Ever since the release of Toy Story in 1995, Pixar has been seen as the “premier” studio of the animation medium. With their admirable ability to appeal to adults and children alike, the studio quickly received raves from both critics and crowds, as evidenced by their 14 Academy Awards and the $14 billion their 24 films have generated at the worldwide box office. As a result of this terrific track record, each new Pixar release has come with even higher expectations, and, miraculously, the studio has been able to match their audience’s anticipation for every new film, time and time again.
With the recent Disney+ debut of Luca, it’s as good a time as any to take a look back at Pixar’s past and revisit and rank all the prior features in their filmography so far. From Odd Couple-esque underwater odysseys like Finding Nemo to sweeping space-set romances like WALL•E to action-packed superhero spectacles like The Incredibles, the studio certainly has no shortage of creativity, and after so many masterpieces, it would seem like an impossible task to try and compare and contrast them all. Still, we’ve given it a shot below, considering every film from Toy Story to Cars to Inside Out and everything in between.
24. Cars 2 (2011)
The Cars series has long been seen as the “black sheep” of Pixar’s filmography, and while some may defend the first or third films, you’ll find few fans of this subpar sequel. Mater may have been a satisfying sidekick when the series started, but making him the lead this time around proved to be a massive misfire, as did the decision to deviate from the relatively grounded racing world of first Cars to instead spotlight a spy-film-parody-of-sorts that feels like it’s from another franchise entirely. Michael Caine and Emily Mortimer are amusing additions as Mater’s “undercover associates,” but even they can’t save this sequel from its sagging sense of humor and pedestrian plotting.
23. Toy Story 4 (2019)
After 2010’s Toy Story 3 wonderfully wrapped up Pixar’s flagship franchise, news of Toy Story 4 was understandably initially met with intense skepticism. And although, some found themselves pleasantly surprised by the choices the studio made in continuing the series in this fourth installment, it’s still hard not to see it as anything but a massive step down for the property that put Pixar on the map. This fourthquel is too heavily reliant on formula, revisiting past conflicts from prior sequels and recycling their story structures as well (with yet another “escape plot”), and it rewrites Woody’s character arc so drastically that he’s almost unrecognizable. And, sadly, the choice to focus almost solely on their standout sheriff sidelines the rest of the cast significantly, making this feel more like a Woody-centric spin-off as opposed to a true-blue sequel for the entire team.
22. Cars 3 (2017)
Cars 3 saw Pixar rebound after the abysmal critical reception to Cars 2, but despite all their efforts to bolster this threequel with their signature emotional pull, it still falls short of their strongest titles. The movie’s exploration of Lightning McQueen’s legacy and the push he feels to “pass on the torch,” is actually rather moving, but it’s a shame that the story isn’t similarly sophisticated, instead content to “go through the motions” for much of its first two thirds before an admittedly affecting finale. Likewise, the comedy here just isn’t as creative as it is elsewhere in the Pixar canon, and it seems to be mostly directed at children despite the film’s more “adult” look at aging and the studio’s history with appealing to all audiences. Cars 3 isn’t a misfire by any means, but it is one of Pixar’s most mediocre.
21. Soul (2020)
Soul is a story with a lot to say, but even though Pixar should be praised for even attempting to broach this subject matter in a “children’s movie,” it’s hard to ignore the scattered execution of the entire endeavor. All of the scenes set in “The Great Before” are largely brilliant, and it’s quite stunning to see how director Pete Docter explains “existence” after expertly exploring the complexity of human emotion in his prior film, Inside Out. However, when Jamie Foxx’s Joe and Tina Fey’s 22 head to Earth, the story stumbles significantly. Not only does it feel like it’s simply spinning its wheels until a predictably weepy wrap-up, but the decision to have Tina Fey inhabit Joe’s Black body for much of the movie’s middle is a particularly controversial plot choice that should’ve never seen the light of day, as critic Robert Daniels effectively explains here. And, with a conclusion that feels like a bit of a cop-out, Soul ends up being less than the sum of its parts.
