With the release of Coco later this month in the UK, and garnering rave reviews (including 5*’s from Helen O’Hara in Empire Magazine and top marks from Matt Zoller Seitz on Rogerebert.com), it seems as if Pixar are unstoppable. The music in particular, is praised, with award wins and nominations already firmly in place during awards season.
Akin to Studio Ghibli, Pixar have consistently merged quality animation with profound stories. But they have dropped the Luxo ball a few times and, while the line between good and bad is perhaps only limited to the bottom few, the middling movies in this ranking are often considered weak by many fans of the studio. There’s also the awkward judgement of technology of 1995 versus animation in 2017; ground-breaking innovation against hyper-real detail, revealing the very best in computer-generated imagery.
It is, of course, all subjective and it should go without saying that any ranking of Pixar is picking hairs. But, with the bottom six comprising the first of three features, these are the ones that we have all struggled to revisit.
18) Cars 2
Cars 2 is perhaps the only Pixar film that’s roundly criticised by audiences and even fans of the animation house. Not only is the film a disposable action-romp, more akin to rip-off James Bond imitators than the sensitively handled spy family of The Incredibles, but it’s also way off-tangent from its predecessor, Cars.
Lightning McQueen is racing on the World Grand Prix. This, however loosely, continues McQueen’s story while Mater, unexpectedly, is dragged into an espionage mission alongside Finn McMissile and Holly Shiftwell. Cue races, chases and gadget-filled vehicles, combined with knowing winks and one-line jokes referencing spy-movies and feeling an awful lot like Austin Powers.
While the Toy Story trilogy can draw parallels to Boyhood and the Finding Nemo/Dory duo complements each other with symmetrical stories, Cars 2 feels cheap and begs the question as to whether it was a shameless cash-grab on the part of Pixar, considering the enormous money that can be made from Cars merchandise. The change in lead character with a flimsy plot and a strange shift in genre cannot be eased by the creative, intricate detail of Cars-takes of Tokyo, the Italian Riviera and London. They do look stunning but, outside of those establishing shots, the film is a wasted opportunity and tragic fail for Pixar.
17) A Bug’s Life
Unfortunately for A Bug’s Life, it could never be the ground-breaking innovation that Toy Story introduced. Following on three years after Toy Story, and awkwardly similar to Antz in the same year (released only two months prior), it somehow lost its fresh appeal. That’s not to say it’s an awful film – indeed, it has a fair few perfectly timed jokes and a band of troops that are particularly sweet. But it definitely doesn’t compare to the mature themes and ideas of Pixar’s finest.
If you recall, Flik is the inventor and clumsy ant. While his queen just wants the ants to collect food and place it on the leaf for the evil grasshoppers to take away, Flik is aiming for something better. His speed-cutter does manage to collect wheat fast but a final moment of thoughtlessness leads to the entire food pile becoming destroyed. And then the grasshoppers arrive looking for lunch. Flik is forced to leave and find help, which he does in the form of a circus collection of insects. After he visits the circus and the city of bugs, the plot loses its steam, and we crawl into a final act that centers around a constructed bird and a bunch of little kids who help out.
Pixar have always created likable and charming characters, and this is the overriding strength of A Bug’s Life. Between Flik’s smiley, keen demeanor to Kevin Spacey’s dry-humoured, cynical and sinister grasshopper, there’s plenty to like about it. But the tapestry that holds everything together is problematic, and the story struggles to really pick up pace and gain momentum. Then there’s the lack of depth; a profound, overarching theme that resonates with audiences on a personal level. Does A Bug’s Life have that? Sadly not.
16) Cars 3
Considering Doc Hudson plays a key role in Cars 3, you have to wonder whether Pixar were always a little disappointed with the reception of Cars 2. There is a sense that they returned to the drawing board and reflected on what a Cars sequel should actually be. Tragically, if Cars 3 was the first sequel, it would probably ensure the franchise has a popular fan base among adults as well as kids. Instead, Cars 2 spoiled the characters and it tainted the film that followed.
This time, new technology rules in racing as Jackson Storm puts Lightning McQueen in his place. Forcing McQueen to reevaluate his approach to the circuit, he is taken under the wing of Sterling and is trained by Cruz Ramirez. Between McQueen’s traditional methods and Ramirez’s fancy new equipment, it is clear that the rebirth of no 95 will not be as simple as he first thought.
