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Pixar’s 25th film, the joyous and jittery Turning Red, is now ready for all to see, exclusively on Disney+ here in America. And with the acclaimed animation studio’s latest entry comes the need to look back at the company’s (near) 30 years of storytelling and pluck out the best of the best. What are the best Pixar movies? Read on…
From living toys to missing fish to rats with culinary expertise, Pixar’s 25-film run (so far) is unparalleled, delivering iconic animated characters, thrilling adventures, and moments that instantly melt your heart. Though its last three films have been relegated to streaming only (with few theatrical exceptions in New York and L.A.), the studio will return to multiplexes this summer with Lightyear, a spinoff of the Toy Story franchise. But Turning Red, like Luca and Soul before it, prove that you don’t need a big screen to showcase big emotions.
We’re taking it all in here. All the Cars, Monsters, Bugs, Toys, Incredibles, and more so that we can properly rank Pixar’s full catalogue. Agree? Disagree? Don’t care because there are more important things in life? We got you. Check out our ranking of the Pixar movies, from least-good to cinematic bliss…
Pixar’s Movies: Worst to Best
25. Cars 3
As the second Pixar franchise to get a third movie, Cars is a great example of the more traditional disconnect between kids and grownups when it comes to blockbuster animation. Cars is a merchandise cash cow, but it’s also the studio’s brand that’s left the most older viewers cold. Cars 3 goes the Rocky Balboa comeback route for a more internalized story about Lightning McQueen’s doubt and fear when pitted against a younger, faster generation of racers. Generally, Cars 3 is lauded for being the deepest, most introspective entry of the three, with the consensus being that it’s the Cars flick most aimed at adult Pixar fans. Still, Cars 3 came about at a time when viewers wanted either new Pixar products and/or sequels to better Pixar movies.
24. Cars 2
Cars 2 benefits from cherry-picking the best elements of the first Cars movie and switching genres completely by taking Lightning McQueen and Mater out of Radiator Springs and dropping them into the middle of a fast-paced, dynamic spy flick. What’s lost here, for the most part, is the warmth and heart that we adore, and expect, from most Pixar offerings.
Cars 2 is also a darker film where several car characters do meet an untimely, and sometimes gruesome, end. But the fast pacing works in the film’s favor, as the slightly morbid moments flicker in and out as quickly as race car laps. Cars 2 isn’t the usual intimate magical experience you expect from Pixar fare, but it’s still a high-octane adventure the burns fast and furious.
23. Finding Dory
After a half decade of mostly sequels, and two originals that fell short of expectations, Finding Dory brings back friends-not-food Marlin, Nemo, and Dory for another undersea adventure – this time about tracking down short term memory-challenged Dory as she searches for her long lost parents. With Ed O’Neill, Idris Elba, Dominic West, and Sigourney Weaver adding their voices to the odyssey, Finding Dory manages to be visually impressive and disarmingly charming though it still can’t shake off the unnecessary sequel vibe given that it doesn’t improve on the classic first film and it came during a Pixar era of commercially-driven “sameness.”
22. Monsters University
Monsters University is Pixar’s take on a college movie, with Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) reintroduced as freshmen at MU, both with dreams of making it as a “scarer.” It doesn’t have the emotional weight of the first one (Boo, you are missed), but Monsters University is still a fun and funny movie in its own right. Pixar’s biggest obstacle at this point was their own track record as so many of their films had been so emotional that a certain standard had been set. Pixar, however, uses animation to tell all sorts of stories and not all of them have to make you weep to be worthwhile. We all like a good comedy too, right?
21. The Good Dinosaur
The Good Dinosaur, considered by some to be Pixar’s biggest “soft miss” from the previous decade, takes on a big “what if?” Asking people to imagine what would happen if the dinosaurs never went extinct, this movie follows a young dino named Arlo who gets swept away from his family and has to journey through the great unknown to get home. The film is one of the most visually stunning projects Pixar has ever created, but it retreads some familiar Pixar tropes and, on top of that, its troubled production shows.
There are some great emotional moments as Arlo and his “pet” human Spot grow closer, and The Good Dinosaur proves that Pixar excels at showing instead of telling. Even when the film does hit story points that feel familiar, it does them well and in a way that children can comprehend — even if it does get a bit scary for its target young audience sometimes.
