In the past two decades, computer animation studio Pixar has captivated audiences all over the world with an abundance of original stories, unforgettable characters, unique settings, and complex emotions. Pixar makes films that aren’t just great animated films, but great films period. So ranking them is damn near impossible. Obviously, I’ve done it anyway.
There’s no way you’re going to agree with all of my rankings, so tell me—politely, if you can stand it—how you’d rank them in the comments!
19) The Good Dinosaur
Calling something “The worst Pixar movie” is like “the worst rainbow.” Even a bad one is still pretty good. And so it goes for The Good Dinosaur, a film about a dinosaur who befriends a young boy on his way home to find his family. As visually gorgeous as the film is, the story is equally bland. More egregiously, the fact the dinosaur is the lead character adds nothing; the film could have just as easily been about a boy with a pet dinosaur instead of the other way around. The whole movie plays it way too safe. So, despite a few good moments, it’s still Pixar’s biggest, blandest stumble.
18) A Bug’s Life
A Bug’s Life, also known as “Pixar Made That?”, also isn’t a bad movie. In fact, the kind of Seven Samurai story of ragtag bugs defending their home is ultimately pretty charming. The issue with the film is it’s a Pixar movie, and stacked up against these other Pixar movies, A Bug’s Life is simply not as memorable or emotionally stirring. It’s good, and there are some funny, unique characters throughout. The film is just missing that unique Pixar magic. If it were made by any other animation studio, this would be one of its best movies. But since it’s made by Pixar, you forget it almost instantly.
17) Cars 2
Like A Bug’s Life, Cars 2 is missing that Pixar magic. That’s because it’s basically a straight-up spy action film, just with the characters from the Cars universe. And while The Good Dinosaur and A Bug’s Life have heart, an element Cars 2 is certainly lacking, there’s still something exciting about seeing a globe-trotting, car chase action movie starring cars. Really, it’s like a Cars TV special that somehow accidentally got on the big screen.
If the first half of Brave was the entire movie, it would be among Pixar’s best. The story of Merida, a young warrior princess who has no desire to be normal, is empowering and thrilling, but... that’s not really what the movie is about. Actually, the movie becomes less about Merida fighting the status quo and more about her bonding with her mother, who has been turned into a bear. If the bear part of Brave was the whole movie, it would be at the very bottom of this list, because it’s much too slapsticky and so tonally jarring. But since that first part is so damn good, Brave gets a slight bump up.
15) Cars 3
Cars 3 was released only a few months ago, but nothing much about it has stuck. That, itself, is a mark against the film. But the sentiment of the film remains a bold one. Pixar took a hugely expensive animated franchise and turned it into a story about growing old and passing the torch through franchise protagonist Lightning McQueen. It’s a story older people can connect and relate to; kids, however, probably don’t have a fear of getting old and becoming irrelevant just yet. Exploring that in a Pixar movie was a surprising choice, and an admirable one. But beyond its subject matter, there’s little else to say about Cars 3.
Yep, more Cars. The first movie has the best elements from its two sequels: lots of action, but it’s also pensive and nostalgic. It’s about living life in the fast lane and realizing that slowing things down from time to time is the key to true happiness. The Cars franchise gets a lot of crap—and obviously, it’s the weakest of Pixar’s franchises—but this is a charming, fun, free-flowing first movie that works on several levels.
13) Monsters University
Personally, I love Monsters University. Pixar’s prequel, which is basically Revenge of the Nerds for kids, is a hell of a lot of fun with a great twist. However, it’s a follow-up, so it loses a few places there, and the fact that it is so influenced by college comedies of the ‘80s and ‘90s often makes it feel clichéd. By the end, it rises above that, ultimately giving a surprisingly realistic message that not all dreams are attainable—but at its core, Monsters University is just more of what made the original good in the first place.
12) Finding Dory
Finding Dory is kind of the platonic ideal of Pixar movies. The film has everything that Pixar does so well: huge adventure, moments that make you cry, massive surprises. For me, there is very little that doesn’t work in the film. Lots of people dislike it, though, because it’s so unsurprising—if you know Pixar films, you inherently know everything that’s going to happen in Dory. Without the originality that marks Pixar’s best works, it has to be ranked below the films that paved its way.
Pixar’s latest film nearly cracks the top 10. Where Dory did everything Pixar does well in a mostly expected way, Coco is the opposite. It’s always surprising you. The music-driven story of a young boy going to the Land of the Dead is vibrantly colorful, thematically dark, and culturally significant. Oddly, Coco might also be Pixar’s most disturbing film, but that’s just one of its many levels. Coco is truly a wonderful movie.
10) Inside Out
Inside Out is a journey through the mind of an 11-year-old girl, with its main characters being the personifications of her emotions. Through them, Pixar tells a universal story of discovery, maturity, and compassion. It’s also incredibly funny, super-surprising, and will likely make you cry your eyes out multiple times. In a way, it’s fitting that one of Pixar’s most original movies is about an active, growing mind, because so many of their films come from the same place.
