Welcome to Dissected, where we disassemble a band’s catalog, a director’s filmography, or some other critical pop-culture collection in the abstract. It’s exact science by way of a few beers. This time, we engage in an animated rundown of all 21 Pixar films.
Nearly 25 years ago, Toy Story heralded the arrival of a new force in studio animation. Pixar was sustained by Disney, but they sure weren’t making movies that felt like your traditional Disney movies. The studio prioritized imagination and creativity over all else, making sure that the movies they made wouldn’t just be your favorite movies during childhood, but that they could follow you as you aged and even offer you new and different things as you did.
Since 1995, the studio has turned out 21 films, almost all of which are successful to one degree or another and none of which are outright forgettable. They’ve pushed against boundaries, whether related to storytelling or animation or technology, and redefined what a movie made for all ages can and should be. They’ve found magic at the bottom of the ocean, in your childhood bedroom, back in the ages of dinosaurs and Scottish royalty.
They’ve imagined that the monsters under your bed are real and wonderful, that a sewer rat could be a five-star chef, that a working-class bug could make a real difference. They turned two movies about talking cars into a merchandising juggernaut. They made a movie that almost sent some of your most beloved childhood creations into an incinerator and made even the hardest hearts catch some feelings. That they’ve accomplished so much while other studios have attempted to ape their style for years to typically middling returns speaks to just how good Pixar is at what it does.
As their 21st film hits theaters with Toy Story 4, it seems like as good a time as any to dig deeper into what’s made Pixar the juggernaut it is. From the obsessive easter eggs, to the distinct and sometimes iconic color palettes, to the stories told in unforgettable fashion, this is a dissection of what makes modern animation’s foremost powerhouse tick. So come along, get that snake out of your boot, and take a walk through one of the most consistently excellent filmographies of any production house. And let’s remember the friend we’ve had in them, and continue to love.
21. Cars 2 (2011)
Runtime: 1 hr. 46 min.
Pitch: Lightning McQueen is back, as the speedy automobile is goaded into joining an international grand prix to determine who the best racer in the world is, sponsored by an eccentric industrialist promoting his alternative fuel. But the star of the show is Mater, who’s along for the ride but finds himself sucked into a globetrotting espionage adventure, where a case of mistaken identity leads him to join forces with a pair of spies to uncover a conspiracy that threatens his best friend’s life.
Cast: Larry the Cable Guy, Owen Wilson, Michael Caine, Emily Mortimer, John Turturro, Eddie Izzard, Thomas Kretschmann, Joe Mantegna, Peter Jacobson, and Bruce Campbell
All the Colors of the Rainbow: Cars 2 changes up its color palette with each new locale. The scenes set in Tokyo are bathed in neon of all shades; the visit to the Italian Coast is resplendent with ocean blues and coastal greens, and London features a bevy of stormy grays and sharp reds all around the cityscape. The different color schemes distinguish these locations from one another, and contribute to the map-dotting flavor of the film.
Easter Eggs: During the group’s stop in Paris, the restaurant from Ratatouille (appropriately renamed “Gastow’s”) is visible in the background. When McQueen and Sally are out in Radiator Springs, they go past a drive-in theater that’s playing The Incredimobiles, a spoof of Pixar’s superhero flick. And in one of its few, more animated appearances, the Pizza Planet truck shows up as a guest on the Tire Talk TV show.
When Life Hands You Lemons: In one of the film’s nicest small touches, Cars 2’s mafia-influenced villains are primarily “lemons,” i.e. cars that are regularly maligned or laughed at for frequently breaking down. Though a hint of redemption would have been nice, this detail at least gives the film’s jealous antagonists some solid motivation apart from the duller sabotage plot and helps connect their resentment to Mater’s own insecurities. The film does little to capitalize on all of this, but it’s a nice way to unite and distinguish the baddies, rather than simply rendering them as generic henchmen.
It’s All Downhill from Here: The movie’s best scene is its first, and in a move true to Cars 2’s spy thriller influences, it recreates the opening-mission excitement of a Bond film. Watching Finn McMissile (Caine, who seems to put about as much effort into this film as it deserves) skulk around an oil rig and make a daring escape is as enjoyable as Cars 2 gets. That initial bit of fun captures the rhythms of a trademark 007 adventure, and though McMissile’s automotive-based espionage is a bit of a stretch, the film still translates the double-agent tropes to the world of cars fairly well. That opening sequence shows how much more enjoyable this film might have been as a pure genre riff than as a showcase for the prior film’s comic relief.
Analysis: Would you like to spend nearly two hours with Larry the Cable Guy? If so, you might be an eight-year-old, and thus the clear target audience for a movie that feels like a shameless, toy-driven enterprise, rather than a film intended to match the heart and the cleverness of its Pixar brethren. The humor in Cars 2 is extraordinarily broad and pitched at a level below the average fifth grader. Its story is simplistic, without the elegance or hidden depths that can make simplicity a virtue in children’s cinema. Make no mistake. In a franchise fueled by marketing rather than critical success, Cars 2 isn’t even aiming at the cheap seats; it’s aiming at the elementary school auditorium.
With a different protagonist, Cars 2 might have at least been mediocre, rather than an utter slog. Its generic “always be yourself” message is perfectly fine (though not delivered in a particularly novel way), and its around-the-world racing and bumbling-yet-effective spycraft are capably executed, if lacking the usual flair of Pixar’s aesthetic and narrative creativity. But Larry the Cable Guy’s tired shtick drags down every moment he’s in the film, and while most of Cars 2’s lowbrow material at least plays to his strengths, he lacks the range necessary to make the weak attempts at slightly more emotional moments land. Mater is an incessantly annoying albatross around the neck (or chassis) of a film that feels like the Pixar equivalent of the producers of Star Wars asking, “If our last prequel wasn’t as well-received as we might have liked, why don’t we make Jar Jar the star of the next one?” Good riddance.
20. The Good Dinosaur (2015)
Runtime: 1 hr. 41 min.
Pitch: In an alternate timeline where a meteor never hit Earth millions of years ago and caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, an Apatosaurus family tends its farm and braces itself for the oncoming winter. But after one member is tragically lost in a flash flood, Arlo (the runt of the family) is forced far away from home and has to find his way back with the help of a feral human child named Spot.
Cast: Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand, Steve Zahn, Marcus Scribner, Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin, and Jack McGraw
All the Colors of the Rainbow: Whatever one could possibly say about The Good Dinosaur, a cross word about the film’s rich visuals won’t be it. Against a bracingly realistic backdrop of mountains and hills and rivers is Arlo, whose cartoonish features and bright green skin deliberately stick out. This is true for most of the dinosaurs; the orange T-Rexes and bruised-purple pterodactyls Arlo encounters all stand starkly against the film’s naturalistic settings.
Perhaps the best illustration of this divide can be found in the scene when Poppa takes Arlo to the field of fireflies. They’re lit in silhouette by the moon, barely visible against the nighttime forest dark, until the glow of bright, green fireflies lights them and the surrounding sky. These flashes of color make for some of the studio’s more striking recent design work.
Easter Eggs: The Good Dinosaur has one of the studio’s funnier Easter eggs; in that breathtaking opening shot of an asteroid belt, one of the smaller rocks is actually the Pizza Planet truck, presumably from its titular home planet before it ever came to Earth. And the hallucinatory berries Arlo and Spot eat in the forest look a lot like the Luxo ball.
The Production Merry-Go-Round: The iteration of The Good Dinosaur that made it to theaters in late 2015 is a very different film than the one it was when production began. One of its original co-directors departed the project, and a number of actors, including John Lithgow and Neil Patrick Harris, came and went as the film experienced numerous delays.
At one point, the story was to involve a whole dinosaur society and feature Arlo as an outcast within it; only echoes remain of this idea. Rumors surfaced in 2014 that the film had been dramatically overhauled, to the point where much of the voice cast left the project or moved on to other Pixar work, and several Pixar directors had hands in completing it. That might explain the film’s half-dozen story credits.
The Quiet One: Due to the repeated delays, the film had the misfortune of coming out just a few months after Inside Out, and it may be due to the inevitable gap in quality between the two films that The Good Dinosaur became Pixar’s lowest-grossing film both in the US and globally. It almost feels fitting that a movie about an unassuming, gentler kind of Pixar protagonist would quietly come and go.
Analysis: Before getting into any of the narrative stuff, any discussion of The Good Dinosaur must include the acknowledgment that, for all of its production woes, it may be one of Pixar’s most visually accomplished films to date. At least the backgrounds are; drawing on natural influences in the northern and central parts of the US, the studio reassembles an earlier world, one friendlier to natural predators than ours and one that could just as easily have been shot on location. Some of the vistas the film assembles are truly breathtaking.
The same cannot be said for the film as a whole, but that’s for no lack of effort. Long stretches of The Good Dinosaur unfold with little to no dialogue, and it’s a lovely stylistic choice that highlight’s Arlo’s general loneliness in the world, outside of Spot. But where the film aims for understatement and eloquence, Arlo’s various encounters with other dinosaurs and assorted beasts play as so cartoonish that they feel culled from an entirely different movie with a less pensive, delicate tone. Put another way, these scenes make The Good Dinosaur feel like a typical, banter-heavy Disney movie in a way that’s asynchronous with the rest of the film.
The film moves from one familiar studio beat to the next: the menacing pack of wild, taunting animals, the tragic loss of a loved one that informs the protagonist’s growth, the “boy and his dog” relationship between Arlo and Spot. And it’s not that the film is entirely unaffecting; some of its more muted moments land as effectively as they possibly could. But The Good Dinosaur marks a rare instance in which Pixar’s “what if” storytelling doesn’t yield much in the way of satisfying, imagination-expanding answers.
19. Cars (2006)
Runtime: 1 hr. 57 min.
Pitch: A successful, spotlight-chasing race car in a world full of sentient motor vehicles learns the value of slowing down and appreciating the bygone ways of living when he crashes into a Route 66 tourist town abandoned by the forces of progress and populated by salt-of-the-earth types.
Cast: Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Cheech Marin, Tony Shalhoub, John Ratzenberger, Michael Keaton, and George Carlin
All the Colors of the Rainbow: In keeping with its tale of reformation and rebirth, Cars strips its color palette down into earthy browns and beiges when Lightning McQueen finds his way to Radiator Springs, with the occasional splash of faded color for maximum dead-town resonance. It’s a welcome reprieve from the bright, garish style of the film’s first act, its car cities and racing stadiums covered in an aggressive neon gloss. The modern blues and greens leave the car utopia feeling like the Grid in the Tron universe, cut through by Lightning’s apple-red paint job.
