Toy Story 3 is coming out in less than a week. It will mark the 11th Pixar film. That’s 11 films in 15 years, which is impressive considering the high standards the company lives up to. In my very humble opinion, John Lasseter and team have never made a bad movie. Which is why when I decided to rank the top Pixar films, I realized I couldn’t leave any out. So, here is the part 1 of my 3 part review of the 10 previous Pixar films. NOTE: I know the large majority of readers will disagree with my rankings in one way or another. In fact, I am still torn about some of my choices (especially the ones in the middle). Feel free to comment (respectfully) below!
#10 A Bug’s Life (1998)
Directors: John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton
John Ratzenberger Role: P.T. Flea
You’ve got a lot of spunk kid, but no one’s gonna help a bunch of ants.
I have a feeling this is one of the films readers will be mad I put so low on the list, but let me say that I do not think this is a bad movie. First of all, A Bug’s Life visually opened up doors for computer animated films. Unlike Toy Story, Pixar’s 2nd film is set primarily outdoors; even more than 10 years later, the background of A Bug’s Life looks really good. This was the first computer animated film that really showcased water, which is not as easy to animate as many assume.
The voicework in the film is far from bad. We have a great villain in Kevin Spacey as Hopper, everyman Dave Foley as protagonist Flik, Julia Louise-Dreyfus as love-interest Atta and the impeccable Phylus Diller as the sassy Ant Queen. Perhaps two of the most memorable performances are from Denis Leary as Francis, the male ladybug with a temper and the late Joe Ranft as Heimlich, the always hungry caterpillar with a German accent. I find it particularly interesting that the film features two of the classic character actors of the 20th century (Planet of the Apes’ Roddy MacDowell and Lost in Space’s Jonathan Harris) and two unknown child actresses who would later become household names (Heroes’ Hayden Panettiere as Princess Dot and Disney Channel star Ashley Tinsdale as Dot’s Blueberry Scout Leader).
The big problem I have with the film is the story. Flik the Ant goes out into the world to find stronger bugs that can help his fellow ants stand up to Hopper and his horde of grasshoppers. Flik mistakes a troupe of circus bugs (made up of Leary, Ranft, Harris, Brad Garrett, Michael McShane, Bonnie Hunt, David Hyde Pierce and the always wonderful Madeline Kahn) for grasshopper killers. When it is eventually discovered that he made a huge mistake, he is shunned from his colony, only to redeem himself by finally taking down the grasshoppers. It is so formulaic, it hurts. I’d even say it is the weakest of the Pixar plots. It’s also the Pixar movie I remember the least. I couldn’t remember even one quote from that film off the top of my head. And I’m particularly still bitter that Madelin Kahn was so underused (this was one of her last films before she died and it just seemed like a waste of her amazing talent). That being said, it still knocks the socks off of Antz, the cookie-cutter clone Dreamworks threw together to compete with A Bug’s Life.
#9 Cars (2006)
Directors: John Lasseter and Joe Ranft
John Ratzenberger Role: Mack the Semi
“I’m tellin’ you, man, every third blink is slower.”
“…The ’60s weren’t good to you, were they?”
There is a good amount of criticism about Pixar’s 7th film. I’ll be the first to admit that the concept of Cars still frustrates me. And Larry the Cable Guy is far from a thespian. But there are a lot of great things in this movie and I don’t think it gets the credit it deserves.
Lightening McQueen (Luke Wilson) is a talented, but selfish rookie racecar about to perform in the Piston Cup. On his way to the race in California, Lightening gets lost and winds up accidentally destroying the only road in Radiator Springs, a slowly dying town just off of Route 66. As he works off his debt to the town, McQueen starts caring about those around him instead of just himself.
The characters here are much more memorable for me than in Bug’s Life. Two in particular are hippie Fillmore and ex-military Sarge (played by George Carlin and Paul Dooley), who provide the quote above. But I have to give props to Tony Shaloub, who I didn’t realize played the delightful Italian car Luigi (although I think I loved animator Guido Quarori as Luigi’s assistant Guido even better). Paul Newman is good in almost anything and his portrayal of an old racecar who wants to forget his past is understated and very Newman. And you know what? I really liked Larry the Cable Guy as Mater. Yes, he is just playing himself (or at least his onstage personality), but the way the character is written, it works here. There are also some great cameos from real life racing legends, including Mario Andretti, Michael Schumacher and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Richard Petty has a larger role as one of McQueen’s main competitors.
Like A Bug’s Life, the setting is really detailed and lovely. So much of the film is about being able to slow down and appreciate what you have. There are sweeping shots that bring the majestic beauty of the American west (especially along the iconic Route 66) to audiences who have never experienced it.