The first Pixar film to follow a female protagonist (the arrow-shooting princess Merida), the first one to be set in the past (medieval Scotland), and their 13th film to open at No. 1, Brave wisely forsakes the well-worn relationships of other animated fairy tales — the wicked stepmother/stepdaughter dynamic or father/daughter bond or the princess and prince romance — in favor of the more complicated, yet loving bond between a headstrong mother and her equally stubborn daughter. And yet despite that smart choice, Brave still never quite transcends. It’s a technical marvel (Merida’s wild curls, the misty Highlands, immersive 3D), but it’s ultimately seen as a lesser effort from a studio known for breaking new ground.
It should come as no surprise that 2006’s Cars is near the bottom of this list, as it and its sequels are the least loved of all the Pixar films and yet, as we noted above, when it comes to Pixar, the worst is still usually pretty dang good. John Lasseter’s odd love letter to “the Mother Road” Route 66 tells the tale of Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), a rookie racecar who learns that winning isn’t everything. The film, while still clever and endearing, gets a bit bogged down in open road romanticism and those stretches of story ultimately hurt the final product.
Onward, which had its theatrical run short-sheeted by the onset of the pandemic (which, in turn led to Soul’s streaming release), combined a high concept realm — that of a land of fairy tales and fantasy updated for modern times — with a off-kilter magical adventure featuring only half a dad being brought back to life for 24 hours, and delivered an unexpectedly poignant look at loneliness and loss. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt headline as two elf brothers on an ’80s Amblin-style quest in this clever, vibrant family fable.
17. Turning Red
Turning Red, which is still fresh off the presses and will most likely rank higher in the years to come, is an awesomely anxious coming-of-age story about a 13-year-old Chinese-Canadian girl, Mei, living in Toronto whose plan to keep her boy band fanaticism secret from her perfectionist mother goes awry when a magical family tradition starts turning her into a giant, floofy red panda whenever she experiences — you know — any strong feelings about anything. A clever knockout, Turning Red captures the wild energy of adolescence, uses pop stars as a timeless window into puberty, and tells a tale of friendship and family in the most delightful way.
2021’s Luca felt like a return to classic Pixar in terms of defying labels and providing a unique vibe. Retro-set on the 1950s Italian Riviera, and with a soundtrack full of toe-tapping Italian tunes, this sun-drenched story features two young sea creatures, longing for a life of land exploration, who disguise themselves as humans in a small town and wind up competing for a Vespa in the local Portorosso Cup. After befriending local outcast Giulia (Emma Berman), the trio form a bond that bridges worlds and opens up endless possibilities. Luca has smaller stakes than some other Pixar films but its heart is just as mighty.
Soul goes about as big as you can get for a Pixar film, exploring the afterlife in the same way WALL-E explores the future, Monster, Inc. delves into the scream industry, and Coco travels into — okay — also the afterlife. Soul’s version of the hereafter, however, is more utilitarian, with a vaporwave art vibe and music provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, while the real world is marvelous and unpredictable (with jazz provided by Jon Batiste). Telling the story of a pianist who meets an untimely demise (Jamie Foxx), and who’s desperate to join the land of the living again so he can do the one thing he thinks will make his life meaningful, Soul ambushes us with harsh relatability. Tina Fey lends her voice to the other half of this mismatched duo, as a stubborn unborn soul refusing to enter the world. Soul makes no bones about how big its themes are, tackling the meaning of life and the time-honored debate between Team Journey and Team Destination.
14. Incredibles 2
And the longest time between movies in a Pixar franchise goes tooooo…The Incredibles, which finally dropped a sequel 14 years after the awesome original. Outside of the Toy Story saga, this was the sequel fans had been clamoring for the most and eventually, yes, writer/director Brad Bird returned to gift us with another glimpse into the lives of the superpowered Parr family. This fantastic follow-up takes place right after the end of the first film (a privilege animation provides) and spins the saga off into a “Mr. Mom”-style caper involving Mr. Incredible staying at home with baby Jack-Jack and Elastigirl becoming the standout superhero of the homestead. It might not top the 2004 movie but it admirably switches things up and gives us an exciting new story instead of repeating the beats of the past.
Pixar’s second film, A Bug’s Life, was a take on the old Ant and the Grasshopper parable mixed with Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. A great sophomore effort for the young company, A Bug’s Life didn’t quite match the magic of Toy Story but it still was crucial in helping define and refine the Pixar formula: a mix of kid-friendly comedy, adult-friendly knowingness and nostalgia, and state-of-the-art computer animation. In A Bug’s Life, Dave Foley plays Flik, an outcast ant who, after his colony is threatened by villainous grasshoppers, recruits a bunch of other loner insects — well, actually they’re just circus performers who are out of work. But they are, of course, up to the task.