Easter Eggs: Cars is full of Pixar Easter eggs, including the key presence of Dinoco (the gas company that owns the local stations in the Toy Story world) as the corporate sponsor Lightning so desperately covets. Also, as the jets fly over the Piston Cup race, Pixar’s animation compound is visible from the air, albeit quickly. The Pizza Planet truck shows up in a parking lot outside of the Piston Cup, and the customary A113 tag can be found on Mater’s license plate.
And since Pixar is forever tied to Apple, they get some nice product placement during one of Lightning’s races, on the hood of a rival car.
The Most Popular Pixar of Them All: Actually, not only is Cars the most popular Pixar movie in terms of its overall merchandising, but it’s actually among the most popular Disney films, period. If that gives you pause, consider how easily the Cars IP can translate across national borders, tap into things little kids love like bright colors and toy cars, and can be custom-fit for virtually any demographic. Cars 2 essentially exists because of this marketability, though, so it’s a double-edged sword.
A Word on Sentient Cars: In short, they’re terrifying.
To elaborate, and accepting that this is a gross over-reading of a generally cute Pixar movie about talking cars, the physiology of any given car in Cars is fascinating. Why do they have tongues? Why, for that matter, do cars salivate? What does it accomplish? What turns food into fuel for them, if they do in fact eat and drink? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. These cars are seemingly capable of feeling everything from rage to desire to love to nostalgia, all traditionally human functions. What god and/or evolutionary process made them this way? If cars are indeed still built in this world, where do they come from? Is it a Near Dark situation where some of them are built/born into the bodies of child cars, but they’re actually substantially aged and have to carry that burden forever? If they’re not built as such, do the cars procreate? Is it as Southland Tales once imagined? This universe leaves a lot of context unexplained, is what we’re saying.
Analysis: Cars is built with the soul of a Norman Rockwell painting, and as such it’s a paean to a kind of Americana that’s become either an ironic punchline or altogether unfashionable as the years have gone by. In at least that respect, it’s well within Pixar’s wheelhouse: Take an easy concept that people naturally disregard, and make it palatable to them in a way they haven’t seen before.
But where so many of their films fully explore the emotional ranges of their worlds, there’s just not the same dramatic heft to Cars. After its cacophonous early minutes full of debatably necessary plot, the film improves considerably when it collides with Radiator Springs; there’s an easy charm to the film’s loping, fish-out-of-water story that works even as it’s cut from a distinctly predictable cloth. It’s one of the studio’s weaker outings as characterization goes, but John Lasseter and Joe Ranft (for better or worse) created a monster with the partnership between the snarky Lightning and the down-home Mater, an empire of toys and childhood fantasies.
In a sense, Cars is an easy target for critics and audiences alike. It’s simple, it sings the praises of small-town life without a hint of irony in its being, it’s quintessentially American Southern in a way few mainstream films (or works of art in general) are, and it’s a movie squarely aimed at children when so much of Pixar’s more well-regarded work aims to bring in all audiences at once. It’s a film to which it’s easy to condescend, but while it’s far from the studio’s most accomplished work, it still has its innate charms. And it’s still the best film in the offshoot franchise it would go on to spawn, which counts for something.
18. Monsters University (2013)
Runtime: 1 hr. 44 min.
Pitch: In this prequel to 2001’s Monsters, Inc., a young Mike Wazowski fights for his chance to become one of the elite Scare Students at Monsters University, a task complicated by his tall, furry, blue rival, Sully. Mike has determination, pluck, and plenty of smarts, but will it be enough to compensate for his lack of inherent scariness?
Cast: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Helen Mirren, Joel Murray, and Steve Buscemi
All the Colors of the Rainbow: Like its predecessor. Monsters University uses color to tell us, pretty much right off the bat, that none of these dudes are particularly scary (powerful roars aside). Here, however, the cotton-candy color palette plays off of a brick-and-ivy feel, lovingly adopting not only the tropes of the college movie, but the look as well. Particularly effective: all the classroom scenes in which Helen Mirren’s Dean Hardscrabble swoops in, removing all the vibrant color from the world — except for that which exists in Mike and Sully’s very being.
Easter Eggs: Well, you know, it’s a prequel, so Goodman, Buscemi, and Crystal are all returning. But there are some familiar voices from outside the realm of the first Monsters: Listen for Peter Sohn, aka Ratatouille’s Emile, as well as the ever-present John Ratzenberger. Oh, and there’s also Nathan Fillon, Aubrey Plaza, Charlie Day, Bobby Moynihan, Dave Foley, Sean Hayes, Alfred Molina, Bill Hader, Bonnie Hunt, John Krasinski…
…Seriously? A Prequel?: Yep. And it totally works. What’s most effective about Monsters University is how unabashedly it sticks to origin stories, from the history of scaring itself to Mike and Sully’s friendship, which while inevitable, seems impossible early in the film. But while Mike and Sully are rightly the focus, and a pack of new characters (particularly the monsters of Oozma Kappa, the fraternity Sully and Mike are forced to join) also command attention, it’s the simplest and briefest of origin stories that’s the most interesting.
Remember Randall? He’s the villain of Monsters Inc., a slithering, often invisible monster voiced with expert sliminess by Steve Buscemi. The film cleverly sets up the identity of Mike’s roommate as something of a non-mystery — clearly, it’s going to be James P. Sullivan — only to suddenly reveal a not-so-scary “Randy,” who Mike instantly befriends. By painting Randy as a friendly, eager, but ambitious guy whose ego gradually overcomes his better qualities, the film paints a much more interesting portrait of a character who was previously a great villain, but not much else.
Hard Lessons: One of the great strengths of Pixar is its refusal to dumb things down for kids, but even by their standards, the lessons of Monsters University can be tough to swallow. Want to follow your dreams? Great. Go for it. But heads up: No matter how hard you work, there are things you’re just never going to be able to do. Yikes. Luckily, the flash through time at the end shows that dreams can come true, albeit in ways you never expected — Mike gets on that scare floor by finding the right places to apply his talents, by helping a friend to harness his own untapped potential, and by accepting that, while he might not be scary, he sure is smart.
Analysis: It’s one of Pixar’s lesser films, to be sure, but Monsters University knows exactly what it’s doing and does it well. All the familiar beats are there — Mike’s childhood as an overlooked nerd, the moment he falls in love with scaring, the chirping orientation leaders at the college directing students to their dorm rooms, the party where the nerds get punked, the mistake that almost ruins his future, the enemy who out of necessity becomes an ally, the training montage, the underdog victory, and so on. It’s by-the-books stuff, but formulas become familiar for a reason: They work.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Pixar movie without subverting some of what’s most familiar. That’s where the Oozma Kappa guys come in. Sure, they learn to embrace who they are, but the means through which they do that are so chaotic, so odd and sometimes uncomfortable — looking at you, Squishy — that the film’s not without surprises. You probably skipped this one. Time to remedy that.
17. Cars 3 (2017)
Pitch: Lightning McQueen is still one of the faces of the Piston Cup, but time is no longer on the active legend’s side. A wave of new, lab-trained supercars led by Jackson Storm has arrived on the scene to quickly dispose of the older generation of racers, and Lightning’s desperate attempts to keep up result in an injury that calls his racing future into question. But with the help of Cruz Ramirez, an energetic young trainer with grand aspirations of her own, Lightning prepares to prove himself yet again, for what might be the last time.
Cast: Owen Wilson, Cristela Alonzo, Armie Hammer, Larry the Cable Guy, Nathan Fillion, Chris Cooper, Lea DeLaria, Paul Newman
All the Colors of the Rainbow: As Pixar’s kid-friendliest series, it stands to reason that Cars 3 would continue the tradition of bright, bold colors. And at times, it does so remarkably, in the sunlit ocean blues of the climactic beachside Florida race and in Lightning’s glossy new paintjob, which somehow makes his signature bright red even brighter. Yet some of the film’s more wistful scenes trade the high-gloss oversaturation for something more muted; the sequences in Thomasville, Doc Hudson’s old stomping grounds, are bathed in the nostalgic browns and understated greens of age and overgrowth, and the Thunder Hollow demolition is covered in muddy blacks, punctuated by bursts of fiery orange.
Easter Eggs: As always, the A113 homage is present, in the form of the office number for Fillion’s oblivious, bottom-line CEO. Otherwise, we’ve only had the chance to enjoy Cars 3 once, so we’re sure we missed some things when it comes to Pixar-based surprises. (For starters, the obligatory reference to another, upcoming movie blew past us at Lightning McQueen speeds.) However, there’s one other familiar easter egg to be found, during the demolition derby sequence: the Pizza Planet truck, one of a host of soon-to-be-doomed competitors.
Newman’s Own: One of the central storylines in Cars 3 is Lightning’s struggle to rediscover his inner champion without the help and support of Doc Hudson, the wizened old racer voiced by Paul Newman in the 2006 original. Newman passed away two years after that film was released, but with the help of some reconstructed voiceover recordings, Pixar manages to give the ol’ Hornet one more final ride. It’s an affecting tribute to one of the great movie stars, and dovetails perfectly with the film’s thoughts about your roots following you wherever life takes you.
The Thrill of the Race: For a franchise solely about living vehicles and their weird tongues and teeth, it took all the way until the third installment for the series to truly base its plot around racing. Of course, this isn’t to say that it hasn’t been touched upon, but the first film spent more time in Radiator Springs imparting lessons about the value of simplicity, and the second was a Bond homage. Cars 3 very specifically focuses on Lightning’s legacy as a racer, as well as Doc Hudson’s, and of the trilogy it’s the film that best captures the exhilaration of bumper-to-bumper competition.
Analysis: It’s not saying much to note that Cars 3 is an immense step up from the second installment, which you’ve already come across at the very bottom of our list. The Cars series is quaint by its very nature, more interested in reviving old thrills and sentiments than in the more ambitious vision of some of Pixar’s best work. Based on this, it’s easy enough to write them off, but what’s curious about Cars 3 is how far the film goes this time around in appealing to parents and older audiences as much as the kids who’ll undoubtedly fall in love with its racing-heavy story of downfall and triumph.
