Film lists

Ranking Pixar Pt 3: From Monsters to Machines

After three weeks, we arrive at the final six. Within days, this list will be out of date and we’ll all be scrambling to squeeze in Coco. Six months later, The Incredibles 2 drops and, again, every prior list is redundant. Then again, updating, rewatching and revevaluating is always part of the fun with Pixar.

As family films, they are easy to pop on over a lazy afternoon, and return to the creative world’s those inventive souls have built time and time again. The final six are an interesting bunch. While the top two could switch with each other, they are ultimately secure in their placement at the peak.

Even as I wrote this ranking, I was conflicted to the very last moment which would take the pole position. But, choices had to be made and so…

6) Monsters Inc

It is easy to dismiss Monsters Inc. Indeed, for many years it never really bothered my top few positions. On the surface, the colourful monsters and action scenes could be viewed as merely child-orientated film fodder. But, after each watch, it becomes more powerful and profound. Billy Crystal and John Goodman (hardly the icons of 2001 – more of a 1989 When Harry Met Sally/Roseanne fan base) providing the voices of Mike and Sully respectively prove how voice-casting is so much more than big-name ticket-sellers.

The beauty of Monsters Inc is within its heartfelt tale of two men, coming to terms with how to look after a toddler. While it provides plenty of belly-laughs in slapstick-comedy, the wide-eyed Boo, at the centre of the chaos in Monstropolis, represents and becomes much more to Mike and Sully. You can read Monsters Inc as an unconventional family, with Mike and Sully as the doting parents, in a similar manner to Three Men and a Baby. It could be percieved as Boo representing the emotion and heart of man – against the Gary-Cooper “strong, silent type” expectation of men. The final act, in its resolution and reveal of what really generates power for the city supports this latter theory, as laughing, smiling and enjoying your family is what makes a home – and what truly makes a life.

Monsters Inc, in its fictional world, experiments with textures and surfaces in a way that separates it from every other Pixar film. The closest comparison visually, interestingly, might be the Finding Nemo/Dory duo that equally uses bright, vivid colours and detailed texture to build up the world. No offence to Toy Story, but the plastic-ness of most toys must have made the creation of the film more manageable in comparison. Randy is an absolute favourite villain. The door-to-door chase at the end, may play on the airport action of Toy Story 2, but it provides such an exciting prospect. The doors that change, and switch and open upwards, and backwards, and upside-down is riveting and an absolute blast to experience.

Monsters Inc has it all – and anyone who places it at number 1 has my entire support.

5) Finding Dory

Finding Dory, depsite its box-office success, hasn’t carried forward many fans. While few people would say its a bad film, it would rarely pop into someone’s mind as one of their favourites. Having said that, it’s one of mine and there should be much more time made for the sequel to Finding Nemo. The simple fact that Nemo even had a sequel, initially, seemed like a misstep. A worrying trend that Pixar were cashing in their chips and solely relying on established properties to gain a guaranteed box office smash. But I suspect, when Pixar share ideas, sequel ideas (obviously) are never off the table and Finding Dory was a tale worth telling.

Dory, a secondary role in Finding Nemo, is now front and centre. She struggles to recall anything at all, and her parents are desperate to teach her techniques to cope with this debilitating condition. In a moment of panic, Dory found herself lost and, asking every fish in the Pacific Ocean, she drifted further out until she met Marlin, on the hunt for Nemo – linking to the first film. Suffice to say, Dory remembers a fragment of her memory and becomes desperate to hunt down her parents and find where she came from.

It’s a clever play too, with Ellen DeGeneres’ lovable Dory becoming the focus this time we wonder whether a Finding Marlin film is a decade away. But the decision to switch from Marlin to Dory is different to the problemtic switch to Mater in Cars 2. The moment Finding Dory opens, it is clear how the themes are rolling out. Dory has, and will always have, a mental disability that will plague her for her entire life. This heartbreaking truth is nevertheless what her parents (and we) love about Dory, and they are doing everything in their power to ensure she still has the happiest childhood and life.