20. Brave (2012)
Given Brave’s perilous production history – which included a late-in-the-game director change from Brenda Chapman to Marc Andrews after the former clashed with Pixar CCO John Lasseter creatively – it’s a miracle that the film feels cohesive at all, even if you can sometimes see it straining at the seams. As a result of fusing Chapman’s initial pitch with Andrews’ later adjustments, the story structure can seem a bit flimsy at times, and the picture is occasionally paced rather oddly, but the filmmakers nail both Merida’s compelling character development and her stormy – but sincere – relationship with her mother Elinor (voiced eloquently by the always terrific Emma Thompson). The plot’s predictability keeps it from being one of Pixar’s best, but as far as family-friendly animated entertainment goes, it’s still leagues ahead of the competition.
19. The Good Dinosaur (2015)
The Good Dinosaur is yet another Pixar picture that bore the brunt of significant behind-the-scenes struggles, and therefore, a concept with a surplus of story opportunities (“What if dinosaurs never went extinct?”) is reduced to a rather simple and straightforward “boy and his dog” saga, only with Raymond Ochoa’s Arlo playing the part of the “boy” and Jack Bright’s Spot taking on the role of the “dog.” Still, even if the narrative is nothing new, The Good Dinosaur gets by on the astounding vibrancy of its visuals (that firefly scene is surely an all-timer) and the sincerity of its unabashed – if uncomplicated – sentimentality. Sure, the film can feel like “Pixar on autopilot” at times, but when the characters are this well-defined and the emotional climax is this commoving, there’s little to complain about.
18. Incredibles 2 (2018)
After making audiences wait 14 years for a follow up, Pixar finally released Incredibles 2 in the summer of 2018, and crowds couldn’t get enough, with the sequel soon becoming the highest grossing feature in the studio’s filmography at the worldwide box office so far. Thematically, the title wasn’t quite as tightly structured or written as its predecessor, and it bites off a bit more than it can chew even in a near two-hour runtime (trying to tackle shifting gender roles, the struggles of co-parenting, and our society’s crippling addiction to technology simultaneously). However, it was still such a joy to see this super family reunited once more, and while the action-packed set pieces may have been animated, they rivaled anything you’d find in the average big-budget live-action summer blockbuster thanks to Brad Bird’s daring direction. It may not have been the home run the first Incredibles was, but it’s so thrilling in the moment that you hardly even notice.
17. Finding Dory (2016)
Finding Nemo was one of the Pixar films that felt least likely to become a series. After such a clean and tidy conclusion, what more story was there to explore? And when it was announced that yet another sidekick would be taking center stage in a Pixar sequel, fans immediately had flashbacks to Cars 2, fearing that too much Dory could tank this title. Thankfully, although Finding Dory is admittedly smaller in scale and scope than its predecessor, it was an unexpectedly poignant project that justified itself by thoughtfully texturing a character who was previously thought of no more than the “cheery comic relief,” with Dory’s backstory with her parents beautifully adding layers to her arc overall. Equally impressive was its ability to sustain Nemo’s sense of humor with wondrously witty dialogue and charming new cast members like Ed O’Neill as an ornery octopus and Idris Elba as a snappy sea lion. It certainly wasn’t a new classic, but it was a reassuring sign that non-Toy Story Pixar sequels could still be solid.
16. Onward (2020)
Onward didn’t get a fair shake at the box office – releasing right before COVID-19 shut down cinemas across the world – and, as a result, it’s one of the most underrated and underseen Pixar titles, period. While it may not be bursting with originality the way the best Pixar originals are (incorporating elements from a variety of other fantasy features), it’s easily one of their most emotional epics to date, with a rousing denouement that will leave every audience member dewy-eyed. Credit must be given to writer-director Dan Scanlon for producing such a personal picture and sharing this stirring story with the world, as it’s his audacious authenticity that makes the movie as meaningful as it ultimately is. Additionally, Tom Holland and Chris Pratt’s valiant vocal performances further bolster the brotherly bond between their characters and prove essential to its poignancy.
15. Monsters University (2013)
As the lone prequel in Pixar’s filmography, Monsters University is a bit of an outlier, but even if this story choice seemed questionable at the start, it quickly became clear that there was indeed room to explore the relationship between Mike and Sully even more and see who they were before they became such fast friends. While the Animal House-esque antics are undeniably amusing, it’s the film’s elegantly constructed emotional core that helps it earn its existence, delving into the truth behind our dreams and how they evolve over the course of our lives in a remarkably mature manner. The representation of Mike realizing that he’ll never become the standout scarer he’s always aspired to be is appropriately adult in a way that feels revolutionary for an animated film, as its explanation that he and Sully had to work to earn their positions at Monsters Inc. instead of being the cliché “chosen ones” who had this task bestowed upon them. Its plot may not be Pixar’s most inventive, but it’s themes are so touching that they make up for it.