Cars 3 grapples with some weighty material, from Lightning’s struggles to age out of his prime with dignity, to Cruz’s thwarted racing dreams and the implied discrimination that kept her out; the film’s invocations of “I blew my only shot” make an intriguing parallel with so many people who’ve been written off after one failure where others around them were given opportunity after opportunity. Granted, it’s still couched in the pleasant (if sometimes rote) racing and sugary sweetness that’s been the series’ trademark for over 10 years now, but at least Cars 3 tries its best to bridge the gap between the brash new generation and the wiser old one. It’s better than the world’s doing with the same conundrum these days, at least.
16. A Bug’s Life (1998)
Runtime: 1 hr. 35 min.
Pitch: Flik, an underappreciated and inventive ant, and his colony are tired of being oppressed by the bullying and intimidating grasshoppers, so he mistakenly recruits a group of bugs that were cast out from a circus, who he misunderstands to be mighty warriors, to help.
Cast: Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Hayden Panettiere, Phyllis Diller, Richard Kind, John Ratzenberger, David Hyde Pierce, Joe Ranft, Denis Leary, Jonathan Harris, Madeline Kahn, Bonnie Hunt, and Brad Garrett
All the Colors of the Rainbow: As one would imagine, given that this film is on a miniature scale and about the lives of ants and other insects, there are a lot of earth tones at play here. We’re talking tons of greens and browns. Still, color and lighting are taken into consideration when providing visual distinctions between bugs of different classes. The working class is often surrounded by bright greens and browns; the circus bugs come from a poorly lit, grungy, and primarily brown or rust-colored environment; and the evil grasshoppers are often cast within a menacing purple hue, and in their royal chambers, the queen and princess sit under a blue, bioluminescent mushroom.
Easter Eggs: A Bug’s Life is only Pixar’s second film, so it doesn’t have a lot of source material to draw from in terms of company-referencing Easter eggs. It makes a couple nods to Toy Story with the Pizza Planet truck and other Pizza Planet branding, but it also references more traditional Disney intellectual properties, like the Lion King poster seen in the background of Bug City. The circus’ wagon is also made from a Casey Jr. Cookies box, a reference to the sentient train (named Casey Junior) that transports the animals in Dumbo.
John Ratzenberger is of course a part of this movie, and in it, he voices his all-time favorite Pixar character he ever played: circus owner P.T. Flea. He previously said of portraying the energetic insect, “P.T. Flea was just so unpredictable and nuts, and in real life I always get a kick out of those kinds of character, people who just go into a rage for [no] explicable reason. He was always on edge. His blood pressure was always way over the top, and everything that he did was done in a panicked state. So it was a lot of fun to play him.”
The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth: In Toy Story, Pixar established a plot archetype: Take an underdog and have them somehow triumph over insurmountable odds through ingenuity and teamwork. They continued that trend with A Bug’s Life, and these two early films’ success with this methodology established it as a Pixar staple, a road map that each subsequent production from the company would follow.
It’s easy to relate to a meek character, or at the very least, it’s more natural to sympathize with them and want them to do well for themselves. Flik is just a lowly worker ant, but he knows his skills can be of value, and when he gets the chance to show that in a meaningful way, he believes in himself and triumphs, even if he faces failure along the way. Rags-to-riches stories are what make Pixar go ‘round, and A Bug’s Life confirmed that Toy Story was more than just a fluke in its unbelievable success.
Listen to the Sound of My Voice: Toy Story had an illustrious voice cast headlined by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, and following the success of that movie, both commercially and creatively, A Bug’s Life was able to secure what may be the most underrated grouping of voice actors in the company’s history. There may not be anybody with the star power of a Tom Hanks, but every single role, even the less significant ones, were cast to perfection. Dave Foley is perfect for the ever-optimistic Flik, Kevin Spacey is delightfully sinister as Hopper, Phyllis Diller is an ideal, sassy, and experienced queen … really, there are superlatives for everybody in the voice cast, who helped populate the A Bug’s Life universe with as colorful a cast of characters as Pixar has ever seen.
Analysis: It would have been easy for Pixar to let the success of Toy Story get to its head and result in a sophomore slump. While A Bug’s Life is nowhere near as great as Toy Story, that’s mainly due to the heights that Toy Story has reached with time and not to any significant failings on the part of A Bug’s Life.
The film’s reception may have been hampered by the controversy surrounding it and the competing bug film, Antz, but when’s the last time you heard about Antz? A Bug’s Life is a classic Pixar film, both in terms of timeline and function. It features a vibrant world filled with diverse and engaging characters, each of which gets time to be the star in their own way. There’s drama, romantic tension, comic relief, and all the emotion and depth needed for parents to actually enjoy taking their kids to the latest movie of their choosing. At the very, very least, A Bug’s Life proved that Pixar was capable of more and that computer-animated movies were the wave of the future and not just a fleeting, unsustainable novelty.
15. Brave (2012)
Runtime: 1 hr. 33 min.
Pitch: Merida’s a princess, but she really, really doesn’t want to be. Forced — albeit lovingly — into a role that doesn’t suit her, she tries again and again to tell her parents how unhappy she is, but finally snaps. The result: a kingdom in chaos, the re-emergence of a mythical foe, and a mom who gets turned into a bear. Whoops.
Cast: Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson, Julie Walters, Robbie Coltrane, Craig Ferguson, and Kevin McKidd
All the Colors of the Rainbow: Green, green everywhere. Like Merida, the animators clearly cherish the beautiful wildness of their setting, surrounding the princess with endless trees, sparkling falls, and rich, earthy browns. But the colors that most define Brave are those that seem the most out of place: the ethereal blue of the will-o-the-wisps and the fiery red of Merida’s hair.
Familiar Faces: One could be forgiven for having a Harry Potter flashback partway through the film. Merida herself plays a key role in that final Potter film — she’s the Ravenclaw ghost — but Mrs. Weasley, Professor Trelawney, and wonderful, wonderful Hagrid all turn up, too. While not a part of the Potterverse, kids will likely perk up at the sound of Craig Ferguson’s voice, too. They probably didn’t catch his late-night show, but they’ll surely recognize the voice of Owl from Winnie the Pooh and Gobber from the various and sundry How to Train Your Dragons.
And yes, Ratzenberger’s in this one, and so is that Pizza Planet truck. Sensing a theme?
Crown-troversy: Merida became the first Pixar character to be included in the Disney Princess line, a choice that some found contradictory to the film’s central theme. Pixar’s first female protagonist spends her film fighting for the right to choose her own destiny, and many objected to the idea that such a character be included in a roster of women whose stories are largely focused on romance. That said, her choices are actually in line with many of the other Disney heroines, fighting for independence while feeling the pull of doing what’s right for their families or communities. And she is technically a princess, so there’s that. But either way, the film spurred a larger conversation about gender roles in the stories we tell children, which is never a bad thing.
Apples and MacGuffins: Pixar dedicates Brave to the late Steve Jobs in the end credits (“Dedicated to the memory of Steve Jobs, our partner, mentor and friend”), but the tributes pop up earlier than that. Ferguson’s character, one of the three visiting lords, bears the name Macintosh, likely a reference to the personal computer that Jobs unveiled in 1984. Additionally, Merida gets interrupted before she can bite into an apple on several occasions, likely in reference to the iconic Apple logo.
It’s not the only in-joke to be connected with the names of the lords. McKidd’s characters, Lord MacGuffin and Young MacGuffin, out the real purpose of the competition through their names alone. The film sets up the idea that the central thrust of the story will be the young lords competing for Merida’s hand, but whoops, that’s a MacGuffin: The real story exists in the rising tension and battle of wills between Merida and her mother, and that MacGuffin is just a means to an end.
Analysis: Brave doesn’t pack the emotional punch of Pixar’s best offerings, but it’s a worthy story nonetheless. Rather than any conspicuous flaw in the story itself, any disappointment one might feel about the film comes from what it might have been, rather than what it is. True, Merida and her mother come to an understanding they would never have had without their adventure through the woods, but the conclusion doesn’t hit home like it should, proving neither bittersweet nor triumphant, but somewhere in between. Pixar’s first female protagonist has plenty of fire and energy, and her eventual realization that sometimes what you want needs to be put aside in service of a greater good should hurt a lot more. But by splitting the difference — by making the Queen realize that Merida can forge a different path and marry for love — the story collapses on itself a bit, satisfying everyone without making anyone truly happy.
Of course, just because the final act falls a bit flat doesn’t mean the journey’s not a lot of fun. Mor’du is a truly terrifying villain — this is the third Pixar film to land itself a PG rating — and all the voice actors, Emma Thompson in particular, give tremendous performances. The animation, too, is impressive, from the wild strands of Merida’s unruly hair to the delicate embroidery of the tapestry the slices through in anger. And any Pixar film that becomes the centerpiece of a truly batshit theory must be doing something right.
14. Ratatouille (2007)
Runtime: 1 hr. 51 min.
Pitch: A rat in the kitchen is normally cause for alarm, but Remy, a very unusual rodent with a taste for the finer things, makes his way from the sewers to a fancy restaurant in the heart of Paris, where he hopes to become a chef. With the help of Linguini, a down-on-his-luck garbage boy who Remy uses to help realize his dream, this unusual cook’s dishes capture the public’s imagination, but also draw the ire of Linguini’s disapproving father, a suspicious head chef, and the city’s skeptical restaurant critic.
Cast: Patton Oswalt, Ian Holm, Lou Romano, Brian Dennehy, Peter Sohn, Peter O’Toole, Brad Garrett, and Janeane Garofalo
All the Colors of the Rainbow: The scenes where Remy wanders around Paris, particularly in the evening, are filled with dusky purples, pinks, and grays, letting the City of Lights shine as a place of wonder amid the fading dark. By contrast, the kitchen at Gusteau’s is warm and bright, replete with mustard yellows, leafy greens, and loud reds that help make Remy’s “studio” feel like a place of creation, where things are humming and alive. The contrast between the two creates a sense of the different worlds that Remy feels stuck between.
Easter Eggs: The dog who barks at Remy when he’s escaping from the sewers is Dug from Up, and the mime that Linguini and Colette skate past is Bomb Voyage from The Incredibles. Additionally, you can see the Pizza Planet truck on the bridge as Chef Skinner is chasing Remy through the streets of Paris (and into the Seine).