12. Toy Story 4
Toy Story 4 gently suffers from the sentiment that it’s a bit of a “hat on a hat,” as Toy Story 3 feels like both a pinnacle for the series and a natural, satisfying ending to the story. It’s also the Toy Story entry fans hold the least regard for, but as you can see the “worst” Toy Story film still easily and snugly fits in Pixar’s top half. And it ultimately may not even be the final Toy Story chapter.
In the franchise’s fourth entry, Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the toy team (including a newly repurposed spork named Forky) head out on a road trip with Bonnie’s family where they’re unexpectedly reunited with Bo Peep, who’s enjoying her freedom as a “lost toy.” Toy Story 4 stays true to all the magical hallmarks of the series while, once again, providing a fitting end.
Directed by Brad Bird (The Incredibles), who was already beloved by animation aficionados for The Iron Giant prior to joining Pixar, the truly wonderful Ratatouille takes us into the heart of Parisian cuisine through the lens of a creature we don’t usually associate with having a refined palate – the rat. Yes, Remy the Rat dreams of becoming a chef and tries to achieve his goal by forming an alliance with a fancy restaurant’s garbage boy, Alfredo Linguini, controlling the lad’s kitchen skills by hiding under his hat. Ratatouille is a unique slice of animation that strikes deep notes of recognition across many kinds of moviegoers, be they discriminating foodies, fans of animation, or just everyday folks expecting to be entertained. It’s a seven-course meal that delivers hilarious antics and unbridled joy.
10. Toy Story 2
The law of averages suggests that Toy Story 2 shouldn’t be as good as it is, just from a sequel standpoint, but it brilliantly expands upon the original Toy Story adventure in just about every way. The story of Woody’s abduction by a toy collector (Wayne Knight) and the attempt by his pals to save him is truly exceptional stuff. Here Woody is faced with a serious choice between living forever — hermetically sealed as a collector’s item — or going back to his friends and the boy who loves him and facing the prospect of getting torn apart at any moment, as a boy’s toys tend to be. Live life or watch from the sidelines? What would Woody do? Quite simply, it’s a tour de force of talking toy cinema.
Up proves its power within the first 10 minutes. With just a few lines of dialogue, an opening montage introduces us to the main character, Carl, and shows us the story of his life and love with Ellie – from their meeting as children, to their marriage, to their inability to have children of their own, to Ellie’s passing. Those last two elements tell you all you need to know about a film where Pixar once again proves it doesn’t shy away from truly emotional, powerful material.
The adventure that follows for Carl and the young boy, Russell, who inadvertently tags along is certainly fanciful – Carl gets an entire house to fly using balloons! – yet infused with an incredible amount of pathos and meaning, as we watch Carl oh so literally carry his burden on his back, as he physically drags that floating house through the jungle, determined to bring it to the place he and Ellie dreamed about. Funny, exciting and touching, Up is a beautiful film – and the second animated movie to ever receive a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars.
8. Finding Nemo
Finding Nemo, from 2003, features some of the most widely recognized characters from a Pixar picture aside from the original Toy Story troupe. The film’s story of an overprotective father who is separated from his son instantly preys upon any parent’s deepest fears, and yet the film is never manipulative or calculating in its storytelling methods. From the breathtaking design of the deep-sea world to the spot-on performances by Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, and more, Finding Nemo is a hilarious, thrilling and even spiritual adventure that represents the apex of Pixar’s storytelling abilities. It was a blockbuster for the studio, an astounding achievement in animation, and a game-changer for kids’ movies.
7. Monsters, Inc.
In 2001, Pixar unleashed a rollicking workplace comedy about kindly, chatty “joe schmoe” monsters and the utility company they work for in the land of Monstropolis. Starring John Goodman as Sulley and Billy Crystal as Mike, a couple of working-class creatures, Monsters, Inc. takes what seems like an insane premise and makes it relatable by having these so-called monsters act like working stiffs. Monsters! They’re just like us!
With Benny Goodman-style jazz and comedic banter befitting an SNL sketch, Monsters, Inc transforms from a simple clock-punching parable into a quest to save a little girl and a mission to unravel a conspiracy. It stealthily starts as a somewhat thin-yet-amusing sitcom and finishes as one of Pixar’s finest heart-tugging outings.