Mater, thankfully, is little more than a cameo this time around. The history of racing is brought to life in flashbacks and via new characters who were friends with Doc Hudson back in the day. There’s a lot to like in Cars 3 and, unlike Cars 2, it does possess a charm that captures what we loved about the first film. But it is difficult to know whether it is the unclear resolution that fails to pay off (arguably, why doesn’t McQueen just listen to his trainer and embrace the new technology?) or the stain of Cars 2 that pulls this film lower down the pile, but something doesn’t snap along as fast as it should.
Up opened Cannes Film Festival in 2009. It was widely championed and the anticipation was palpable. “The first fifteen minutes alone will plunge you into a pool of sobbing tears” critics would claim to whet our appetite. The surrealist plot, involving a quirky house, and colourful balloons carrying it across a bustling city was the vivid, innovative type of storytelling Pixar are famous for. Alas, after the house takes flight, Up is all downhill.
Carl Frederickson is a widow. Forced out of his home and desperately missing his wife Ellie, Carl concocts a plan that will resurrect the memory of his wife. He’d do what they had always dreamed of doing, but never found a way to achieve: he would take the house to Paradise Fall. This was much more than a change of scene and his plans forces his house into the sky and across the city and out into the vast forest of Venezuela. He would be like his hero, Charles F. Muntz, and explore the places few had ever walked upon. The plan was flawless except for the unexpected visitor who joins him on his journey – Russell. Together they continue on and find talking dogs and unknown creatures, and even the man who inspired Carl and Ellie to dream so big.
It is strange how the energy dissipates after Carl is in the air. Some of the funniest characters (Kevin, Doug, etc) even appear long after this unforgettable opening but they are only passing jokes. Up is a personal story, told on a wide canvass with a rainbow assortment of colours, laid out on a sky blue background. The ambition here is remarkable and, while the highs of Up are among the finest points in the history of Pixar, the lows drag the film to a stumbling stop.
14) The Good Dinosaur
The Good Dinosaur had a messy production. Writers and directors were switched; the size of Arlo changed from being an enormous creature to a more manageable size. There were cast revisions and narrative revisions that meant that it would be a long way from the original vision that was pitched.
It’s a small, simplistic tale of a weak, shy and frustrated dinosaur, Arlo. With a big brother in Buck and a bolshy sister in Libby, Arlo struggles to “make his mark” on the family wall. His father, in a freak storm, is killed and Arlo in the aftermath is swept downstream to make it on his own. He makes friends with a human and the two manage to explore the vast dino world before returning to his homestead.
Though it lacks the depth of most Pixar movies, akin to Finding Nemo, the quality of the animation here is sublime. To look at the waving grass and trickling water, and remind yourself that this has all been created digitally is breathtaking. Sometimes Pixar’s wacky environments are so busy, we fail to appreciate the quality of the textures. But The Good Dinosaur proudly showcases a style that is at the forefront of computer-generated imagery. The story is likeable, but clearly limited. But, this is where it can be meditative, and can be viewed in the same way you would view an extended shot of nature in a Terrence Malick film. Beautiful, unbelievable landscapes and detail but sadly, The Good Dinosaur is sub par storytelling.
Already, with Ratatouille at thirteen on the list, there’s a sense that a few hearts will break at this point. It truly has its barrage of support. There are many who adore the smart little rat, the clumsy, yet lovable Linguini and are truly taken to another level by the profound final course. Whether you adore French cuisine, cinema or anything at all really, we recognise the stiff, grey critic who takes immense pleasure in decimating restaurants with a flick of his pen. But, as we know, that snarky writer has his attitudes changed when he is served a course from Remy le Rat.
Remy is an extraordinary rat. Unlike his family (and, it appears, every other rat), Remy strives to be a chef. His incredible nose for food creates chaos but lands him in the toque blanche of a nervous, unsure and unskilled Alfredo Linguini. Together, Remy teaches Linguini how to create some of the best food in France and Linguini learns his true purpose too. There are dastardly, capitalist villains, desperate to turn the class act of Auguste Gusteau into cheap sauces and microwavable meals – and, of course, there’s also the snidely Anton Ego, who is desperate to finish off the restaurant, once and for all.
There is so much to like about Ratatouille. The educational detail of the restaurant industry is infectious. The joy that Remy finds in cooking is something that we all desire. The double-antagonist challenge is intelligently handled and, crucially, all the characters are a pleasure to be around. Even the minor supporting roles in the kitchen are funny and rewatchable. But, as with The Good Dinosaur, there were problems in production with a worrisome question mark over Jan Pinkava, who was initially writer and director, being replaced by Brad Bird. There is an uncomfortable busyness and lack of clarity as the film sometimes loses the momentum to really drive us to that inspired, memorable finale.