The Speech de Résistance: The peak of Ratatouille is Anton Ego’s monologue at the end of the film, where he reviews Gusteau’s after learning the secret of who cooked his meal. Delivered with aplomb by the inimitable Peter O’Toole, the speech takes a few shots at us humble critics, but also captures the way in which great art can transcend our biases and expectations and “rock us to our cores.” Ego’s review offers a laudable sermon about embracing the new, the bold, and the different. He, and by extension the film’s creators, encourage the viewer to accept the idea that great artists can come from anywhere, and this directs us to welcome lesser-heard voices in the kitchen, in the cinema, and everywhere else.
I Like This New Jerry, But Where’s Tom?: One of the most impressive aspects of the film is how it translates the verve and traditions of the old cat-and-mouse cartoons into a three-dimensional environment. The film features many scenes where Remy is being pursued by some attacker, whether it’s a shotgun-wielding old lady or the head chef of the restaurant. For many of these scenes, the “camera” stays tight on Remy as he scurries about his environment, which not only helps to drive home his diminutive size in relation to his surroundings, but also communicates the frantic sense of motion as he darts from obstacle to obstacle in these sequences.
Analysis: The basic story at the heart of Ratatouille, where the creature most abhorred in the kitchen ends up wanting only to belong there, is a superb one. Remy’s journey from field mouse to the toast of Paris is endearing, and despite the cartoonish implausibility of his marionette scheme with Linguini, the film does well both at making it work and naturally connecting it to Remy’s initially uncertain but eventually great success. At the same time, Gusteau and Ego work well as the proverbial angel and devil of the film and draw out Ratatouille’s themes of accepting the new – whether food or art – that comes from unusual or unexpected places.
The only problem is that everything in the film apart from Remy’s story feels superfluous or even strained. Linguini is a big nothing at the center of the film, and there are not nearly enough other colorful characters there to pick up the slack for him. An underdeveloped romance, some plot-moving questions of parentage, and the sitcom-esque conflicts between Linguini and his “Little Chef” only detract from the intrigue of the main narrative. Appropriate for a movie centered around the glory of food, Ratatouille is a film with a strong story at its center, but which otherwise feels a bit flabby.
13. Toy Story 2 (1999)
Runtime: 1 hr. 32 min.
Pitch: When Woody is stolen by a toy collector, Buzz and the gang team up to save him. But having been reunited with the other characters from Woody’s Round-Up, Woody starts to wonder if maybe it wouldn’t be better to stay safe and pristine inside a collectible box, rather than watch Andy outgrow him.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Kelsey Grammer, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, Annie Potts, John Ratzenberger, and Wayne Knight
All the Colors of the Rainbow: The biggest change in color from the first Toy Story comes in the terrifying trek through Al’s Toy Barn. Sure, the familiar, muted primary colors are all still there — these are toys, after all — but lots of grays and dark blues convey the vast emptiness of the place, a palette that’s then echoed in the trip to the airport. There, the blues are bluer, the grays more menacing, because the vastness of those slick, shiny aisles pales in comparison to the massive luggage system or the terrifying open space of the sky. As with the first film, when the toys step out of their safe haven, things suddenly feel a lot less warm.
Easter Eggs: All Pixar films have their fair share of Easter eggs, but Toy Story 2 is among the Easter-eggiest. A113? Check. The actual address of Pixar Animation? Check. Jurassic Park reference? Check. The Luxo Jr. lamp? Check. John Lasseter’s birthday, a Steve Jobs reference, hidden Mickey, and A Bug’s Life toys? Check, check, check, and check.
As with the other Pixar sequels, the majority of the voice talent returns from the first, with the most notable new characters being Jessie (Joan Cusack) and The Prospector (Kelsey Grammer at his most menacing). But while most of Andy’s toys return again in Toy Story 3, there’s one sad change in personnel: Jim Varney passed away after the film was released, making this Slinky Dog’s last appearance with his original voice.
The Sob Section: Most Pixar movies have a moment that punches you in the gut — see: Up, opening sequence; Inside Out, Bing-Bong’s farewell; Finding Nemo, everything — but Jessie’s flashback is easily among the most potent. One of Randy Newman’s biggest heartbreakers soundtracks Jessie’s memories of being loved, played with, and eventually forgotten by her owner, Emily, and Sarah McLachlan’s vocal performance does all the things you remember from those awful animal abuse commercials. The sequence manages to convey not only the ache of being left behind by someone you love, but the inevitable tragedy of growing up (and getting old). We all leave our childish things behind.
Okay, You’re Allowed to Be Cocky: One can understand Lasseter and company’s desire to take a bit of a victory lap. Toy Story was an instant classic (and it’s still ahead on our list), and Pixar does a bit of strutting about it in Toy Story 2, gently thumbing their noses at the retailers that didn’t stock enough dolls when the film didn’t seem like a hit and referencing other blockbuster franchises, from Jurassic Park to Star Wars. But the unkindest cut of all is aimed at Mattel, who refused to allow Barbie to appear in the first film. Barbie’s here as a tour guide — Mattel even released Tour Guide Barbie in conjunction with the film’s release — but she’s a bit, shall we say, vapid. She’s no Bo Peep, that’s for sure.
Analysis: Hitting the screen several years before the weep-fest that is Finding Nemo, Toy Story 2 was the first indicator that Pixar was prepared to really twist the knife with audiences. Sure, A Bug’s Life and the first Toy Story have their Kleenex moments, but when it comes to the kind of emotional warfare we now associate with Pixar, this is where it all began. This is a film that starts with Woody’s arm being torn off, which means he doesn’t get to go to Cowboy Camp. Then he contemplates life as a collectible, something he would have previously found abhorrent, just so he can avoid the inevitable heartbreak when Andy doesn’t need him anymore. And that’s all before we get to Jessie’s big moment. Woof.
But while the melancholy moments of Toy Story 2 loom large, this is also Pixar in full-on playful mode. The airport sequence is mostly frightening, but the chase through Al’s Toy Barn is equal parts frenzied and fun. Seriously, that Jurassic Park joke? That thing is solid gold.
12. Finding Dory (2016)
Runtime: 1 hr. 37 min.
Pitch: Dory’s happy living alongside Marlin and Nemo’s anemone, glad to have friends and a place to belong. But when a long-lost memory drifts to the surface, she sets off — friends alongside her — to find her family, and no amount of forgetfulness will stop her.
Cast: Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Hayden Rolence, Ed O’Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, Eugene Levy, Idris Elba, and Dominic West
All the Colors of the Rainbow: Building on the remarkable range of blues employed by its predecessor, Dory still spends a lot of time underwater and colors its world accordingly. However, there’s a great deal more focus on what’s going on above sea level, giving the animators a new palette of plasticine orange shades, damp concrete surfaces, the gleam of glass or the dull shine off a vinyl seat. Imagine Nemo, but with some time spent driving to Pizza Planet (or running away with Riley).
Familiar Faces: Repeat viewings will certainly reveal more and more Easter eggs, but there are two that no Pixar movie is complete without. Check out the license plate on the truck for the first. The second? Ratzenberger, naturally. Dory marks the first Pixar follow-up in which Ratzenberger plays a different character between films, as the School of Fish fails to make an appearance, and the Ratz instead plays a crab.
However, he’s not the only repeat cast member playing a new role. While very little time has ultimately passed between Dory and its predecessor, more than a decade has elapsed for the rest of us, and so Alexander Gould is now no longer an adorable child and thus cannot voice Nemo. He’s there in a cameo role instead, playing the descriptively named Passenger Carl.
Seriously, Cut Apart Those Six-Pack Rings: Nemo certainly argued for conservation, though the public didn’t always listen. Dory more than doubles down, from the first brief sequence where the heroine finds herself caught in one of those dreaded six-pack rings to considerable time spent in a Marine Life Rescue Institute. The film is never preachy, but it’s fair to say that the folks at Pixar have no desire to damage the environment through fandom.
PG? I Thought Nemo was G: It was. Dory is the first Pixar follow-up to snag a different rating than its predecessor, but that shouldn’t put families off. Sure, there are a few scary moments — one undersea monster is particularly spooky — but the rating is most likely the result of some heavier emotional stuff. Like Inside Out, Finding Dory packs a few moments that will sting even the hardest of grown-up hearts, let alone kids. But nothing here is nightmare fuel.
Analysis: It’s not as innovative as the films that top our list, and it’s a far cry from top-tier Pixar — though here, as elsewhere on our list, that’s more a testament to the tremendous filmmaking than a dig against this particular gem. But Finding Dory sticks with a winning formula and ups the ante — more locations, great new characters (here’s lookin’ at you, Hank), another hero’s quest, and great lessons learned by all. With a character this good — heck, with characters this good, as it’s not like Marlin and Nemo aren’t also delightful — sometimes all you need is a good story. And why not throw in some 3D for good measure.
But while Dory just keeps swimming down Nemo’s stream, it doesn’t rest on what works. Where Dory excels is in its desire to create differently-abled characters, from a near-sighted whale to a seven-legged octopus to a really nutty bird, and have what would in a lesser movie define them as just one element of a well-rounded character. Dory won our hearts not because of her memory loss, but because of her warmth, her compassion, her inventiveness, and her bravery. Here, we see that the source of much of that beauty comes from exactly what some would say holds her back. That’s a hell of a moral.
11. Incredibles 2
Runtime: 1 hr. 58 min.
Pitch: With the Parrs still struggling in a world that hates superheroes, Helen/Elastigirl is given a golden opportunity by a brother-sister pair of business tycoons to give supers a good name through smart PR, while Bob struggles in his new role as a stay-at-home dad.
Cast: Holly Hunter, Craig T. Nelson, Sarah Vowell, Huck Milner, Samuel L Jackson, Brad Bird, Jonathan Banks, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Isabella Rossellini
All the Colors of the Rainbow: Like so much of Pixar’s output, Incredibles 2 is a sumptuous display of color, from the bold red of the Incredibles’ outfits to the bright, neon blue of the Screen Slaver’s hypnotizing screens. All the same, Brad Bird and co. lean hard into the pop-art sensibilities of the film’s retro-’60s aesthetic, with cooler colors like Winston Deavor’s turquoise business suit or the shiny gray of Elastigirl’s PR-approved outfit. The Ken Adams-inspired minimalism of the sets also extends to the eggshell white of both the Parr’s palatial guest home and the Deavors’ Hydroliner, replete with all the burnt orange and rust-brown mod furnishings you could ask for.