The climax is a bit controversial (Lightening makes a choice that many audience members have questioned), but I get the point the filmmakers were trying to make. The biggest reason I put this above A Bug’s Life is that I enjoy watching it more. It’s funnier and the story is better. I also really loved the bit during the credits where John Ratzenberger’s character makes a tongue-in-cheek comment on his other Pixar roles.
#8 Monsters Inc. (2001)
Directors: Pete Doctor, David Silverman, Lee Unkrich
John Ratzenberger Role: The Abominable Snowman
Once you name it, you start getting attached to it. Now put that thing back where it came from or so help me… Oh, hey. We’re rehearsing a… a scene for the upcoming company play called uh, “Put That Thing Back Where It Came From Or So Help Me”. It’s a musical.
Like Cars, this is one of the few Pixar movies featuring a world completely separated from our own. A big reason Monsters Inc. is one rank higher than Cars is that this world works much better for me.
In the film, there are two worlds: the human world and the monster world. The monster world is dependent on electricity generated from the screams of human children. To gather this energy, an elite force of scarers make their living going briefly into the human world through closet doors and scaring little kids. As one of the early trailers for the film explained, “It isn’t personal, it’s just their job.” But when Sulley, one of the companies top scarers (John Goodman) accidentally lets a little girl into their world, panic quickly ensues (thanks to the myth than human children are toxic). Sulley and his best friend Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) have to find a way to get the girl (whom Sulley names “Boo”) back to her home, but quickly learn that she is not only harmless, but also very sweet.
The success of this movie really comes down to the chemistry between Goodman and Crystal. They play off each other really nicely and you understand why they were chosen for their roles. I personally think Crystal steals the show, but Goodman gives Monsters Inc its heart. Steve Buchemi was also well-cast as the slick reptilian antagonist Randall. But perhaps Pixar’s smartest move was using a real toddler (Pixar storyboard artist Rob Gibb’s daughter Mary) as the voice of Boo. Boo embodies every little kid I’ve ever had to babysit and you can completely understand how Sulley falls under her spell.
Besides the nicely done inside jokes (many of which are in the background and can only be found after multiple viewings) and the strong comedic timing in general, there is a strong moral question woven through this children’s film. We see protagonist who begin to understand that what they do for a living (what they have been taught to see as just a part of life) is not only unnecessary, but ethically wrong. The moment where Sulley sees himself through the eyes of the children he is frightening is one of the best parts of the whole movie. If only all of life’s dilemmas could be fixed by a child’s laughter.
# 7 Finding Nemo
Director: Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich
John Ratzenberger Role(s): The School of Fish
If this is some kind of practical joke, it’s not funny! And I know funny! I’m a clownfish!
There is a little voice in the back of my head asking me how I could put this wonderful film so low on the list. Trust me, it hurts me to put Finding Nemo at #7, but the next few films on the list beat it out by just a sliver. I hope my fellow Pixar fans will understand.
Finding Nemo tells the story of Marlin (Albert Brooks), a clownfish living in the coral reefs near Australia whose son Nemo is taken by a diver. Marlin, with the help of the forgetful Dory (Ellen Degeneres), makes his way to Sydney. Nemo, now in a fish tank at a dentist office, has to find a way back to the ocean before he is given away to the dentist’s little niece, notorious for shaking fish to death!
This is the first Pixar film to really deal with death. The first scene ends with Marlin losing the love of his life and most of his unborn children. When we see him next, we understand why he is so over-protective of his son. That being said, the film makes a point of teaching a lesson to parents about letting their children grow up. It also teaches children that you shouldn’t be limited by what others see as limitations (Nemo has an underdeveloped fin, but ends up saving the day through determination and confidence in himself). By the end of the film, both father and son have grown as individuals and their relationship is stronger because of it.
This is my absolute favorite Albert Brooks character (barely beating out his guest role on The Simpsons as Bond villian/awesome boss Hank Scorpio). He is neurotic and anxious, but you know why he is like he is. He also makes a great straight man to Degeneres’ Dory. Speaking of Ellen, this role saved her career! But she might also be the best part of this movie. That being said, there are some other great performances in this film. Williem Dafoe knocks it out of the park as the dark Gill, Geoffrey Rush actually plays a good guy (crazy, right?) as the pelican trying to help Nemo escape and Brad Garrett comes back to Pixar as the blowfish Bloat.
What I love most is how ideas we have are turned upside down. Like Toy Story, the “villain” is actually just a kid who can’t comprehend her own actions. There is something delightful about knowing the fish at the doctor’s office have learned medical procedures from years of observation. And I don’t know if I have laughed harder than when we first discover the seagulls are actually just saying, “MINE!” And let us not forget that, like Cars and the American West, Finding Nemo gave audiences around the world a chance to enjoy the beauty of our oceans.