From Suck to Nonsuck: The Films of Pixar, Pt. 1


This Friday sees the release of Pixar’s thirteenth animated feature film, Brave.  Even though I’ve seen some less than enthusiastic reviews, I’m still ridiculously excited for it, because, well, it’s Pixar.  That little bouncing lamp in front of a film has been a mark of quality since 1995, to the point where Pixar has sort of become its own worst enemy.  They’ve released such a collection of undisputed classics, that any film that falls short of that level is seen as a disappointment, even if it’s miles beyond what other animation studios are currently doing.  It’s a great curse to bear.

Pixar’s known for their expansive, meticulous, intensely collaborative approach to storytelling, one that’s been defined as “going from suck to nonsuck.”  They’ll work and re-work their stories until they feel they’ve gotten them right, often right down to the last second; Toy Story 2 was famously scrapped and re-started almost from scratch a mere year before its release date.  And even if the results aren’t always everyone’s cup of tea, there’s no denying the skill and artistry put into each one.  You’re never going to see a poorly made Pixar film.

So with Brave on the horizon, and with the trailer for Monsters University hitting the web, I thought I’d spend the next two days ranking the Pixar films, my own version of going from suck to nonsuck.  Not that any of these films could be said to outright suck; when you’re comparing Pixar to Pixar, all things are relative.  Besides, there are a lot of studios who would kill to call one of Pixar’s lesser efforts their own.

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11.  Cars and Cars 2 (John Lasseter, 2006 and 2011)

A caveat is in order here:  I’ve yet to see Cars 2.  It’s the only Pixar film I didn’t see theatrically, and it’s because I really couldn’t muster any enthusiasm for it based on the first film.  And from all indications, it’s unlikely I would have ranked it higher than its predecessor.  I liked Cars well enough when I first saw it.  It’s certainly one of the best-looking of the Pixar films, all shiny metal and polished chrome.  On a purely technical level, it’s a marvel.  And it’s a visual treat, too, from the way Lasseter and company eschewed the traditional “headlights as eyes” design for anthropomorphic cars to the automobile-themed landscapes.  As pure eye candy, it’s hard to beat.  But here’s one case where, for me, Pixar dropped the ball on the story.  For one thing, Cars is basically a remake of the Michael J. Fox film Doc Hollywood — big shot from the city ends up stuck in a small town and learns what life is all about.  And while there’s nothing wrong with that story on its surface, by this point in Pixar’s history, we’d come to expect more.  But there are no surprises here, no clever variations on a time-worn plot.  Cars also doesn’t make a lot of sense on a lot of levels.  Where are all the people? Did they disappear?  Did they ever exist?  We can accept talking toys and talking rats because they’re still grounded in our world, but the world of Cars never fully suspends our disbelief, so those nagging questions stick in your mind.  It’s all done competently enough, but it’s just missing that Pixar spark that made the ten films that follow so special.

John Ratzenberger Watch:  Ratzenberger has been a Pixar mainstay since the first Toy Story film.  Here, he’s Mack, the 18-wheeler that’s Lightning’s transport from race to race, and who inadvertently sets the story in motion.

Most Memorable Moment:  The opening race is absolutely dazzling, with a tremendous sense of speed and power. It’s a tour de force for Pixar’s animators, and something the film never really quite tops.

Most Valuable Voice:  While Larry the Cable Guy was the breakout here with his turn as the tow truck Mater, I’m going to go with Paul Newman as Doc Hudson, the venerable old car who imparts some sage wisdom to the impulsive Lightning McQueen.  It was Newman’s final role (he narrated two documentaries after this), and his easy-going voice of authority was a welcome addition and a suitable farewell.

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Toy_Story_3_poster10.  Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich, 2010)

Look, I was right there crying at the end along with the rest of you.  As a heartfelt send-off to these characters we’d been following for fifteen years, Toy Story 3 works like gangbusters.  The problem is, as a film of its own, it’s not nearly as successful. That’s because that emotion we feel at the end, as Andy says good-bye to his beloved toys, comes more from our residual affection for the characters than from anything the film itself has done.  It’s relying on baggage we’re bringing in from the first two films to create emotional weight.  And while that’s not necessarily a bad thing — much of the impact of the end of The Return of the King comes from the weight of what transpired in the previous two films — here, it feels like a shortcut, an easy way to jerk the tears.  It doesn’t help that what precedes those final scenes is pretty much a re-hash of the far superior Toy Story 2, with Woody once again separated from the gang, and the gang once again coming to his rescue.  There was a real opportunity here to say as much about toys as discarded playthings as Toy Story 2 did about toys as sterile collectibles, but the film is content to wander from scene to scene and gag to gag without really ever building towards everything.  Honestly, in a year where critics were falling all over themselves to praise this film, How to Train Your Dragon was the far superior animated offering.  This is still a good movie.  I just wish it had  been the great finale the series deserved.