In that respect, it is clear this is a success and as we get to find out more about Dory’s background; her friends, her childhood home – we see how the loss of her as a child ruined her parents. The final act, as we see how they spent their life searching for her, breaks you in two. How a film, marred by talk of a shameless cash-grab, became so poignant is down to a thoughtful and carefully-written script by Andrew Stanton, the director and writer of both Finding Nemo and Finding Dory.

4) Toy Story 3

Initially, Toy Story 3 felt like a retread of many of the themes in Toy Story 2. An older, resented toy bearing a grudge tries to ruin Woody, Buzz and the gang. Lots-o’-Huggin Bear and the Prospector would make great friends. But, on a few more watches, the nuances and carefully balanced themes eek out further, proving that Toy Story 3 brings together the very best of both films – and improves on them. Of course, the animation is superior but the characters are now clearly established, leaving room for them to grow and mature.

Andy is all grown up and the toys are being prepared to be placed in the attic. Or so they hope – instead, and by mistake, the crew end up in a play centre and meet the many various toys of the kids. Multiply the crew from Andy’s room and we now see an army of toys awaiting us. There’s a group of well-worn and inviting toys to greet them but all is not what it seems and darkness lurks in the corners of this nursery. Lingering over the entire film is a panic about what the future holds too. Andy is still going off to college and there’s no place for toys there. It’s resolved with bold choices and unexpected outcomes – and a set-up that ensures Toy Story 4 can continue the journey.

While all the Toy Story‘s are wonderful, it was big baby that pushed me over the edge with Toy Story 3. There’s something creepy and sweet about this battered old dolly. We’ve all seen them before too; one eye permanently stuck; clothing missing. It is clear that every character they create is rooted in details that connect every piece of the puzzle perfectly together. The same goes for the story too.

Continuing the franchise that kicked of Pixar’s feature-length films is something Pixar clearly take great care in building – and, as the third entry, it has learned from the many films in between and brought us only closer to these joyful characters. Toy Story 4 has a lot to live up to.

3) Finding Nemo

Finding Nemo feels like the quietest of Pixar’s films. Of course, when sharks taste blood and birds fly around a dentists office, chaos ensues, but there is a peace to Finding Nemo that transcends so many of Pixar’s movies. In addition to to this calming context, the animation in the fifth film is absolutely mesmerising. The beauty of the bright colours contrasted with the harsh Australian sunlight is a vital part of the charm of Finding Nemo.

The story, in many respects, is a simple one. Father loses child; Father looks for child; Father finds child. But woven into the fabric of Finding Nemo is loss and moving on; letting go of our fears; parenting and its myriad of conflicts and challenges. Marlin and Dory travel from the Great Barrier Reef and down to Sydney harbour, meeting a wide collection of likeable and interestng characters on the way. The collection of sharks who are committed to not eating others; the surfer-dude Turtles; the terrifying-yet-fascinating jellyfish. Again and again, Finding Nemo surprises us at every turn.

Up until this point, Randy Newman provided the music for every Pixar film. His American voice and playful themes defined the sound of Toy Story and Monsters Inc. The departure from Randy, to his cousin Thomas Newman (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) was a crucial change of tone. The aforementioned animation shift, to a quality that borders on realism, changed the look of the films too. Then there’s the sensitivity required in handling an opening where the titular character’s mother dies – in a kid’s film. The balance has to be perfect and director/writer Andrew Stanton manages it effortlessly.

At the time, it felt as if adding a sequel to Finding Nemo would be akin to making Forrest Gump 2, but the same care was applied to Finding Dory and it only added to the tale. But Finding Nemo was the starting point, and rarely does a family film, with such child-friendly characetrs, manage to be such an emotional journey.

2) Inside Out

Clearly, with the praise bestowed on Finding Nemo, any of these six films could be at the number one spot. They would all be five-star, freshly rated films by any measure. Inside Out, as a concept alone, is genius. The ability to break down the psyche into five understandable and relatable emotions is high-brow psychological theory (in fairness, it should be 27 emotions, but it is reduced to a more digestible five). Sometimes good ideas are lost in transition but not Inside Out. Every single feature of the film is rooted in a theoretical framework. The “world” of Inside Out makes sense and when, unexpectedly, the Train of Thought ploughs through the brain, we get it. It is a masterpiece of engineering, as each moment is carefully constructed with an overarching theme that will educate and support every child (and adult) who watches.