Easter Eggs: While we’ve only gotten one chance to take in all the sumptuous detail of Incredibles 2, there are still a couple Pixar Easter eggs that stand out. The Chinese takeout the Parrs eat in one of their last family dinners before Elastigirl leaves for her new job has been seen in A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Ratatouille, and Inside Out. And, of course, the famous A113 sequence can be seen somewhere on the Hydroliner.
You Don’t Know Jack-Jack: At the end of the first Incredibles, baby Jack-Jack was just discovering his chaotic, randomized abilities, his family blissfully unaware of their youngest member’s capacity for raw destruction. Incredibles 2 thankfully gets to play with that even more, Jack-Jack’s superpowered tantrums becoming the center of more than one fantastic setpiece. In keeping with the unpredictable behavior and moods of a toddler, Jack-Jack shoots lasers from his eyes, catches fire, and zips in and out of dimensions in deliriously unexpected and funny ways. Whether he’s unknowingly saving the world or fighting off a raccoon digging through the family trash, Jack-Jack’s antics are the sequel’s clear highlight.
Make Superheroes Legal Again: It’s post-2016 Hollywood, so it seems every film has to shoehorn in a forced “Make ____ Again” catchphrase to keep itself politically topical. This time, it’s meant in a more magnanimous way, Winston firing off that quip as an easy way to encapsulate his public relations campaign to restore public trust in supers. It’s a bit of a groaner, but keys into the Incredibles’ larger discussion of the relationship between superheroes and the public. Do we really need superheroes? Or does the public lean on them too much as a crutch to avoid solving their own problems? Incredibles 2 doesn’t come up with many clear answers, apart from hints of Bird’s tendency to uphold Great Men and Women as saviors of the public, but it’s an interesting tip of the hat to these questions.
Analysis: It’s easy to forget that the first Incredibles was released all the way back in 2004, before we’d even heard of the phrase “cinematic universe” and Marvel hadn’t yet helped create the mire of superhero flicks we’re drenched in today. This puts Incredibles 2 at an inherent handicap; in any other film landscape, it’d be hailed as, well, incredible; but in a summer where two or three of the biggest superhero films of all time are still in theaters, it has an uphill battle to climb.
Luckily, Incredibles 2 manages to acquit itself quite nicely, a welcome return to animation for Brad Bird after his brief flirtation with live-action filmmaking (sorry, Tomorrowland). It’s not quite as novel as the first, but does a cracking job keeping the Parr’s respective character plates spinning while delivering the kind of inventive, whiz-bang superhero action only Bird could conjure.
Plus, the sequel’s focus on Elastigirl as the Parr parent trying to bring supers back into the public eye offers some much-needed representation – in addition to her stretching powers creating more jaw-dropping superhero sequences than Mr. Incredible’s simple super-strength. In comparison to the first, it feels a bit more weightless, offering slight variations on the themes and rhythms of the first instead of offering something wholly new. That being said, it feels good to have the Incredibles (and Bird) back in action.
10. Toy Story 4 (2019)
NOTE: The following entry contains mild spoilers for Toy Story 4.
Runtime: 1 hr. 40 min.
Pitch: While Woody, Buzz and the gang have settled nicely into the home of their new kid Bonnie, Woody begins to experience the first tugs of obsolescence when he’s frequently left in the closet during playtime. He’s given new purpose when Bonnie crafts a new favorite toy — a spork with googly eyes named Forky — whose creation sparks an instant existential crisis. Turns out rearing a sentient piece of trash with a penchant for self-destruction is no easy task, especially when his journey reunites him with the “lost toy” Bo Peep, who’s living just fine without a kid to worry about.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Annie Potts, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Christina Hendricks, Keanu Reeves
All the Colors of the Rainbow: First-time director Josh Cooley takes over for John Lasseter and Lee Unkrich, and he’s unafraid to let Toy Story 4 get a little darker and grimier in its palette. Like the toys at its center, the world of the film is wearier and more melancholy, from its opening flashback to the rainy, muddy night Bo Peep was given away, to the dust-covered nostalgia of Second Chance Antiques. Many of the film’s most heart-wrenching moments take place under cover of night, characters huddling or crying in darkness.
It’s not all Grave of the Fireflies misery, though; across the street from the antique store is a vibrant, eye-popping amusement park, filled with spinning purple tilt-a-whirls and more colored fluorescent lights than you can shake a stickball at. Add to that the bright, colorful designs of toys both old and new, especially Keanu Reeves’ exuberant Duke Caboom and his white-and-red motorcycle, matching the colors of the Canadian flag.
Easter Eggs: Much of the film takes place in an antique store filled with vintage toys and knick-knacks, offering Cooley et al. the chance to drop in Easter eggs aplenty. You can see a plethora of props from Coco, pieces of retro furniture from The Incredibles, and awards cases from Gusteau’s office in Ratatouille. There are vintage ads for TripleDent gum (Inside Out), and a greatest hits record for Ernesto de la Cruz from Coco. The infamous A113 can also be found in a ‘70s-style sign somewhere in the store.
Ne-O Canada!: If it comes out on a screen sometime in 2019, there’s at least a 20% chance it’ll have Keanu Reeves in it, and Toy Story 4 is no exception. Whether it’s Reeves leaning gamely into his own wholesome-surfer star persona, or the rest of pop culture finally catching up to his considerable virtues, his extended cameo as Duke Caboom is yet another delightful example of his inescapable appeal. A Canadian toy version of Evel Kneivel abandoned by his owner Réjean (a name Reeves plaintively cries to great effect every time), Duke’s charming combination of swagger and insecurity hearkens back to Buzz Lightyear’s early days, and it’s an absolute treat.
On Forky: Much like Cars, the world of Toy Story raises a number of ontological questions about its protagonists. How are they alive? When were they “born”? How long do they live? To our delight (and horror), Forky in Toy Story 4 takes on those queries spork-first. He enters this world screaming in terror, a Frankenstein’s monster willed into life by the careful application of pipe cleaners and popsicle sticks. For the film’s first half, Woody is effectively on suicide watch for Forky — a pitiful creature who can only mutter the word “trash” and hobble toward the garbage bin when no one’s looking. It’s Cronenbergian body horror filtered through a child’s eyes, which happens to dovetail beautifully with Woody’s own quest for purpose.
Analysis: The prospect of a fourth Toy Story film was a rather dicey proposition. Why pile onto an already-perfect trilogy of movies that ended the story in a completely satisfying manner? Well, Toy Story 4 plays with that redundancy in fascinating ways. “It’s on to the next kid,” Bo Peep tells Woody when she’s sent away, and that sense of resignation permeates some of the film’s most effective moments. What happens when your purpose is fulfilled? Can you find a new life for yourself? In Bo Peep, who finds thrilling independence in her kid-less existence, Woody can’t help but wonder if the answer is yes.
The fact that Toy Story 4 can manage to ask deep, existential questions like this while still delivering the pitch-perfect kid-friendly humor and whirlwind visuals expected of Pixar makes Cooley’s debut an auspicious one indeed. Toy Story 4 is still concerned with bringing children joy, but it also takes makes space for the toys’ wants and needs as well. In that respect, it might be one of the most mature Pixar films to date.
09. Coco (2017)
Runtime: 1 hr. 49 min.
Pitch: When a young boy’s passion for music is sternly denied by his traditional, shoe-making family, he attempts to follow in the lead of his artistic hero Ernesto de la Cruz, which leads him on a Día de los Muertos adventure into the land of the dead. There, he befriends an offbeat kindred spirit (and fellow musician), while learning about the absolute importance of family.
Cast: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael García Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach, Renee Victor, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Edward James Olmos
All the Colors of the Rainbow: Even by Pixar standards, Coco is a visual feast, with bright oranges and a stunning array of primary colors highlighting young Miguel’s long night in the afterlife. Although those iridescent fall leaves might be the most striking visual motif, the endless neons-on-darkness of the dead lands make for some of the film’s most jaw-dropping visuals, particularly when Miguel finally crosses the bridge from our world and bears witness to the gorgeous paradise beyond for the first time.
Familar Faces: For a Pixar movie, surprisingly few! Coco is chock full of fresh faces, to the point where the only noticeably familiar name in the end credits is John Ratzenberger’s, as is now tradition, in a small role. Otherwise, it’s one of the more interesting voice casts the studio has put forth to date.
The Sound of Music: Traditional Mexican music is integral to the story of Coco, and the film’s team of music writers perfectly capture the beauty and melodrama of Ernesto de la Cruz’s balladry, and by proxy Miguel’s pure love for the same. And if some of the film’s soaring compositions sound the slightest bit familiar, that may be due to the songwriting team of Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, the husband-wife collaborative team behind the colossal Frozen soundtrack
Día de la Cultura: Pro tip for people making a movie about a foreign culture: don’t attempt to copyright it. Last year, some controversy broke out when Disney attempted to trademark “Día de los Muertos” as a phrase, for the sake of retaining rights under what was to be Coco’s original title. But the thing about a mega-corporation attempting to retain individual rights to a traditional cultural practice is that it’s an awful idea, one which was met with overwhelming complaint. Luckily, Disney/Pixar came to its senses before long.
Analysis: Of the Pixar movies in the sequel era of the company’s history, it should serve as little surprise that Coco certainly feels like one of the more unique movies to emerge from the studio. But even without the rich, loving history lesson the film offers for audiences who may not be familiar with Día de los Muertos traditions, it’s also distinct in the way it manages to perform the requisite Pixar duty of explaining difficult concepts to a largely younger audience.
In this case, it’s the concept of death and whatever may lay beyond, which Pixar negotiates with a surprising yen for gallows humor, in addition to the proper gravity. Coco is often hilarious in its deadpan address of mortality, but this no-frills approach makes it one of the more honest family movies of recent vintage. It’s visually astounding, the soundtrack is Pixar’s most musical to date and fits perfectly within the recent resurgence of Disney musicals, and it’s a family film of rare emotional insight. Families can be both loving and tunnel-visioned. Loved ones die, and there’s nothing which can be done about it. Hearts are broken and stay broken, in this life and the next. But as long as you have the ones you love around you, there’s always more to keep you going.