John Ratzenberger Watch:  Back for one final go-round as Hamm the piggy bank, but with sadly not much to do this time.

Most Memorable Moment:  The toys, betrayed by Lotso, face almost certain destruction in the junkyard’s incinerator.  And in the face of this, they simply join hands and stare into the flames, taking comfort in the one thing that has endured no matter what:  their friendship.  It’s a more emotionally honest moment than the ending, and an incredibly dark place for a film like this to go, and to be honest, if that’s how the film had chosen to send them off, the howls of outrage would have been worth it.

Most Valuable Voice:  Ned Beatty is a great choice for the voice of Lotso, the lovable, huggable bear who turns out to be not so lovable after all.  Our image of Beatty is as this nebbishy little man, so hearing his warm syrupy voice coming from Lotso really makes his eventual malevolent reveal all the more of a surprise.

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A_Bug's_Life9.  A Bug’s Life (John Lasseter, 1998)

The “too good for its own good” curse bit Pixar right off the bat with its second film. The biggest crime A Bug’s Life committed was coming out in the still rapturous afterglow of Toy Story.  Don’t be fooled by it coming in at #9 here; it’s a delightful film that’s also a tremendous technical leap forward for Pixar.  Like Cars, it’s a riff on a familiar story, this time The Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven, with a colony of ants taking on the roll of the oppressed villagers, a marauding band of grasshoppers as the bandits, and the members of a traveling circus as the samurai/gunfighters.  It makes sense that Pixar would fall back on a tried and true framework for their sophomore effort, so even if it’s a bit of a batting practice fastball, they still knock it out of the park spectacularly.  Boasting a much brighter look than its competitor Antz (which opened a mere two months earlier), the animation here is incredible, with the characters so realistically realized that at times they look more like stop-motion models than CGI renderings.  While the story’s template isn’t deviated from all that much, there’s a great cast of characters, including Denis Leary’s constantly angry ladybug Francis, and Jonathan Harris bringing his practiced theatricality to Manny, the praying mantis magician.  So what if it’s a solid double to Toy Story‘s lead-off home run?  It’s still a fun little film that shows a studio learning that they didn’t just get lucky the first time around.

John Ratzenberger Watch:  P.T. Flea, owner and proprietor of the circus from which Flik gathers his supposed “warrior bugs.”  Ratzenberger makes “Flaming death!” one of the most memorable lines in the film.

Most Memorable Moment:  The ants unleash their plan to frighten Hopper and his hordes away with a gigantic fake bird.  It’s a great visual set piece, and the bird itself is made to seem much scarier than the collection of leaves and twigs it actually is.

Most Valuable Voice:  As great as Leary is, Kevin Spacey as Hopper hands-down walks away with this film.  He’s deliciously menacing, really seeming to savor every single malicious word that escapes his lips.  He turns Hopper into one of the best villains of any Pixar film, and of any Disney film, for that matter.

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Monsters_Inc8.  Monsters, Inc. (Pete Docter, 2001)

For a while, Monsters, Inc. sat comfortably near the top of my list of Pixar films.  It ending up here at #8 is partly due to the much stronger films that came after it, but also because it’s slipped a little in my estimation over time.  It possesses perhaps the best concept of any Pixar film — that there’s a world of monsters powered by the fear of children — and the studio’s first really fully believable and successful human character, Boo, who’s just a little bundle of adorable every second she’s on-screen. Despite its wonderful premise, Monsters, Inc. suffers somewhat from a lack of imagination.  Beyond the main characters — pals Mike and Sully, bad guy Randall, and boss Waternoose — the monster designs are fairly mundane.  Granted, this may have been a matter of both limited time and resources, especially considering the absolutely jaw-dropping and no doubt exhaustive work done on Sully’s fur here, but to have such vivid characters interacting with what amount to nothing more than colored blobs is disappointing.  And I’m not as enamored with Billy Crystal as I used to be, which is not a fault of the film, but having seen pretty much this same shtick from him for years, it’s gotten old, even if this time he’s a little green ball with one eye.  But the core of the story — the growing relationship between Boo and the two monsters — remains as strong as ever, and is so sweet and charming, it makes up for the film’s other faults.

John Ratzenberger Watch:  A real scene-stealing sequence as the supposedly terrifying Abominable Snowman.

Most Memorable Moment:  Although I thought about the sheer joy of Boo’s “Kitty!” when she’s reunited with Sully, how can this be anything but the incredible chase through the door factory?  It’s a dizzying piece of virtuoso design and animation, filled with a real sense of speed and unpredictability.  I’m fairly certain it was the high from this thrilling segment that had me regard the film so highly for so long, and it easily ranks among the best work Pixar has ever done.

Most Valuable Voice:  John Goodman brings a lovable gruffness to Sully.  He doesn’t so much play the role as inhabit it, and his shambling charm goes a long way towards offsetting Crystal’s antics.