14. Cars (2018)
Yes, it’s basically a beat-by-beat rip-off of Doc Hollywood, and yes, it was primarily produced to make Disney a lot of merchandising money, but in spite of all those critiques and complaints, Cars still isn’t anywhere near as bad as its reputation would suggest. For starters, its cast is captivating enough to make it surface-level entertaining, with Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, Bonnie Hunt, Larry the Cable Guy, George Carlin, and Michael Keaton all turning in immensely winning work with fully committed vocal performances that provide these colorful characters with considerable personality. Even if you know exactly where the story is going, they inject the film with such exceptional energy and emotion that it’s hard not to be somewhat engaged. In particular, Wilson makes McQueen’s conventional character arc appealing with the perfect balance of cockiness and charm and some killer comedic timing. And if you don’t tear up during the “Our Town” montage, is your heart made of stone?
13. A Bug’s Life (1998)
A Bug’s Life often gets lost in the shuffle when looking back at Pixar’s previous pictures, as it had the unfortunate position of being released in between the first two Toy Story films – both of which are widely regarded as two of the best animated films of all-time. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the less innovative feature – loosely inspired by the Aesop fable The Ant and the Grasshopper – pales in comparison, but don’t let that make you think it’s unworthy of the Pixar mantle by any means. Once again, the studio assembled an all-star cast (comprised of the talents of Dave Foley, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Denis Leary, Bonnie Hunt, David Hyde Pierce, and Madeline Kahn), and their convincing chemistry goes a long way towards elevating A Bug’s Life from its familiar foundation. And while it may lack the potent emotional pull of the more “moving” Pixar films, the comedy here is top-notch, and it may very well be some of the best in the studio’s entire canon, with the “Circus Bugs”’ camaraderie proving to be priceless.
12. WALL•E (2008)
Often regarded as the critical favorite of Pixar’s filmography, WALL•E could be seen by some as ranking too low on this list, but its placement here speaks more to the strength of the films above it than to any supposed disdain for this soft hearted sci-fi robot romance. In fact, the first 30 minutes of the film might be Pixar’s finest filmmaking, instantly immersing audiences in this alluring atmosphere with little to no dialogue and relying solely on sound effects and mesmerizing kinetic movement. While the scenes set aboard the Axiom lack some of the magical majesty of the movie’s opening, director Andrew Stanton’s ability to keep audiences engaged despite eschewing expectations for what they’d come to count on from character development or story structure in Pixar films is incredibly impressive, as is his skill with suffusing the script with social commentary on consumerism and climate change. It’s the closest Pixar has come to making an art film, and for that alone, it should be celebrated.
11. Luca (2021)
Pixar’s most recent release lands near the middle of the pack and right outside of the studio’s top ten, a strong show of support for one of their simplest stories to date that simultaneously packs one of their strongest emotional punches. The fish out of water fable may be straightforward structurally, but its subtext is resoundingly resonant and rich, speaking to the struggles that outsiders – and more specifically, those in the LGBTQ+ community – face when attempting to assimilate into a society that forces them to suppress their true self in order to fit in. The movie’s calming, Miyazaki-esque charm only adds to its appeal, as do the passionate vocal performances from some of today’s standout child stars, Jacob Tremblay, Jack Dylan Grazer, and newcomer Emma Berman. Even if the concept here isn’t as complex as what we’ve come to expect from Pixar, Luca’s lighthearted liveliness sets it apart from the studio’s more intricately involving sagas, which is necessary after 24 feature films – sometimes, it’s advantageous to switch up the size of your stories from time to time.