08. The Incredibles (2004)
Runtime: 1 hr. 55 min.
Pitch: A family of superheroes leads a quiet life, suppressing their otherworldly abilities in an attempt to be normal. However, that balance is disrupted when a new villain emerges, a villain who has a history with (and a death wish for) Bob Parr, the patriarch of the family.
Cast: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Spencer Fox, Jason Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, and Elizabeth Peña
All the Colors of the Rainbow: Perhaps more than in any other Pixar film, visual unity is integral to the plot of The Incredibles. Color plays a major role in every Pixar production, but in the case of a superhero group (and as Family Guy once put it), brand recognition is of paramount importance. Superhero movies are built on contrasting character archetypes (here, it’s the classic good vs. evil), and the best way to clearly pit those opposing forces against each other is by making them aesthetically distinct. In this case, the Parr family dons a bright red while the evil Syndrome is decked out in blue. Color even foreshadows this conflict in Bob’s interactions with Mirage, as her environment often appears to be draped in a silvery blue. The folks at Pixar are masters of color awareness, and they use it to plant seeds in the heads of viewers so that all plot developments, while sometimes surprising, never seem to materialize from nothing.
Easter Eggs: The usual suspects are here, like the Pizza Planet truck and characters from other movies (this time, there’s a vehicle in the background that looks like Doc Hudson from Cars), but another minor detail worth noting is the amount of buttons and doors this movie features. This was actually pointed out in an Easter egg not in the movie itself, but on the DVD release. Writer/director Brad Bird created a montage and dedicated it to “all the people whose hard work resulted in the strangest accumulation of buttons and doors in Pixar’s history.” He’s not kidding: the two-and-a-half-minute clip shows buttons and doors of wildly varying sizes, shapes, and functions, a testament to the detail it takes to craft a world as intense and fleshed-out as that of The Incredibles.
Powerful Personalities: This may be obvious to some viewers, but not only are the Parrs’ superpowers cool and relatively familiar, but they’re also reflective of the characters themselves. Bob, as the leader of the family, needs strength to support them. Helen is Elastigirl because she stretches herself thin as a mother to keep her household from falling apart. Violet is a shy high schooler, so her invisibility comes in handy. Dash is a high-energy kid with high speed to match. Jack-Jack is a baby, at the start of his life and filled with potential, so he has a variety of powers that are realized to varying degrees. Heroes are who they are because of their backstories, and that is rarely ever more accurate than it is here.
Science Fact and Science Fiction: Even though Pixar films tend to take place in fanciful worlds, or at least explore elements of normal worlds that seem outside the realm of possibility, The Incredibles is Pixar’s first to garner formal recognition for it. It was the first animated movie to win the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation in 2005, a prestigious honor given to the year’s best sci-fi or fantasy film (Wall-E later won the award in 2009). The powers are obviously beyond standard human capabilities, but like good sci-fi and fantasy should, The Incredibles uses these fantastic themes and settings to tell a real human story. Each member of the Parr family has hit a rut in their lives, and through introspection and realizing the benefits of their strengths, they come to realize that everything will be alright.
Analysis: The Incredibles is an animated kids film, and while the Golden Globes weren’t wrong to categorize the film under “Musical or Comedy” when it was up for awards consideration in 2004, the Hugo Awards may have had it right by calling it “Dramatic.” This is a story of a family encountering a lapse in structural integrity due to characters who are dissatisfied with their lives, with the great potential each of them has but also has to squander in order to survive. It’s a real human story, a larger metaphor that resonated with a lot of viewers.
That said, this is also an action film; its main characters are superheroes, after all. The action sequences are intense, and given the parameters of the Incredibles’ seemingly supernatural abilities, they’re believable. It’s a cartoon that doesn’t come off as cartoonish, which is important. If it did, the action would seem too foreign to be relatable or feel rooted in reality, as strange as that seems to say about a film like this. While it may not be the greatest film Pixar has ever made, it’s likely their most emotionally diverse.
07. Toy Story 3 (2010)
Runtime: 1 hr. 45 min.
Pitch: Andy is heading off to college, and the fate of his toys is up in the air. Will they be relegated to the attic, taken to school with Andy, or sent to a new home? The journey to find out leads Woody, Buzz, and the rest of the gang to Sunnyside Daycare, where they meet a stuffed bear named Lotso and a shy but imaginative girl named Bonnie, both of whom make their choices much more complicated.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Joan Cusack, Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Estelle Harris, Blake Clark, Ned Beatty, Michael Keaton, Jodi Benson, and John Morris
All the Colors of the Rainbow: Toy Story 3 shifts the way in which it lights its settings and characters over the course of the film. From the bright, open windows of Sunnyside that let an orange glow beam in, to the soft twilight as the gang sneaks around the daycare in the evening, to the dancing shadows of a bursting flame, the film continually bathes our heroes in different hues. The distinct lighting and attendant shifts in color help to convey the passage of time, and work as a microcosm of the idea of change that’s present throughout the film.
Easter Eggs: Many of the characters in Toy Story 3 made cameos in the original Toy Story. Lotso can be seen in the original film as one of the “toys on the shelf” during Woody’s all-toy meeting. (John Lasseter initially wanted the character to have a bigger role, but the animators couldn’t get his fur quite right at the time.) Chuckles the Clown shows up on some wrapping paper in Toy Story as well. And if you look closely, you’ll notice that the garbage man who nearly takes the gang to the dump is Sid, Andy’s former neighbor and Woody’s old tormentor.
It’s the Circle of Life: The original Toy Story opens with a shot of Andy’s cloud-covered wallpaper, and Toy Story 3 follows its lead with a similar shot of white, fluffy clouds as the film re-imagines its predecessor’s opening sequence in blockbuster fashion. But Toy Story 3 also ends with a similar shot of white clouds against a bright blue sky, in keeping with the idea that this is not an ending, but the beginning of another chapter and another cycle.
Hell Is Other Toddlers: The film’s most creative and best-directed sequence is when screaming youngsters bound into the “Caterpillar Room” to play with our heroes in maniacal fashion. Buzz’s realization that the more experienced toys are finding places to hide creates the right atmosphere of foreboding before the onslaught begins, and the quick cuts, cacophonous sound design, and great close-up and point-of-view shots as the munchkins do their dirty work convey the horror and the chaos of the moment in extraordinary fashion.
Analysis: The relationship between a toy and its owner is, like many things in life, destined to be temporary. And that’s what Toy Story 3 is about at its core – how we respond when things end. Through its different characters’ reactions, including those ready for the next step, those resentful of the past, and those hoping to hang on to the present, the film explores how we process change and posits that just because something ends doesn’t make it any less beautiful, meaningful, or important.
But when it’s not exploring these deep themes, Toy Story 3 soars as an enjoyable romp with great humor, superb visuals, and excellent animation and editing to match the lofty ideas behind it. Whether we’re watching the gang engineer another great escape, reveling in the delightful group dynamic as Woody tries to keep his crew together, or just chuckling at Buzz’s involuntary flamenco dancing, the film succeeds at both the high and the low. What’s more, Toy Story 3 also grounds its narrative in its well-developed characters and their relationships, which make both its goofier and more emotional moments work to perfection.
06. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Runtime: 1 hr. 32 min.
Pitch: Behind the closet doors of every bedroom in the human world lies, when it’s necessary, a gateway to a familiar, bureaucratic world of monsters. At the titular company, some of the world’s best professional “scarers” mine the precious power source of terrified children’s screams, but one day the company’s most accomplished scaring team breaks the monster world’s cardinal rule and lets a precious little girl through the door.
Cast: John Goodman, Billy Crystal, Mary Gibbs, Steve Buscemi, James Coburn, Jennifer Tilly, Bob Peterson, John Ratzenberger, and Frank Oz
All the Colors of the Rainbow: The factory and “Scaring Floor” are lit in a kind of romantic, old-fashioned sunlit yellow, until it’s time for work to begin and the palette to shift to a dark, windowless, industrial black and blue. Much of Monstropolis is lit in this old Industrial Revolution amber by day and urban dark by night, but when Sully and Mike and Randall start jumping from world to world in the film’s thrilling climax, the film plays with a litany of different visuals, ending in the grimy swamp where Randall finally gets his.
Easter Eggs: During the film’s wrenching climactic farewell, Boo hands Sully a toy clownfish that looks an awful lot like Nemo, and Jessie the Cowgirl from Toy Story 2. Sully and Mike cross paths with Toy Story’s Rex while on the way to work, and the famed Luxo Ball (from the studio’s opening logo) also pops up in Boo’s room. The Pizza Planet truck pops up during Randall’s comeuppance, and when he’s practicing rapid blend-ins early in the film, the wallpaper from Andy’s room in Toy Story is one of his test swatches.
And that fancy downtown restaurant, Harryhausen’s? It’s a nod to legendary special effects mind Ray Harryhausen, whose hybrid work on films like Jason and the Argonauts formed the early spine of what would eventually come to define Hollywood special effects.
The Laughter of a Child: Mary Gibbs, who offered the voice of the adorable, two-year-old Boo, was imaginably difficult to record in any kind of formal way. Therefore, the film’s production team simply followed her around with a microphone, picking up bits and pieces of her rambling banter to use in the film. A similar device was used last year in Don Herzfeldt’s brilliant animated short World of Tomorrow, and in both cases it captures the nutty cadence of a babbling child with far more accuracy than all the deliberate coaching in the world could ever muster.
A Fateful Change: Billy Crystal’s screwball vocal turn as Mike Wazowski stands to this day as one of Pixar’s most memorable characters and performances, but he almost appeared in an earlier Pixar vehicle. Crystal was originally offered the role of Buzz Lightyear in Toy Story and turned it down but kept a relationship with the studio. Think about how that would’ve sounded for a minute.
Analysis: Monsters, Inc. almost seems to get lost in the Pixar shuffle at times since it arrived at the early end of the studio’s first superb run, leading onward to Finding Nemo and The Incredibles within the next three years. Despite this, it endures as one of the studio’s funniest and most resonant films, to say nothing of standing among its most imaginative.
Even by Pixar standards, this is a simple premise: The monsters in your closet are real, and they’re just as weird and neurotic and irrationally frightened of things as you are. To that point, Goodman’s fragile confidence and Crystal’s manic delivery build a hilarious rapport; these are guys you’ve probably been friends with, the ex-jock and the overachiever who hit it off in college and moved in together to share in the struggle of their 20s and their burgeoning careers. They’re good at what they do, but Sully and Mike are still wage slaves grinding to get by and move ahead, with all the asshole coworkers and romantic entanglements that typically come along the way.