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7.  Toy Story (John Lasseter, 1995)

Again, this is less a statement on this film’s quality and more a statement on the quality of the ones that follow it.  But make no mistake, the impact and importance of the original Toy Story can’t be overstated, even if it finds itself midway down on this list.  It put Pixar on the map with a remarkably assured debut, and it cemented CGI as a viable form of animation, even if it did inadvertently help usher in the gradual diminishing of Disney’s venerable traditional animation studio.  What really stands out here is how fully developed and realistic the themes are.  For all its appearance of being a mere children’s film, there are some very adult ideas about jealousy, belonging, identity and friendship going on here, early on demonstrating that Pixar understood from the beginning that most of the truly enduring children’s stories have no qualms about going to dark, complex places.  Ironic, considering the studio through which they released the film is well-known for sanitizing those same stories.  But Toy Story isn’t afraid to have Woody allow Buzz to get knocked out that window, or to have Buzz heart-breakingly — and arm-breakingly — be unable to fly, or show us what seemingly grotesque terrors lurk under Sid’s bed.  There’s so much trust between the filmmakers and their audience here, knowing just how far they can go, and how far we’re willing to follow.  It’s a masterful balancing act, and they pulled it off with their very first try.

John Ratzenberger Watch:  Ratzenberger originates the role of Hamm here, and while this isn’t his high mark for the character, he’s an indispensable part of the ensemble.

Most Memorable Moment:  To this day, I still watch the “I Will Go Sailing No More” sequence and think that maybe, just maybe, this will be time Buzz actually does make it up to that window.  His upward leap is filled with such hope, such potential, the film almost makes you believe that little toy really can fly.  And then his disappointed look, his fall, and that gut-wrenching shot of him broken on the floor.  It’s a sublimely moving scene.

Most Valuable Voice:  As good as Tom Hanks is as Woody, it’s Tim Allen as Buzz all the way.

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6.  WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008)

Now we’re walking among the giants.  As good as Toy Story is, there’s a quantum leap between it and the remaining films on the list, with a level of artistry, storytelling, technique and imagination that place these films head and shoulders above the rest.  For example, the wordless first third of WALL-E.  You’re asking an awful lot from an audience when you’re relying on them to grasp your story without the comforting safety net of spelling it out for them with words.  It’s even more of a challenge when you do so with no recognizable human characters, whose expressions we can read from experience.  On top of that, WALL-E‘s lyrical beginning is nothing short of a tone poem mourning the death of the Earth, even as WALL-E is fascinated by and striving to preserve its corpse.  Through him, we see all these pieces of detritus we probably wouldn’t give a second thought to in a new light, not as junk, but as monuments, and we’re left wondering, “Is that really what we want to be remembered for?  Didn’t we leave behind anything more worthwhile?”  It’s a sobering thought, and an unexpected one in a film about two cute robots who fall in love.  That the rest of the film doesn’t quite reach that same height of narrative is more a testament to the impossible task the beginning sets up than a failing.  Besides, thematically, it all works, because just as WALL-E digs through the remains of Earth and manages to help rekindle life there by finding the plant, he also manages to rekindle life among humanity itself, waking it up from the technological doldrums it’s found itself in.  If the film doesn’t take the brave step of remaining silent, it’s because it’s got too much else to say.

John Ratzenberger Watch:  John, his first human character on the list, and one of the first to look up from his computer screen and actually look around.

Most Memorable Moment:  WALL-E and EVE’s space dance remains the most purely romantic scenes Pixar has ever done, their equivalent of Lady and Tramp with the spaghetti.  What makes it work so well is the sheer joy these two robots have at being reunited.  It’s simply infectious.

Most Valuable Voice:  The robots may be the stars, but I’m always tickled by Jeff Garlin as the captain of the Axiom. There’s a moment where he’s reading an announcement about a cupcake in a cup, and he gives the line a tone of genuinely delighted surprise when he gets to “in a cup” that never fails to amuse me.

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Tomorrow, it’s the top five, a group of films whose order will probably change half a dozen times between now and then.  There’s not a misstep in the bunch.

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8 thoughts on “From Suck to Nonsuck: The Films of Pixar, Pt. 1

  1. I’ve seen all of those, except for Cars 1 (saw 2, but not 1). I have to argue with A Bug’s Life’s placement. Toy Story 3 was WAY better. But then, it has all the history of Toy Story 1 and 2 behind it that bias my opinion. A Bug’s Life didn’t do it for me as much as all the other Pixar films. That one would rake below Cars 1 and 2 for me.

    I’m looking forward to the rest of the list, too. 🙂

    • See, it’s Toy Story 3’s reliance on the other two films for its emotional impact that keeps me from ranking it higher. The first two films — and all the other films — exist as their own thing. If you’d never seen the first Toy Story, you could still get something out of the second film. The third one absolutely depends on you having seen the first two, and in what I feel is a lazy way.

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