Posted on Tuesday, June 26th, 2012 by Adam Quigley
The release of Inside Out is an invitation to revisit all the films from Pixar, going back to the studio’s 1995 debut Toy Story. That movie changed the landscape of feature animation with stunning immediacy; after Pixar hit the scene nothing was the same. The twenty years since have given us a total of fifteen animated films from the studio, and we can’t resist the urge to do a little comparison between them. Read our own Pixar ranking, below.
(This feature contains contributions from Adam Quigley, Germain Lussier, and Ethan Anderton.)
15. Cars 2
The struggle between art and commerce rages on, even with Pixar at the wheel. Cars may not have performed nearly as well theatrically as we’ve come to expect from Pixar, but what the film lacked in box office revenue it made up for in billions of dollars in merchandise. It seems fair to say that was a primary motivator for Pixar greenlighting a sequel to their least celebrated film, which has now in turn claimed that honor for itself. At the very least, Cars 2 should be admired for trying to take things in a decidedly different direction, centering the story around Mater (previously a supporting character) and spinning the series off into a riff on the spy genre — albeit a lamely derivative “mistaken identity” one. But hey, if the occasional Cars 2 is what’s needed to help finance Pixar’s more bold, original ideas, so be it.
John Lasseter has been very vocal about his love of cars, so it’s not surprising he would pour his automotive passions into a story that literally brings them to life. The inherent problem in that though, is that making a movie in which only sentient cars exist is stupid. Any way you look at it, the Cars universe is a logistical nightmare, save for one possibility in which it takes after Terminator (set in the distant future, when humankind has already been wiped out by the very thing it created). But no, the world of Cars is mostly a comedic afterthought (Volkswagen Beetles that are actually beetles! Hilarious!), and the characters it introduces are as blandly familiar as the story it tells with them. (*cough* Doc Hollywood!) Its message of tolerance and humility isn’t as lunkheaded as what Cars 2 dealt out, but it’s hardly fresh, and the lack of subtlety in Lightning McQueen’s character arc only makes it less so. At least the film’s racing sequences are impressive, overcoming the cartoonishly simplistic nature of the characters by surrounding them in photorealistic environments and thrillingly emphasizing the break-neck speeds at which they travel through them.
Brave is filled with plenty of grand, dramatic moments that beautifully embody the sort of heart-dropping theatrics Pixar has grown so skilled at composing. It’s the scenes between those moments that cause problems. By far the clunkiest story Pixar has told, Brave knows exactly what beats it needs to hit, because it repeatedly hits them before it’s done anything to earn them. It’s ostensibly an intimate tale of a mother-daughter relationship gone awry, but for once the relationship feels like a calculated obstacle, rather than an earnest, heartrending reflection of child-parent woes, a la Finding Nemo. Not enough time is dedicated to organically evolving their relationship within the action, so instead of feeling intimate, the film feels slight and forgettable. Equally problematic is the confused moral lesson at the heart of the fable, supposedly affirming how important it is to communicate and listen, but more realistically advocating a flat “listen to your parents” policy, because even if they don’t know best, they will probably, hopefully, maybe come around once you’ve proven your blind loyalty to them. (Didn’t Finding Nemo send pretty much the exact opposite message?)
12. A Bug’s Life
By any reasonable standard, A Bug’s Life is a great kid’s film. By Pixar standards, it’s a solid effort, and little more. And that’s just fine. The movie delivers where it counts: It’s charming, lively, superbly paced entertainment, loaded with plenty of vibrant personalities (Flik, Atta and Dot notwithstanding), exciting action, and even a few valuable messages for kids to digest. Most obvious is its “believe in yourself” truism, but more noteworthy is its depiction of a society that perpetuates its own oppresion out of fear, and rejects those who dare to question it. The tyrant in charge is Hopper, possibly my favorite Pixar villain, if only because Kevin Spacey brings to him that same maniacal glee that he so menacingly brandished in Swimming with Sharks. The film also has the advantage of featuring the tiniest characters Pixar has worked with yet, which sounds like an odd thing to laud until you take into account how heavily their films play with the scale of the world around the characters in order to generate rousing set pieces.
11. Monsters University
While Pixar fans were worried that Monsters University was a cash grab prequel banking on the success of the original Monsters Inc., the animation studio came through on crafting a college comedy fit for the whole family. Despite the fact that Monsters University had to retcon part of the friendship established between Mike and Sulley in Monsters Inc. (learn more about that right here), this prequel actually comes through on delivering the origin of their friendship in a pretty satisfying way. Some great new Pixar characters are introduced, including Dean Hardscrabble, a role that was originally meant for an actor, but ended up being fantastically played by Helen Mirren. And Mike and Sulley’s makeshift fraternity brothers are quite the motley crew as well. Even the worst Pixar movie is better than a majority of animated films from other studios out there, and this one is still a very respectable endeavor, especially for a prequel. Making it even more respectable is a lack of shoehorned references to characters from Monsters Inc. And like any Pixar movie, it has some wonderful life lessons for kids, in this case enforcing that you can be whatever you want to be with hard work, passion and dedication, and no one can stand in your way of fulfilling your dreams.