Mar. 25th, 2014

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As noted previously, 2014 is the first year since 2005 where there will be no new release from PIXAR animation studios. So it's time to take stock of the fourteen features that the studio has produced so far. Here's my ranking of the PIXAR movies from greatest to least. Due to concerns about length, I'm going to cheat a little, as you'll see below.

1. The "Toy Story" trilogy - I prefer the second to the first and wasn't really sold on how the third one ended, but it's hard to argue that the "Toy Story" movies aren't the studio's greatest achievement. The first film was an instant animation landmark when it premiered in 1995, and the sequels miraculously matched it on every level. The technology kept improving, but what was really impressive was that the storytelling and the fidelity to those wonderful characters never lagged for a moment.

2. "The Incredibles" - "PIXAR does human beings," was the big selling point, but the real accomplishment was telling a story that skewed a little older and more mature while not losing the sense of adventure and fun that characterized the best PIXAR work. Director Brad Bird joined the studio to bring a fascinating world of superheroes and supervillains to life. I especially love the '60s design touches and all the little bits of superhero terminology that make the "Incredibles" universe feel so alive.

3. "Ratatouille" - Reportedly a difficult production for the studio, which lost one director and had to work on a much shorter schedule than some of the others. However, the end result is a charmer, proving that PIXAR could make a great movie out of the most unlikely subject matter, in this case a rat who becomes a chef. Disney struggled to market and merchandise the film without an easy hook like "monsters" or "toys" or "superheroes." Personally, I always thought the hook was obvious: foodies.

4. "Monsters University" - Yep, I'm surprised to see this one so high too, but I really appreciated what PIXAR did with the "Monsters Inc." prequel. They got me to care about Mike, a character I never really connected to, and delivered a difficult message in a careful, thoughtful way. This may be the only college life movie I've ever really enjoyed, because it is actually about the meat and potatoes stuff of the college experience that the raunchy teen comedies aren't interested in talking about.

5. "Up" - The opening sequence of "Up" is so strong that I feel it takes away a bit from the rest of the movie, which never gets close to finding the same emotional power. Sure, it's a fun adventure movie about a group of misfits, but the underlying melancholy of the main character's struggle with his regrets suggests that so much more was possible. So "Up" remains a conundrum for me, a movie that I admire very much, but with enough weak spots that I can't quite bring myself to count it as a favorite.

6. "A Bug's Life" - PIXAR's sophomore effort does not get enough credit. It remains one of their most gorgeous with some of their most memorable characters, including the evil grasshopper voiced by Kevin Spacey and the ladybug with gender issues voiced by Dennis Leary. Yes, the "Yojimbo" plot is old and full of cliches, but it works. And I still think this is one of PIXAR's most gorgeous-looking movies, especially the way they use light and color in a world centered around plant life.

7. "Finding Nemo" - I love Dory. I love the seagulls. I love the jellyfish and the turtles and everything involving the whale. However, I find the movie as a whole a little on the lackluster side. There are some major parts of the story and major characters that struck me as pretty by-the-numbers, and I never felt that Marlin and Nemo and their relationship got nearly as much development as they needed to really give the movie the proper stakes. "Nemo" is a lot of fun, but feels like PIXAR treading water.

8. "Brave" - This one really didn't hold up as well on rewatch as I was hoping it would. I still adore Merida and the whole relationship with her mother, but when you hold "Brave" up against the rest of the PIXAR films, the worldbuilding is awfully slight and the plot is awfully thin. This is one of those cases where the offscreen struggles over the film's direction really shows. The whole movie feels rushed, haphazardly pieced together, and not quite sure of what it's doing. I'd love a sequel, though, to help fix a few things.

9. "Monsters Inc." - There's something about the "Monsters" world that rubbed me the wrong way. I'm not sure if it was the lukewarm satire on the energy crisis, the jokey handling of corporate culture, or just one monster pun too many, but it didn't work for me. And aside from the Sully and Boo relationship and the last chase scene with the doors, not much else in the film did either. The irony is, of course, that I really enjoyed the prequel, "Monsters University," which didn't live up to this film for many viewers.

10. "WALL-E" - I got some fun out of the first half of the movie, but the second half on the spaceship with the chubby vestiges of the human race was full of missteps that "WALL-E" never recovered from. I disliked it so much that I haven't revisited the movie since I first saw it in theaters. Taken by itself, the first half of the movie would probably rank solidly in the middle of the PIXAR features, since it's so uniquely dark and conceptually bold. I wish the movie had continued in that direction, but oh well.

11. The "Cars" movies - Even the least likeable PIXAR films are works of art, full of beautiful imagery and clever ideas. I don't mind the first "Cars" movie much, even though I'm not a fan. It's clearly PIXAR's work even though it's not the studio at its best. The sequel, however, has all the earmarks of the superfluous sequels that PIXAR promised that it would never make, and for that reason "Cars 2" is on the very bottom of the rankings.
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