Film lists

Ranking Pixar Pt 2: from Student Monsters to Cowgirl Dolly’s

With the upcoming release of The Incredibles 2 (2018) and Toy Story 4 (2019), it’s nice to know that Pixar often develop stories particularly well when moving into sequels (though not always: see Cars 2 and Cars 3). In that regard, it is heartening to know that so many sequels are in the next two posts, placing them high on the list. But we are toying with fan favourites here.

The confidence and skill of Pixar means that the vast majority of movies remain recommendations – and the minor quibbles that separate the films on the following two posts are mere niggles that nudge one past another. The Incredibles and Toy Story are considered among the finest, but alas, they sit on the middle tier of this particular list.

12) Monsters University

The strange thing about Monsters University is the final twist. The plot champions how Mikey and Sully, at University, were beginning completely different lives and rather than end the film with a positive gung-ho example of how hard-work pays off, Monsters University decides to go a different route. That never sat comfortably with me and the inventive creatures and innovative “Scare Games” all lose a bit of purpose with this biting reality check.

Travelling back in time, Monsters University rewinds to Mike and Sully’s student years. We return to a world where scaring is the way to generate energy (something a tad different to how Monsters Inc. closes) and drops the unconventional family plot too. This is a perfunctory sports film in an Animal House context with the strangest, wackiest monsters you’ve ever seen. The “will they win?” question lingers over the film as the teams slowly, squeeze through each phase of the Scare Games. But, though we know they’ll end up on the Scare Floor, how they do it is an intriguing journey.

The colours are bright and vivid with textures that are purposefully chosen to play on our senses. Spikey, glowing threats turn the monsters into bulbous, swollen jokes while the woolen sweaters and clothing give the world that 70’s feel. The truth is the monsters world is a joy to be within. In the same manner as Cars, seeing a “Monsters” version of Uni halls and lecture theatres has a warm and fuzzy feeling, while Mike, Sully and even Steve Buscemi’s Randy of Monsters Inc are all hilarious characters. Nevertheless, the unexpected closure to Mike’s practised hard work and Sully’s natural talent seems to only reinforce stereotypical views on education.

11) The Incredibles

Strangely, The Incredibles has never been a favourite. While audiences can appreciate the James Bond send-up and working-together moral of the story, there has always been an aura of arrogance and smug self-awareness that jars. The jokes are memorable (We are all acutely aware of the problem with capes), the action is vivid and the story is fast-moving but there’s a cog missing.

Bob Parr was an all-flying, all-saving “Super” back in the day. But now, he’s a family man, making the money and raising a family. Of course, everyone in the homestead is a “super”. The woman who was Elastigirl is now his wife, Helen, and his super-fast son, Dash, and invisible daughter Violet aren’t vigilantes but they need to hide their powers in any case (There’s also Jack-Jack who currently hasn’t developed a power… yet). It may be the traditional set-up that feels dated, and therefore by proxy, spoils the comedy perhaps? Yes, the Mom who has to juggle all her chores is funny is elasticated form but maybe she doesn’t, and never wanted to be home at all? The goth-girl who doesn’t want to be seen plays on the stereotype that awkward teens are bothered about their looks – and she fancies a boy too, natch.

Toying with tropes and homely clichés as the foundation of The Incredibles means that every super-spy layer and wise-cracking supporting character are only there to thrust this dynamic forward. Samuel L Jackson is criminally underused as Frozone, while Edna Mode (voiced by director Brad Bird) is a little too much to take. The Incredibles, funnily enough, has a strong structure that positively entertains. But dig a little deeper and there doesn’t seem to be many risks taken and a safe, ordinary story is all we really get.

10) Cars

It may be too high on the overall list for many, with Ratatouille and The Incredibles ranked lower, but Cars has always been underrated. For a long time, this distaste for Cars spread to such an extent that many (myself included) held back from watching the film for years after its original release. Suffice to say, it is far stronger than you’d expect. Perhaps the marketable cars and snarky character of Lightning McQueen grates, but the overarching theme resonates as a poignant reminder of the dangers of capitalism – even if, hypocritically, Pixar is owned by Disney.

Lightning McQueen is an exceptional racer; he dominates the track and is in the position to take first place in the Piston Cup, once again. Partly due to exhaustion on his trucker’s part and a lack of awareness on his, McQueen ends up in Radiator Springs, an off-the-road dust bowl of a town. Desperate to get out, McQueen slowly gets to know the citizens and he is forced him to reflect on his attitude.