9) Toy Story 2
Personally, Toy Story 2 is my favorite Toy Story film. But, at the same time, I also understand why it’s slightly less beloved than the other two. (Spoiler: The other two are coming up.) What makes Toy Story 2 great, is how out of the box—quite literally at times—the story is. Instead of being a story about the toys and their owner, it’s about what happens to toys themselves when they become collectible and vintage, a transformation used to strengthen the bonds between the iconic, established, and most beloved characters. But it’s especially poignant and cool if you are someone who loves nostalgia and collecting, like me.
Up is like the super amazing version of Brave. While Brave is half amazing and half so-so, Up is mostly an amazing movie with an undisputed masterpiece as its beginning. The first 12 minutes of Up might be the best thing Pixar has done. It’s the heartwarming, then heartbreaking tale, of Carl and his wife Ellie meeting as kids, falling in love, growing old together, and her ultimately passing away, told almost totally without words—and it happens before the story even really starts. The main story itself is about Carl flying his house to South America and saving an endangered species. Which is great, and the movie ends up being quite sweet and delightful. But that first sequence alone makes it one of Pixar’s best.
“So there’s a rat who cooks and he uses a human as a puppet to become the best chef in France” is not a movie idea that sounds like it should work. But Pixar pulled it off with Ratatouille, not just one of the most original movies the studio has done, but also a charming love letter to life, culture, and cuisine. Thanks to its sumptuous visuals and music, the whole movie is just kind of... well, delicious. Its story, about finding your place in the world and achieving your dreams even in the most unlikely of circumstances, is universal. Ratatouille is a movie that sometimes gets forgotten in the mix of great Pixar movies, but it shouldn’t.
6) Monsters Inc.
There are a million reasons why Monsters Inc. is so extraordinary. The characters are excellent, the setting is wonderful, and the music and visuals are both top-notch. But like most Pixar movies, the idea is what really stands out. In the case of Monsters Inc., Pixar took the primal fear children have of things lurking in the dark and made it logical, basing an entire hidden world around it. It’s a flat-out genius idea for a movie that’s matched by its expert execution.
5) Toy Story
It’s hard to overstate how important the original, 1995 Toy Story is—not just to Pixar, but to cinema and history in general. It was the first feature-length, computer animated film, both creating and pioneering the medium. Even if it weren’t a drum-tight film that set the bar for Pixar’s formula in the years to come, using high-end technology to create emotion and excitement, its cinematic significance would put it near to top of this list. There’s a reason that most people involved in making the movie have gone on to mega success—and why Woody and Buzz Lightyear became two of the most recognizable characters ever.
4) Toy Story 3
And yet, when you talk about Toy Story films, few would disagree with the sentiment that Toy Story 3 is the best of the bunch. It simply does everything better in a franchise that had already done everything well. It manages to tell a unique, incredibly moving story while building upon and masterfully wrapping up the entire trilogy. You’re made of stone if you don’t cry when Andy, the boy the toys have been with for almost 20 years, gives his prized possessions away to Bonnie in one of the best animated sequences in history. Before Toy Story 3 came out, some people wondered how a new installment could be anything more than a cash-grab. After it came out, no one can imagine the franchise without it.
3) Finding Nemo
Finding Nemo was Pixar’s fifth film, released in 2003, a few months after Monsters Inc., and it set a new bar for the studio. The jaw-dropping visuals, the massive scope, the unforgettable characters, the shocking surprises, the hugely emotional moments—Finding Nemo has it all in an astonishingly well-wrapped package. It’s everything a movie should be... and yet, Pixar has done even better.
2) The Incredibles
There’s one word that describes The Incredibles; I’ll give you three guesses, and none of them count because the answer is obviously “incredible.” Again, the story is king. Here it’s a world of persecuted superheroes and a superhero family dealing with those implications by forcing themselves to hide who they are. Plus, The Incredibles was Pixar’s first film to star human beings. While the others films allowed audiences to project their feelings onto lovable creatures, seeing and relating to real (but still immensely lovable) people changes everything. Then, of course, there’s its subversion of the superhero genre, its dissection of comic book tropes—and so many other things going on, too. But ultimately, The Incredibles is about family, and that gives it its own superpower.
If Finding Nemo is where Pixar finally hit their stride, Wall-E is where it shot to the moon. Wall-E is a film that, again, has everything the greatest Pixar movies have, but it’s also stunningly bold. It’s legendarily cinematic. It’s a film that has no fear of being something bigger, and something wholly unique. It dares to go without dialogue for massive chunks of time. This is a kids movie. Released by Walt Disney. It shares more in common with the great silent comedies of actors like Charlie Chaplin than those of its parent company, and yet it’s still so much more than that. Wall-E is a movie about humanity, the environment, the future, and real-life issues people struggle with on a daily basis—and its messages are delivered organically through a tiny little robot. Truly, Wall-E is almost unspeakably good. It’s not just Pixar’s masterpiece, but one of the greatest films of all time, period.