2017’s Coco is easily regarded as one of Pixar’s most emotional endeavors. A monumentally gorgeous tear-jerker, Coco follows a 12-year-old Mexican boy named Miguel who is accidentally transported to the Land of the Dead where he seeks the help of his deceased musician great-great-grandfather. It’s a soaring supernatural quest that explores familial themes, identity, and learning what it means to grow up in a world that isn’t perfect. Pixar was culturally conscious when developing this marvelously Mexican story, turning to an array of outside Latino consultants to vet ideas and suggest new ones (upending a long-running studio tradition of strict creative lockdown). Coco is an uplifting revelation and one of the company’s crowning efforts.
5. Inside Out
True to its concept, Inside Out is Pixar’s emotional roller coaster, offering up what is probably the best depiction ever of how the human body’s memory and emotions work. Shining a spotlight inside the mind of an 11-year-old girl coping with the first big change in her life — her family moving to a new, unfamiliar city — Inside Out characterizes the five emotions that run a person’s inner “Headquarters” to take viewers on a visually inventive adventure.
Following both young Riley on the outside and her feelings on the inside — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, Disgust — Inside Out is a thoughtful, caring film without going overboard, and a hilarious, quirky romp without losing its edge. It’s at once very surreal and very human, simplifying our brains while also presenting our lives as complicated. RIP Bing Bong.
4. Toy Story
When the first Pixar feature was released in 1995, a new age dawned for animated films. Not just because of its computer-generated animation but because of the superb storytelling. Toy Story was technically at the top of its game while also illustrating some very familiar thematic throughlines that included the rivalry between Tom Hanks’ wooden cowboy and Tim Allen’s space-age action figure, the buddy comedy, the fear that we all have of becoming obsolete, and of course the very idea of toys having a life of their own. The result was a huge success that took age-old tropes and made them fresh and new again — and created the cinematic mega-beast known as Pixar along the way.
You will believe a robot can fall in love! With WALL-E, Pixar began to flirt with a slightly experimental edge to its filmmaking, delivering a first act that’s almost entirely dialogue-free and creating whimsey and mirth in the garbage-covered ruins of Earth. It’s honestly the most adorable dystopia ever.
At the heart of most Pixar films is the theme of isolation. WALL-E, one of the animation studio’s top-tier achievements, is a breathtaking meditation on loneliness and the re-enforcement that every sentient creature contains an unbeatable desire to connect with someone else. Pixar has a way of creating fantastic creatures and characters who tug violently on all our heartstrings. And all WALL-E wanted to do was hold someone else’s hand like he’d seen in the musical Hello, Dolly. Post-trashpocalypse world be damned! WALL-E is lush, phenomenal sci-fi like no other. This is skewering satire mixed with a lovable, relatable search for companionship.
2. Toy Story 3
Leave it to Pixar to make the best (temporary) threequel ever. The story of Andy moving on to college — leaving Woody and Buzz and the gang dealing with a great, understated villain in Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear at the new daycare center home — is the most fun of the Toy Story films. It works as a drama, a comedy and an action film — a terrific trifecta! It’s a beautiful, vibrant story about memories, the passing of time, and how you treat the people in your life.
As with everything Pixar does, the attention to detail here is incredible. The split-imagery within the daycare/Alcatraz is great. How the slide in the playground becomes a watchtower at night. How the bead mazes double as razor wire. How marker smudges become prison tats. The level of detail, in things like Woody’s rounded-down hairline, is astounding. So many moments — character moments, mind you — cross over into “great” or “perfect” status, and the last 15 minutes are some of the strongest work the studio has ever done.
1. The Incredibles
Prior to the MCU, back when only Spider-Man, Batman, and X-Men ruled the superhero box office roost, director Brad Bird gave us, in a way, a better Fantastic Four movie than the live-action one we’d get a year later. The Incredibles, now almost 20 years later, is still regarded as one of the best superhero movies of all time.
The story of retired heroes Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) and Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), as well as their super children Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack, The Incredibles takes Bird’s love of old-school comic-book conventions that was evident in The Iron Giant and mashes it with commentary about American nuclear family. Bird brought a new and different voice to the Pixar world. The Incredibles is less cute and more biting, introducing a few more sinister and violent elements to the studio’s usual product, though it’s never not a family story centered around issues that most families face. Brilliantly designed, perfectly paced, and next-level exciting, The Incredibles grabs hold and never lets go.
Note: This article originally ran on May 2, 2017. It was updated on March 28, 2022.