10. Ratatouille (2007)
On paper, it’s easy to see how Ratatouille might not have seemed like a home run – would audiences really take to a movie about a rat who wants to cook? Remarkably, Brad Bird’s screenplay takes such a preposterous premise and infuses it with wit and warmth, capably balancing both the comicality of the concept and the maturity of its central messages. “Anyone can cook” has become a mantra for creatives in any field, inspired to defy those who would doubt their talents the same way Remy subverts stereotypes and shows the world his true worth. Patton Oswalt makes for a plucky and pleasant protagonist, while Ian Holm is an amusing antagonist as the snippy Chef Skinner, and Peter O’Toole nearly steals the movie as chic food critic Anton Ego in the film’s compassionate climax. And don’t even get us started on the scrumptious animation on all that fine French cuisine.
9. Coco (2017)
Not only did Coco shine a light on Mexican culture in a manner rarely seen in cinema, much less in animated form, it also featured one of Pixar’s most powerful plots to date, following a young musician named Miguel on his mission to mirror his musical idol, Ernesto de la Cruz, and later find out the truth behind his family’s history and their mysterious ban on music. Without a doubt, Coco is one of Pixar’s densest pictures to date, with a script that continually upends expectations and constantly reveals new depth and dimension. Each twist here is even more moving than the last, and the ultimate destination is undeniably one of Pixar’s most profound moments in their entire filmography. A look at life and loss has never felt as “alive” as Coco, and the lessons learned here are unshakeable thanks to the touching approach director Lee Unkrich and co take to honor the past with persuasive passion.
8. Toy Story 3 (2010)
Toy Story 3 accomplished the titanic task of not only extending the exceptional quality of the prior two pictures in this series but also wrapping up what could very well be the greatest trilogy in cinematic history with the fondest of farewells, bringing the franchise full circle and assuring that there wasn’t a dry eye in any theater around the world. With stunning sophistication, Toy Story 3 showed that change didn’t have to be feared – as the toys transitioned from a life with Andy to a new beginning with Bonnie – and that even when the future is uncertain, there’s no choice but to push forward regardless, respecting what’s come before but accepting a new adventure all the same. It’s too bad the series was unnecessarily stretched out even further, as this is one of the only examples in film of how to end a franchise with grace.
7. Up (2009)
Any analysis of Up is incomplete without emphasizing how utterly soul crushing its prologue is, recounting the romance between Carl and Ellie Fredricksen until her untimely death, which devastates the former and causes him to tragically turn away from the world, leading to the events in the film. Much like WALL•E’s deeply felt first act, this is an almost unparalleled feat of filmmaking that all but assures that the audience will be enraptured the whole way through, but the story is also so much more than this operatic opening, with Carl and Russell’s perilous pursuit of Paradise Falls being equally engaging thanks to exciting action and charismatic characters. And most of all, the movie’s final message that an individual isn’t just afforded one adventure in their lifetime is much-needed for viewers of all ages, reminding us that our time is never up until it’s truly up, and we owe it to those who have passed on to live our remaining days to the fullest in their memory.
6. Toy Story 2 (1999)
One of the greatest sequels ever made, Toy Story 2 takes every terrific element from its predecessor and dials it up to an eleven, with a script that is as savvy as ever (full of character-based humor that is fast, frenzied, and hysterically funny) and fully fleshed out comical additions to the cast like Joan Cusack’s Jessie (who instantly became a fan favorite) and Kelsey Grammer’s Prospector Pete. On the surface, it may seem a bit “breezier” when compared to the first film, but its exploration of Woody’s temptation of life beyond Andy and subsequent realization that “life is only worth living if you’re being loved by a kid” is richly rendered, as is his reconciliation with the fact that, though his time with Andy may be finite, he “wouldn’t miss it for the world.” As stated in another major Disney franchise, “a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts,” and Toy Story 2 tenderly transfers these thoughts unto viewers as it simultaneously makes their sides hurt from its stellar slapstick set pieces.
5. Toy Story (1995)
The one that started it all remains as riveting as ever, and although Pixar may have drastically improved their animation in the past 25 years, the level of innovative craft on display in Toy Story is still just as impressive over two decades later. Thankfully, the studio’s storytelling prowess matches their technical exceptionalism, and they elevate this simple conflict between a sheriff and a space ranger into a universal treatise on the fortitude of friendship and the courage it takes to embrace and accept unexpected change in one’s life and see it as natural instead of negative. The adventure here may seem “small” compared to the sequels, but it helps this first film fly by at a brisk, perfectly paced 81 minutes. And who could find any fault with a film that gave us instantly iconic characters like Woody and Buzz, expertly embodied by the towering talents of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen? To this day, those two are seen as the “face” of Pixar, and for good reason – if they didn’t become the stars they are now, the studio would’ve never been a success.