In that respect, Boo is the sense of wonder every burgeoning adult either loses or abandons or at the very least alters as they age. She’s not afraid of things so much as curious about them, because her worries have yet to exist. She’s fearless, and through her Monsters, Inc. finds a touching parable about ignorance and innocence that goes to so many wild, innovative places that it does what the best Pixar movies do: fill an adult with the mirth of the kid they once were and that never fully stops existing somewhere inside of them.
05. Inside Out (2015)
Runtime: 1 hr. 34 min.
Pitch: When 11-year-old Riley Anderson moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, she has trouble adjusting to her new surroundings. Thankfully, inside her brain, personifications of Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust are working around the clock to look after her and try to keep her in good spirits. That effort takes Joy and Sadness on an incredible journey through the human mind, where they meet colorful characters and help Riley make sense of all of these big changes.
Cast: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Richard Kind, Lewis Black, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Kaitlyn Dias, Diane Lane, and Kyle MacLachlan
All the Colors of the Rainbow: Inside Out predominantly uses bright, primary colors within Riley’s mind. Whether it’s the different emotions at “headquarters” or the stacks of glowing orbs that make up her long-term memory, the simplified-but-complex color scheme helps to convey the elemental nature of Riley’s emotions, signaling that these are basic building blocks that, in keeping with the film’s themes, come together to form something vastly more unique and complicated. At the same time, the film uses the absence of color and a creeping gray to show numbness and depression as Riley grows despondent, depicting how rough patches can drain us of all feeling and take away parts of who we are.
Easter Eggs: Several characters from other Pixar films make cameo appearances in Inside Out. Many of Riley’s memory orbs feature scenes from other Pixar movies, including Carl and Ellie’s wedding from Up. Similarly, in Imagination Land, a board game called “Find Me” features Nemo of Finding Nemo on the box. And Colette Tatou from Ratatouille appears on a magazine cover elsewhere in the film.
Casting a Spell: One of the film’s secret weapons is its impeccable casting, particularly with respect to Riley’s team of emotions, which features a who’s who of talent from NBC comedies. Anyone who’s seen Parks & Recreation knows that Amy Poehler is the best candidate to balance unrelenting cheerfulness with real heart and feeling. Phyllis Smith and Mindy Kaling do The Office proud, as Smith adds the perfect mournful tones to the eternally downtrodden Sadness and Kaling masters the perpetually repulsed sarcasm of Disgust. Bill Hader delivers a superbly manic representation of Fear, and there has never been a more perfect match between actor and character than the fiery Lewis Black as Anger.
This Is Your Brain on Pixar: The most creative part of the film is the way it re-imagines the different parts of the brain, working in sequence, as a fantastic wonderland. Riley’s head is filled with fun representations of the different elements of the human mind and modes of thought. The folks behind the scenes consulted with actual psychologists to make these depictions – like memories going into long-term storage during sleep – as accurate as possible. Some of the film’s best sequences, including the medium-hopping Abstract Thought segment, the wild world of Dream Production, and the childhood scares of the subconscious, brilliantly create an intuitive visual representation of complex mental processes.
Analysis: Exploring the idea of sadness through the lens of a preteen girl is an ambitious move, even for Pixar. But the result is one of the studio’s greatest triumphs and a film that manages to offer a thrilling adventure, a visual feast, an endlessly creative world, and a trenchant look at how sadness can help us and make us stronger.
One of the film’s great feats is how it manages to balance Joy’s story with Riley’s. It could be difficult to keep the narrative momentum going while having to cut between scenes of a young girl starting out in a new city and a bubbly emotion simultaneously exploring the recesses of that girl’s mind. But Inside Out not only manages to tell both stories in a way that keeps each tale exciting, but each story informs the other in a natural and impressive way as the film progresses.
The peak of this structural move takes place when the film has Joy and Riley reach the same realization in turn – that sadness serves a purpose, that it lets us get the help that we need, and that it can even be a force behind making us happy again. It’s a powerful message that Inside Out builds to in an organic, affecting way. Joy’s realization in the cavernous memory dump leads nicely to Riley’s confession to her parents. It’s a wonderful narrative trick that leads to two incredible, cathartic moments at once in one of Pixar’s best films.
04. WALL-E (2008)
Runtime: 1 hr. 38 min.
Pitch: After humans have left Earth an uninhabitable wasteland, trash-compacting robot WALL-E is left to clean up the mess. When the search robot EVE touches down and discovers a plant WALL-E has found, the two head for outer space to inform the humans, who abandoned the planet in favor of a luxurious, cruise ship-like spacecraft, that there may be hope for their home, all while WALL-E holds out hope for a future with EVE.
Cast: Ben Burtt, Elissa Knight, Jeff Garlin, Fred Willard, John Ratzenberger, Kathy Najimy, Sigourney Weaver, and MacInTalk
All the Colors of the Rainbow: Brown, brown as far as the eye can see. Earth is depicted as a trash heap that WALL-E cleans with a futile optimism, constructing filthy structure after filthy structure out of compacted cubes of refuse. Once we get past the post-apocalyptic planet, outer space and the Axiom are dominated by clean blues, blacks, and silvers, and it’s this contrast in set design that gets at the film’s underlying themes of environmentalism and shows that neither of WALL-E’s main settings are what humanity really wants. The rusty planet can’t support life, and the metallic ship doesn’t feel human. The movie’s strongest color may be the one it features the least: green.
Easter Eggs: Auto, the autopilot of the Axiom who goes rogue after not wanting to cede control of the ship to Captain B. McCrea, has only one goal: to follow directive A113, to not allow the humans to return to Earth. As Pixar aficionados know, A113 is an Easter egg that has appeared in every Pixar movie, and refers to a classroom at the California Institute of the Arts where a lot of animators and graphic designers had classes. While A113 has been more of a background gag in other Pixar films, WALL-E signifies the first time where it has been an important plot point.
Not One Word: In a recently posted TED Talk, Pixar’s director of photography Danielle Feinberg said, “We use story and artistic touch to get us to a place of wonder,” and that’s a perfect summary of why the film’s nearly dialogue-free first half is so powerful. She goes on to explain that WALL-E’s binoculars are “one of the most critical acting devices he has,” and the expression of WALL-E’s “eyes,” in combination with his body language, is what establishes such a strong sense of character without any real dialogue. WALL-E is clumsy (but good at his job), whimsical, fun, sad, industrious, and a romantic, and the viewer learns all of that simply by watching him interact with his environment.
Hello, Dolly!: WALL-E is obsessed with what appears to be the only movie he has found in his trash-collecting existence: Hello, Dolly!, a romantic comedy musical from 1969. He’s especially enamored with the song “It Only Takes a Moment”, which features the two romantic leads in a loving song and dance. WALL-E’s fascination with this scene, more so than his eyes or his way of navigating his world, may be what makes him feel the most human. Humans, for better or worse, have long looked toward characters onscreen and the situations they encounter as ideal scenarios, as the most powerful ways to experience happiness, anger, sadness, or in this case, love. WALL-E wants what many of us want: a real human connection that feels cinematic in its grandiosity. This puts WALL-E’s emotional state in a context to which we can relate, which is why it’s so easy to empathize with how badly he wants to connect with EVE.
Analysis: By taking humans out of the picture, at least in terms of its most significant characters, WALL-E may be Pixar’s most human film of all, because humans can often get in the way of viewers experiencing their humanity. People are complex, and sometimes these intricacies can rub people the wrong way or get in the way of what they’re trying to accomplish. WALL-E, however, serves as a vessel for a simplified version of our motives. We want everything to be perfect, much like WALL-E with his carefully considered stacking of trash cubes and organization of his den. We want to share a bond with somebody, which WALL-E demonstrates in his pursuit of EVE. Even WALL-E’s physicality has been boiled down to a body and eyes, and with these two factors amplified, it’s so much easier to tell exactly what this robot is feeling and how intensely he’s feeling it.
WALL-E is a caricature of a movie protagonist. His most minute features are largely ignored, and his major ones are amplified tenfold to show that they’re worth focusing upon. Unlike a caricature, though, nuance is not lost. It’s actually through the enhancement of WALL-E’s most valuable essences that he feels the most human. His big doe eyes express more than a human’s ever could, but what they express is drenched in humanity.
03. Finding Nemo (2003)
Runtime: 1 hr. 40 min.
Pitch: Widower Marlin is understandably a bit overprotective of his only son after a predator attack leaves the two of them alone in the sea. But when Nemo defies his Dad and finds himself caught in a net, Marlin has to venture out after him, with only his love of his son and a forgetful new friend to guide him.
Cast: Albert Brooks, Ellen DeGeneres, Alexander Gould, Elizabeth Perkins, Willem Dafoe, Allison Janney, Brad Garrett, Austin Pendleton, Stephen Root, and Geoffrey Rush
All the Colors of the Rainbow: Shocker: There’s a lot of blue. The vastness of the ocean is conveyed through subtly shifting light, through shadows and movement and emptiness, which means that a great deal of the film takes place over a pretty simple backdrop (albeit one incredibly difficult to achieve). But as Marlin rediscovers the world outside his reef, so too does he stumble into more and more color. There’s his own bright orange, the vivid yellow of Dory’s fins, the Hawaiian shirt patterning of the turtle shells, and the otherworldly, ominous pink of the jellyfish. Everything’s so pretty, but also pretty threatening. Fitting.
Easter Eggs: While Finding Nemo contains most of the usual Pixar Easter eggs — your A113s, your Pizza Planets, etc. — it also gave audiences a glimpse at some of the things coming down the Pixar pipeline. Look for the kid reading the Mr. Incredible book, as well as a glimpse of Luigi the car. That’s only fitting, as you can catch a glimpse of Nemo in Monsters Inc., which was released prior to this film.
Please Don’t Adopt a Clownfish: Predictably, Finding Nemo prompted something of a rush on saltwater fish, which is pretty weird, considering that the movie basically points out that having an aquarium involves kidnapping little fishies and keeping them in a box. Saltwater tanks are difficult to maintain, not to mention expensive and family-ruining. Worse still, it was environmentally rotten for the clownfish, leading to reef decimation. The technical term for this is “missing the point.”