11-year-old Riley is at the centre of Inside Out. Her parents are moving from rural Minnesota to the hustle and bustle of San Francisco. Inside her head, we are introduced to her competing emotions. Joy is relentlessly positive and happy to ignore anything that might get Riley down. Sadness, a drip of a figure, is bummed out about the past and what might be around the corner; the killjoy of the brain. Disgust, Anger and Fear are all bouncing around also, competing with Joy and Sadness in directing Riley’s emotions. In a moment of frustration, Joy and Sadness become lost in the memories of Riley. Within the brain, They fight to get back to balance out Riley’s emotions while Riley, upset about the move to San Francisco, is slowly becoming isolated and angry.

In schools across the world, the five characters, three years after the film was released, are plastered on walls. It is a way that teachers explain to children how their emotions are running amok from time to time. Acknowlwedging and facing these feelings head on is vital in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. From Bing-Bong to the creation of dreams, it’s hilarious too. To be so profound and entertaining is a fine-line, but Inside Out manages it. Repeated viewings only reveal more clever in-jokes that show how thoroughly researched the film has been. A particular favourite is the box of facts and opinions: “oh no, these facts and opinions are so similar!”, to which Bing-bong replies “ah, don’t worry about it, happens all the time.”. In one minor joke, truths buried within. A perfect film.

1) Wall. E

When watching Wall-E, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey comes to mind. Perhaps it is only in the corrupt artificial intelligence or the non-dialogue opening twenty-minutes, but there is something deeper at work in Wall-E. At its core, Wall-E is a love story, but considering the relationship is between two robots of differing status and make a clear distinction between the old and the new, Wall-E seems to constantly explore these contrasts and relationships in its galaxy-spanning story.

Wall-E has one job: to clear up rubbish. After the citizens of earth have all departed, Wall-E, running on solar power, continues to clear up the mess we left behind. In small, compact cubes, our material possessions are stacked and stored in vast skyscrapers across a barren cityscape. Wall-E finds beauty among our waste in the footage from an old VHS of Hello, Dolly!, a rubiks cube and a spork. Unexpectedly, another robot lands on Earth in the guise of Apple-smooth technology, and named EVE. Wall-E falls for her deeply and his desire to be with her takes him away from Earth and to the spaceship, Axiom, where the utopia the humans dreamed of has not been as successful as other hoped.

A unique property, Wall-E is unexpectedly ambitious. This is about planet Earth and what we, as a species, are doing to it day by day. Released in 2008, climate change and our impact on the planet were at the forefront of political agendas and on the cover of newspapers across the world. In child-friendly terminology, and via the accessibility of cinema, Wall-E reveals the wider picture in the background of an adorable growing relationship. Of course, let’s not forget: Wall-E and Eve, truly, are the sweetest couple. In fact, when you compare the couples from all of Pixar’s films (and there aren’t many – Carl and Ellie in Up; Mike Wazowski and Celia in Monsters Inc; Buzz and Jesse in Toy Story 3), it is surely the most romantic, reducing you to tears when they skim through the sky via fire extinguishers and set to the magnificent score by Thomas Newman.

Wall-E has limited dialogue and yet still takes us on a journey which, on one level is personal, while on another it encompasses all of humanity. There is hope at the end, and it is not without cost, but Wall-E will never have a sequel to continue the story (the future plays out in cartoon form against the credits, with an art history intelligence unlike anything you’ve ever seen) and relies solely on our own sense of self, and what we anticipate for the future. Wall-E shows us what is important, with automated machines as the most human of us all. Deeply ambitious and requiring an enormous risk on Pixar’s part, Wall-E is the peak of Pixar and, though many have come close, few will retain the scale and beauty of Wall-E.

What is your Pixar running order? Let us know!

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