The underlying real-world troubles of Radiator Springs, in particular, are deeply memorable. After a new highway was built, commuters didn’t need to pass through the sleepy town anymore and the thriving tourism of the town fell on hard times. A sobering message from Pixar, but a vital message nevertheless. Cars may not have voices that are as dominant and lovable as Buzz Lightyear or Dory, and this will always be where it falls short, but it does hold solid foundations that pull the film from the doldrums of mediocrity (unlike its sequels).

9) Brave

Female protagonists are not really Pixar’s style. It is a particular problem with the studio and, up until Brave, there were no female-led Pixar movies at all. In fact, the animation team would rather cast two male characters (Toy Story, Monsters Inc, Up) than give a girl the central role. Brave did change this a little and, with a female director in Brenda Chapman, it could have truly been an exciting change for Pixar. Alas, Chapman was lost due to “creative differences” and Mark Chapman was brought on and we can only speculate what changes were made upon his arrival.

Set in the Scottish Highlands, Brave is a fairy-tale about mothers and daughters. Merida is a passionate, spunky, red-haired skilled archer. She is not your cliché Princess, and yet her mother is desperately trying to squeeze her into the mould of pretentious royalty. But magic and spells make a change and Merida makes a deal with a witch to change her mother into a bear. To make matters worse, her three little brothers continue to run amok in the house while her father remains committed to killing the evil bear that took his leg years before.

Brave holds so many unique, innovative and exciting elements; it is easy to understand why so many adore the film. The detail in Merida’s hair is breath-taking while the vast Scottish landscape is a magnificent spectacle – and every pixel has been placed there digitally by a Pixar artist. The set-up is particularly bold, almost dismantling the Princess trope of so many Disney classics. But once the mysterious mythical bear tale begins, the family dynamics shift and the story becomes smaller in scale. There is something quietly functional about the story as it rolls out to the final act, and the fresh ideas that kick the film off are sadly lost by the last reel.

8) Toy Story

Sincerely, Toy Story could be the top film. Comparatively to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, this truly changed the future of entertainment. To the extent that, since The Princess and the Frog, even Disney Animation are stuck with CG movies for the foreseeable future. It all comes back to the ambition and quality of Toy Story.

Narratively, Toy Story also manages to weave a thrilling, thoroughly exciting journey with bright, vivid characters and action-packed scenes. The world of the toys is deftly played out in the opening birthday of the human child, Andy. Then there’s a prescient challenge between the traditional wooden cowboy and flashy, wing-poppin’, button-pushin’ Buzz Lightyear. How this draws a direct parallel to the change in filmmaking the film itself introduces was not lost on Pixar. The ensemble group of characters are a combination of nostalgic toys (Mr Potatohead, Etch-a-sketch, Bo) and a selection of somewhat altered creations (Slinky dog rather than a slinky, Rex as the dinosaur toy, Ham the piggy bank). Before we’d even seen the film, it felt like we already knew them.

Smartly, these could all be monetised with ease and, with sequels every few years; you can add to the collection and resell the various toys. It’s the perfect balance of marketable products and intelligent story-telling. But we cannot ignore the current quality of animated movies. In comparison, Toy Story falls particularly short. Sid’s dog couldn’t be more awkward, with no sense of textured fur and a geometrical head to top it off. If you consider the variety of surfaces in Monsters Inc or the enormous quality of Finding Nemo, Toy Story is flatter and simply lower in quality. But it remains a game-changer and, at the time, we’d never seen anything like it.

7) Toy Story 2

With all the praise for Toy Story in the previous position, it’s worth noting that Toy Story 2 does not have such problems with dogs or textures. Instead, it drops a bucket load of new characters and raises the bar for the studio further – and it became the first sequel to prove that if Pixar go back to the trough for a further instalment, they usually do it for the right reason (Again, Cars 2, in that respect, is such a strange beast.)

Toy Story 2 flips the plot from Buzz tackling the new world to Woody being forced to acknowledge what he really wants. After a yard sale wave’s goodbye to a few toys, a collector spies Woody, something of a rarity, and nabs the cowboy for his own collection. The army of toys band together to hunt down and save Woody, as Woody becomes close to a family he never knew he had.

Jesse, Bullseye, Wheezy and Zurg are brought to life in Toy Story 2 and yet, it never feels like they weren’t with us in 1995. There’s a sensitivity and finely tuned skill in introducing characters to a world that is so loved and known. Yet the warmth, wit and charm of Toy Story 2 is as impressive as the very best of Pixar – and still stands to this day. There’s an energy and ambition that’s enormously successful, especially in the airport finale. It also includes one of the loveliest songs in the entire Pixar canon: “When She Loved Me”, sang with such care by Sarah McLachlan.

Stay tuned for our final part of our Pixar ranking coming soon…

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