Give Ellen an Oscar: Every once in a while, an animated performance breaks out in such a way that it develops awards buzz all its own. Think Andy Serkis in The Lord of the Rings trilogy or Robin Williams in Aladdin. Well, Ellen went there — her Dory is fiendishly funny, but has unexpected depths. Dory’s confusion is also a source of fun, but it’s the pathos that really hits home. “Give her an Oscar,” the people cried! “No,” cried Oscar voters!
Still, she got some hardware: a Kids Choice award, a Saturn Award, a nomination for Best Supporting Actress from the Chicago Film Critics Association. She also got a sequel, so you know. She’s doing fine.
Analysis: Like many of the Pixar films that followed, Finding Nemo found a way to tell a very adult story — here, grief and fear taking a positive instinct and making it damaging — in a jubilant, kid-friendly way. The funny sidekick is funny, but she’s also suffering from a pretty serious mental issue. The cute kid makes new friends, but they’re also basically captives who are slowly going insane. And the whole thing starts with death. Dark, sad, terrible death.
Still, the grim nature isn’t what makes Nemo so special. It’s the classic hero’s journey, for both Marlin and Nemo (and, to a certain extent, for Dory). Along the way, they meet unforgettable characters, face down personal demons, and find themselves giving in to their best and worst instincts. They learn about themselves, the world, and each other. Then, at long last, they are reunited. It’s a simple, unforgettable structure, going all the way back to the first stories that were ever told. It’s not just one of Pixar’s best. It’s one of the best animated movies ever made, and a story that will never, ever age. As long as there are people who love and fear for each other, there will be room for Nemo.
02. Up (2009)
Runtime: 1 hr. 36 min.
Pitch: Following the death of his wife, Carl, an already-introverted 78-year-old man, becomes even more withdrawn until a development project forces him to fulfill a promise made to his dearly departed by tying balloons to his house and travelling to South America. A young and eager boy scout named Russell unwittingly joins the journey, which has its share of hurdles, including a run-in with a childhood hero that doesn’t go as expected.
Cast: Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Jordan Nagai, and Bob Peterson
All the Colors of the Rainbow: Up is one of the most overtly emotional films in Pixar’s oeuvre (just ask these drunk guys), and the movie’s use of color perfectly amplifies whatever type of intensity a given scene is trying to get at, whether it’s the comfortable orange glow of the flashlight young Carl and Ellie use to read late at night, the vibrant hues of Kevin and his surrounding jungle environment, or the dark-yet-warm pinks and purples used as Ellie’s life winds down and Carl realizes what he’s losing with the passing of his best friend.
Easter Eggs: John Ratzenberger, who has had a voice role in every Pixar film to date, is the most immediate of Pixar’s many Easter eggs (even though he’s sometimes a major character), and this time around he plays Tom, a kindly construction worker who passively tries to coax Carl out of his home so the corporate construction can carry on without the house becoming another Hess triangle. Speaking of Easter eggs, Up has plenty of them: The grape soda bottle cap pin Ellie gives Carl is the same brand as seen in a Buzz Lightyear commercial from Toy Story, there’s an image of the Sunny Miami figurine from the 1989 Pixar short Knick Knack on the cover of a travel pamphlet, and of course, the Pizza Planet truck makes an appearance.
The Opening Scene: In terms of a dynamic range of feeling, the brief portion of the movie that chronicles Carl and Ellie’s life together might be Pixar’s most powerful four minutes ever. It’s a tremendous piece of visual storytelling that manages to hook viewers into the lives of these two non-verbal individuals in an instant, and we use the term “non-verbal” because while we don’t hear them speak, they’re hardly silent. It’s their actions that say it all.
Aside from the changes in their appearances, they demonstrate their growth and their changing relationship with each other in every small gesture and interaction with their environment. In the beginning, Ellie has to wait for Carl to climb up the picnic hill, but near the end it’s Ellie who’s unable to even summit it. In his advanced age, Carl reacts to the helium balloons lifting his cart off the ground with more confidence than he did as a naïve youngster. It’s these small touches that get at deeper emotional truths than words ever could. Robert Frost once said, “Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.” But sometimes thoughts can’t find words, or they don’t need to, and it’s during those times when a scene like this is so masterfully powerful.
The Sound of Music: Even though the score won a Grammy, a Golden Globe, and an Oscar, the music still might be this film’s most unsung hero. Michael Giacchino crafted a score based on character themes, which he manipulated in reprises throughout the course of the movie to highlight each character’s depth. Most powerfully, in going back to the opening scene, the composition ”Married Life” is the guiding light, shifting between whimsical, nostalgic, wistful, emotionally overwhelmed, and drained as it finds a direct path to the heart.
Analysis: Perhaps more than any other Pixar film, Up is the one to which “tough, manly men” openly admit to weeping, for the just-discussed reasons relating to its opening minutes. While the start of the movie is terrific at establishing this mood of emotional variance, the rest of the film has the burden of living up to that, a burden it satisfies. Carl and Russell’s adventure is a wild one, and it contains a multitude of different situations brought on by a multitude of different characters: Dug and Russell’s goofy personalities provide frequent comic relief, Charles F. Muntz and his dog minions add a sinister roadblock ahead of Carl’s goal, and Carl is our lens into this world, a lens who proves relatable as his arduous but revitalizing experiences mend his damaged heart.
Speaking of Carl’s goal, what is it? Like many great films, the surface motives of the characters slowly peel back over the course of the movie to reveal more abstract or less immediately tangible ones. In this case, Carl thought he needed to get to South America, but what he really needed was to have a sense of adventure and whimsy back in his life. Carl wanted to keep a promise and be somebody Ellie would have been proud of. And he did.
01. Toy Story (1995)
Runtime: 1 hr. 21 min.
Pitch: When a young boy named Andy leaves his toys behind in his bedroom, they can finally get on with their lives, happily ensconced in their small upstairs ecosystem, led by their beloved sheriff Woody. But when Andy gets a brand-new Buzz Lightyear doll for his birthday, Woody has to struggle with his diminished status in the room and with Andy, and Buzz has to struggle with Woody getting them both lost and the realization that he might not be what he thinks he is.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Don Rickles, Jim Varney, Wallace Shawn, John Ratzenberger, Annie Potts, R. Lee Ermey, and Erik von Detten
All the Colors of the Rainbow: You’ve already read enough about the iconic blue sky of Andy’s bedroom in this Dissected, so let’s move on to some of the film’s more classic aesthetics. There’s the aggressive arcade neon of Pizza Planet, the deified upper lights of the crane game, the tree-lined, fast-moving suburban streets through which Woody and Buzz race on their way away from home and back again. But perhaps the most memorable is Sid’s bedroom, a shadowy nightmare that looks like every moody ‘90s teenager’s room. You’re never too old to be horrified by the sight of a baby’s head affixed to an Erector set’s spare parts.
Also, it’s more a matter of lighting than color, but the sequence in which Buzz watches the commercial in Sid’s house, the reflection of his own existential nightmare played onto his visor through the soft light of a disregarded TV, stands as some of the studio’s best visual storytelling. It’s just as muted and sad as the revelation that comes with it.
Easter Eggs: Ah, the one time when Pizza Planet isn’t an Easter egg, but instead a plot point. Elsewhere, the Luxo ball plays a key part in Buzz’s big “flight” scene early on, the Pixar lamp sits on Andy’s desk, and if you look hard enough when Woody jumps into the toy chest, a little Mike Wazowski sits alongside him.
Oh, and Sid’s tool box comes from the most trusted brand in ‘90s television: Binford Tools, of Home Improvement fame. Go ahead, make the Tim Allen sound. It’s on the tip of your tongue. There we go. Moving on.
The Terror of Make Believe: For especially paranoid children, Toy Story was one long validation of their object permanence fears. The idea is so unique that dozens of animated films have attempted to approximate its head-slapping simplicity for years, but there’s still something eerie about the idea of your toys essentially putting on a performance of submissive obliviousness for you. (Toy Story 3 takes this idea to its logically hellish conclusion in the daycare scene, as previously discussed.) It’s the idea of them rag-dolling for your benefit that makes childhood memories a suddenly terrifying place.
Also, for the menace of the scenes in Sid’s room, nothing in Toy Story, or perhaps in any other Pixar movie, is as singularly terrifying as the moment when Woody breaks character to directly address Sid, a moment that left the angry young boy and the kids watching him equally terrified of all their most beloved dolls.
The Beginning of the Beginning: The highest-grossing film of 1995, Toy Story is also the first true full-length computer-animated feature. Now, in a world where Minions live on every food product you buy for some reason and Pixar has a lengthy enough filmography for this kind of obsessive feature, it seems odd that there was a time when the style felt new. But there’s one easy tell on the film’s age and place in the canon: It’s remarkably short for a feature-length feature. This makes sense when you consider that rendering each frame of the film could take up to 13 hours. And that’s on 1995 computers. Never, ever let somebody tell you that computer animation is any less complex than hand-drawn.
Analysis: If you were of a certain age when the first trailer for Toy Story debuted in theaters, you probably remember it. You remember the army men, the staircase, the uncanny fluidity of the animation. In a decade of films that was continually escalating in a mad dash to top what had come before and show audiences something exciting, Toy Story felt more than new. It felt special, like something that audiences had truly never seen before.
The animation has been expanded upon, but still looks better than no shortage of films that came long after. Pixar’s wisdom has always been rooted in drawing attention to story over voice cast or onscreen flash; particularly in the case of the latter, these things often age poorly. What keeps a viewer returning to a great film is more than its rewatchability; it’s the way in which it can tell a story that never stops seeming new. Even beyond animation, a great story is always exciting in that it’s told so well that you never tire of hearing it.
Toy Story is a great film, not only for its innovations but for creating a cinematic climate in which movies aimed at children could touch them without talking down to them. (At the risk of aging the author, a child of the ‘90s has grown to struggle mightily against how pandering a lot of the era’s pop culture for children really was.) It’s just a story of two lost toys trying to return home while coming to terms with the things they can’t change, but it’s about abandonment and hope and the fear of failure. It’s uproariously funny with a consistency that’s kind of remarkable when compared against many of the films it inspired, and it accomplishes the kind of timelessness that the great animated films, and great films at large, find with a natural ease.