – Directed by Pete Docter
Pixar’s ultimate bromance keyed into emotion at a level that is still staggering. It’s also easily Pixar’s funniest film, making it a fun and silly romp. The final act turn remains one of my favorite twists in history. Steve Buscemi serves up an incredible performance and the door chase remains breathtaking.
Tier I – The Masterpieces
6. Turning Red (2022) – Directed by Domee Shi
The prodigy becomes a master. Domee Shi shocked the world with Turning Red last year, and Pixar’s track record of excellence leaves this one wildly underrated. No movie encapsulates growing up quite like Turning Red. While many others make a strong case, no film in Pixar’s history has ever been this personal. It’s also one of the most low-key visual triumphs (especially in regard to visual effects). The best songs the studio ever released.
5. Inside Out (2015) – Directed by Pete Docter
The most imaginative animation of Pixar’s history, the performances from its top 3 are second to none. Amy Poehler explodes through the screen in an incredible performance, only to be equaled by incredible vocal turns from Phyllis Smith and Richard Kind. While the concepts are king in Inside Out, there are few visual, auditory, or musical equals in the franchise. Even a couple of half-cooked ideas cannot stop the highs of this movie from working on every level.
4. Toy Story 2 (1999) – Directed by Jon Lasseter
One of the most emotional experiences Pixar ever put to screen, Joan Cusack gives Toy Story 2 a heartbeat many other films dream to create. Her incredible performance adds a layer of authenticity that powers the story. Toy Story 2 also gets points for being the outright funniest movie of the franchise and highlighted how incredible CG animation could look. The giant leap forward it made for the art form opened the doors for everything that followed. Stinky Pete is one of Pixar’s most logical villains.
3. Coco (2017) – Directed by Lee Unkrich
The most logical and understandable villain comes in Coco. While it seemed possible that nothing could create the organic emotion of Toy Story 2, Coco delivers it in spades. The animation in The Land of the Dead is mind-blowing, and the songs are marvelous. Even if you do not love “Remember Me,” there are plenty of other heartfelt and excellent songs to fall back on. “Un Poco Loco” is a jam.
2. Wall-E (2008) – Directed by Andrew Stanton
Hands down, the most experimental film in Pixar’s stable is also its prettiest. For the first act, the visual storytelling is unparalleled. The second act showcases some incredible comedy, delivering mostly silent and non-verbal emotions for robots. By the final act, you may have frustrations with the human plot. Yet it feels more and more realistic every day. Add in Pixar’s best romance by miles, and you’ve got a powerful film about love, the environment, and giving humanity a second chance.
1. Ratatouille (2007) – Directed by Brad Bird
One of the films I will never be able to separate from my personal relationship to it. My father was a Chef, so I spent a lot of time in restaurant kitchens. My grandparents brought me to Paris, and I fell in love with a city unlike any in the world. For everything that New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or London will ever offer, Paris is the city where I will always feel at home. Add in a storyline that strikes right at the heart of my personal ethos – that being cynical is easy and being raw, vulnerable, and open is hard – and Ratatouille remains a nearly unparalleled experience for me. It will always be my number one, until somehow Pixar lets me make a film of my own (they wisely will not let me do such a thing).