It’s hard to believe, but Pixar, the once upon a time upstart animation outfit, is now 25 years old. A quarter of a century of way above average entertainment from John Lasseter and his cadre of creative and kooky cohorts.
“We make the kind of movies we want to see,” said Lasseter. “But I also believe what Walt Disney said: ‘For every laugh there should be a tear.'”
With their 12th film, Cars 2, opening nation wide today, it’s time to reflect on their significant contribution to the world of cinema and rank the first 11, top to bottom. A lotta laughs and more than a few tears.
1 Toy Story (1995) Randy Newman’s Oscar-winning song “You’ve Got a Friend” says it all. ‘Andy’ and his favorite toy ‘Woody.’ ‘Woody’ and his rival turned best pal ‘Buzz Lightyear.’ ‘Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head.’ Such memorable characters, naive but brave, all going to bat for each other when the chips are down. With Toy Story, John Lasseter and Pixar firmly announced they were a force to be reckoned with – to infinity and beyond.
2 The Incredibles (2004) An aesthetic masterpiece. From the impeccable art design of the 1960s style metropolis to the lush James Bond-esque jungle of the evil mastermind’s secluded island, this film (directed by Brad Bird) is a treat for the eyes. Much like the brilliant Mad Men, you can freeze frame The Incredibles at random and just sit and stare at the animated composition. The themes of family unity and recapturing one’s mojo are also heroically realized. Personally, I think most dads saw a lot of themselves in ‘Mr. Incredible.’
3 Ratatouille (2007) Both a celebration of food and a testament to perseverance beyond circumstances. All the characters are rich, the concept of creativity in the kitchen sublime; but the moment the food critic bites into ‘Remy’s’ ratatouille and is transported back to his childhood is one of those magical movie moments. This was another sterling effort from director Brad Bird. I’ve watched Ratatouille several times and it gets better with each bite.
4 Toy Story 3 (2010) I wasn’t sure if maybe too much time had passed between the first two and this one, afraid maybe the magic would be gone. Au contraire. The script was smart, the characters slightly evolved but just as loveable, and immediately I was enlisted in their new adventure. ‘Woody’ (Tom Hanks) and ‘Buzz’ (Tim Allen) are cinematic buddies for the ages. Toy Story grossed $358m. Toy Story 2 grossed $486m. Toy Story 3 grossed $1 billion. Staggering. Way to go, Pixar.
5 Finding Nemo (2003) What’s not to like? The voices were perfect (Albert Brooks, Willem Dafoe, Geoffrey Rush, and of course Ellen Degeneres), the story simple and sweet, the animation fresh and full of surprises. One of those “great for all ages” movie experiences. Much like last year’s Disney hit Tangled, the quest to reunite a child with his parents is can’t-miss heart tuggery. Finding Nemo has grossed $865 million world-wide.
6 A Bug’s Life (1998) For any kid who ever wondered what the world must look like from down there in the grass, amongst the weeds and flowers and rocks – and chewing gum! A Bug’s Life was a real treat. The stakes were high for ‘Flik,’ the unpopular inventor ant, who scrambles to find a way to fend off the grasshoppers threatening his very existence. The circus troupe he enlists come through against all odd – it all worked. Lasseter scored again.
7 Wall-E ((2008) I know I am supposed to probably rank this one higher, but…it just didn’t have enough story for me to grab on to. As a commentary on the slippery slope of mass consumption, it’s pretty chilling. As a post-Armageddon piece on survival it’s relentlessly inspired. As a love story? It actually works. Was I left feeling optimistic about mankind’s chances of survival? Lasseter handed this one off to his disciple, director Andrew Stanton. Wonder what might have become of the narrative tone had he not. Hmmmmm.
8 Up (2009) Again, probably supposed to rank it higher. Obviously, a real tug at the old heart strings here. The super sweet love story set up between ‘Carl’ and ‘Ellie’ and the montage of their life together struck a nerve with movie audiences around the world ($727m!). And, for those of us who grew up on Mary Tyler Moore, how great was it to have ‘Lou Grant’ back (Ed Asner, voice of ‘Carl’)? But much like Wall-E, the overall tone of Up is less optimistic – less, dare I say, uplifting – than what we had come to expect from Pixar. Again, Lasseter did not direct. Pete Docter made his debut with Monster’s, Inc. and returns with the sophisticated but dour Up. Impressive for sure. But no Toy Story.
9 Toy Story 2 (1999) ‘Jessie the Yodeling Cowgirl’ and ‘Stinky Pete the Prospecter’ (Joan Cusack and Kelsey Grammer) were outstanding additions to the toy world – a world suddenly made more menacing by a wicked sloth of a toy collector. Another excellent premise from Lasseter. Another excellent adventure for ‘Woody’ and ‘Buzz Lightyear.’
10 Monster’s Inc. (2001) Are there really monsters under the bed? In the closets? What child isn’t subjected to those phobias? Fun premise. John Goodman as the big furry lug ‘Sully’ and Billy Crystal as his wise guy Cyclops sidekick ‘Mike Wazowski’ are fun together. Why is it not all that memorable? Neither was Where the Wild Things Are. Maybe monsters are better off left in the closet. And maybe Pixar is at its best when Lasseter holds the reins.
11 Cars (2006) Must admit I was not all that pumped to learn a sequel was on the way. Cars was easily my least favorite effort from the Pixar posse. Owen Wilson is always fun to listen to and Paul Newman was a stroke of genius, but cars as characters just didn’t hold my attention. But wait, Lasseter did direct this one. Nobody’s perfect.