4. Finding Nemo (2003)
Finding Nemo is yet another example of Pixar perfectly juggling simplicity and sagacity, with a story about a clownfish father searching the sea for his abducted son doubling as a thoughtful tale about trust and the pains of parenthood. From the smart and sweet script by writer-director Andrew Stanton to the classic characterizations of Marlin and Dory courtesy of Albert Brooks and the ever-excellent Ellen DeGeneres, Finding Nemo fires on all cylinders over the course of its 100-minute runtime, never missing a comedic or emotional beat and beautifully balancing a torrent of tones as if it were no work whatsoever. It’s an epic in every sense of the word, transporting audiences to sumptuous underwater settings with still-impressive state-of-the-art animation, and its heart is so huge that it’s absolutely impossible to not be stupefied by its staggeringly sincere spirit. If we were ranking these films on rewatchability, it’s very likely that Nemo might even be #1.
3. Monsters Inc. (2001)
The witty and whimsical workplace comedy Monsters Inc. achieves the astounding feat of being both exhilarating animated entertainment for all audiences about comical, cuddly creatures and an elaborate examination of the perils of propaganda and the reckoning one must do when their entire belief system is revealed to be founded on falsehoods. In fact, in recent years, the prescient parallels between the plot of Monsters Inc. and our current political climate have only become clearer, as we too lived under a leader like Mr. Waternoose who used fear of “the other” (children, in this case) to preserve his power (literally) when harmony would be more helpful for humanity overall. Now, this isn’t to say that Monsters Inc. is a sour social screed by any means – as it also features some of Pixar’s best comedic bits thanks to the credible chemistry between John Goodman and Billy Crystal – but Pete Docter’s striking script takes no prisoners in its portrayal of Mike and Sully’s reconciliation with their realities and ensuing emotional development, conveying complex themes in a child-friendly package. It’s Pixar in its prime, capturing their capacity to create some of the most thematically mature movies in any medium.
2. The Incredibles (2004)
Somehow, The Incredibles successfully deconstructed the superhero craze years before it even began, with Brad Bird’s seasoned script investigating the importance of heroes and the immense responsibility they have to the world in a realistic and relevant manner that previously hadn’t been seen onscreen. To date, few superhero films (save for perhaps The Dark Knight or Logan) have been able to match the potency of its philosophizing, and its grander ponderings on the place for heroes in modern society still inspire deep discussion and discourse today. Furthermore, it’s remarkable how Bird did a Fantastic Four movie better than the filmmakers behind the three actual Fantastic Four movies that have been released so far, with Bob, Helen, Dash, Violet, and Jack-Jack serving as the only super family we’ll ever need, thanks to their precisely characterized personalities that are impossible to replicate. And, one would be remiss not to mention the awe-inspiring action sequences Bird and co. craft here, setting new standards for the superhero and spy genres – in animation, no less.
1. Inside Out (2015)
Inside Out shouldn’t have worked. An exposé on the intricacy of human emotions and how they influence our actions and contribute to the creation of our identity? Is such a subject even filmable? In the face of astronomical apprehension, writer-director Pete Docter took on Pixar’s most conceptually challenging creation to date, and despite facing formidable pressure to “perfectly” portray these psychological processes, he never relented in realizing his vision. As a result, Docter delivered what can be considered the studio’s crowning achievement. With considerate comedy that never undercuts the more meaningful emotional machinations brewing beneath the surface, Docter kept audiences exceptionally entertained until the true secret of his story emerged and they were made aware of one of the most astonishingly authentic depictions of depression ever captured in cinema. Going even further, Docter’s true success came with his decision to substantiate the significance of sadness in times of struggle in the film’s finale, persuasively stating that there can be no pleasure in life without pain – a statement that’s been tough to swallow for individuals of all ages since the dawn of time. To sum up this lesson so succinctly – and in such a soothing manner – is nothing short of sensational, and when assisted by a voice cast (Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black, Bill Hader, and Mindy Kaling) that effectively exemplifies his emotions and fully commits to his contemplative musings, Docter was able to make Pixar’s premier masterpiece.
All 24 Pixar films are currently available to stream on Disney+.