Yesterday I counted down from 11 to 6. Now, here’s the Top 5. There’s a good chance that, were I to do this again next week, these films would be in a completely different order. And another different order the week after that. Every single one is worthy of the top spot in its own way.
This should have never worked. The film was six years in the making. The original director, Jan Pinkava, was replaced by Bird in 2005, who then reworked most of the film. It’s got a rat as its main character, a rat who wants to be a chef, no less, and who does so by controlling his human partner like a puppet. It’s got a title most people probably can’t even spell, let alone identify. And yet through whatever alchemy it is running through the duct work at Pixar, Ratatouille works wonderfully. From its Warner Brothers inspired slapstick to its spot-on character beats, this unlikeliest of Pixar blockbusters defied the odds and its awkward title to not only become a box office hit, but picked up numerous Top Ten rankings for the year and five Oscar nominations, winning for Best Animated Feature. All of which is kind of ironic, since one of the main themes of the film is creating not for the accolades or the money, but simply for the sheer joy of doing it, and sharing that joy with others. Remy can’t ever hope to truly reap any real rewards for what he does, despite how great a chef he is, because he’s a rat, and we’re not in the habit of bestowing honors on them. But he’s completely content just to be cooking, outside the spotlight, known only to a few close friends, because it’s what he loves. There’s a kind of purity in that sort of creativity, and it’s unique to see a feature film embrace that, as dazzled as Hollywood is by a good old-fashioned rags to riches success story. Ratatouille also says a lot about not doubting that there’s creativity to be found even in the most unlikely of places, if you’re just willing to open your eyes and step a little bit outside your comfort zone. In a way, that message is the film asking us to look past the rats and the bizarre story and find the artistry there on display.
John Ratzenberger Watch: Another human role, this time as the head waiter at the restaurant where Remy and Linguini first meet.
Most Memorable Moment: Anton Ego, the notoriously hard to please restaurant critic, finally sits down to a meal at Gasteau’s, ready to tear into the place. And with one bite of Remy’s ratatouille, he’s transported back to his mother’s kitchen, literally, in a stunning cut from the old Anton to the young. As the boy finds comfort in his mother’s cooking, the man finds comfort in the memory Remy’s cooking evokes, and a look of such serene happiness crosses his face, it’s the moment you just fall in love with the movie. It all clicks, and you get what Bird was trying to do all along.
Most Valuable Voice: As the performance that has to hold the entire film together, Patton Oswalt had an enormous task ahead of him, and comes through beautifully. He gets the humor right, obviously, but he’s just as good conveying Remy’s yearning to be more than what he is, and his eventually happiness when he finally becomes it. He’s the heart and soul of the film.
Another unlikely Pixar success story, which you wouldn’t think was possible given the pedigree. It started life as a direct-to-video feature, until early footage was so good, Disney reconsidered. Lasseter’s unhappiness with the state of the film when he returned from promoting A Bug’s Life prompted him to take over the production and re-do the entire film. With a set-in-stone release date from Disney, Toy Story 2 was completed in nine months. A troubled production rushing to meet a deadline? Surely a recipe for disaster. And yet Pixar outdid themselves, their third feature surpassing anything they had done previously. Toy Story 2 is that rarest of sequels that’s better than the original in every conceivable way, and it starts with the brilliantly simple notion of reversing Buzz and Woody’s roles. Once Woody discovers he’s a collector’s item, he becomes the shiny new thing, the favorite, and it’s Buzz who has to remind him what his true nature really is. It allows the film to tell essentially the same story as the first film, but with different characters learning different lessons, while at the same time expanding the world we only glimpsed the first time around. Some of that was surely due to Pixar having more experience and more resources at their disposal, but the bigger canvas isn’t just a case of showing off what they were capable of. The scenes in Al’s Toy Barn are a sly jab at the empty plastic nature of so many modern toys, ones where the imagination is researched and pre-packaged. And the choice Woody has to make between staying with his new friends and returning with his old ones, thereby dooming the Woody’s Roundup toys to life boxed up in the dark, is a starkly adult one between desire and responsibility. If in the end he gets to have his cake and eat it too, well, it’s a Toy Story movie, not a Bergman film.
John Ratzenberger Watch: Ratzenberger’s finest hour as Hamm. His manning the remote control to Andy’s TV and shouting that he has “to go around the horn” when he passes the channel showing the Al’s Toy Barn commercial is one of the biggest laughs in the whole film.
Most Memorable Moment: Like Toy Story, the honor here goes to a musical sequence, this time Sarah McLachlan’s achingly beautiful “When She Loved Me.” The heartbreaking story of Jessie the Cowgirl is made all the more shattering by the look of absolute bliss on her face when she thinks her owner has picked her up to play with her again at long last, only to find herself in a box of memories left behind as the girl goes away to college. It made me feel guilty about every single old toy I’d once owned, and it’s another example of how Pixar isn’t content to make dumbed down kids’ fare.
Most Valuable Voice: Speaking of Jessie, Joan Cusack really shines in the role, whether she’s whooping it up when she sees Woody for the first time, or despairing at the prospect of him leaving them behind. Cusack makes the wise choice to be as different from Hanks’ Woody as she can, while still feeling like a part of his world, and much of the impact of “When She Loved Me” comes from how much Cusack has made us like Jessie by that point.
3. Up (Pete Docter, 2009)
My first viewing of Up was an intensely personal experience. My wedding was only five months away, and as I watched the story of Carl and Ellie’s marriage unfold, I couldn’t help but think that that’s what was waiting for me, a lifetime of shared experiences with someone who so completely understood me. And then Ellie was gone, and I was completely destroyed at the thought of the same thing happening to me. I wanted to get up and find my fiancée right then and there and hold her and know she was still with me. The first ten minutes of Up is unquestionably the finest piece of storytelling Pixar has ever done, an emotionally complex sequence that lifts you up, then drags you down. The image of Carl sadly holding his one balloon at Ellie’s funeral has absolutely no dialog and almost no movement, but it speaks and breathes and lives, thanks in no small part to Michael Giacchino’s evocative score and some wonderfully subtle animation. It’s the last place you expect a Pixar film to go, and that’s a big source of its power. But of course, a film called Up won’t let you stay down for long. By this point, we need the life-affirming adventure that follows just as much as Carl does, and the rest of the film is every bit as uplifting and joyous as the beginning is sorrowful. As Carl figuratively unburdens his mind by literally unburdening his house, he significantly leaves his and Ellie’s chairs together just as they had always been. He’s acknowledging that a part of him will always be with her, even as he realizes he has to leave it behind. The final image of the house resting atop the falls, finally reaching the destination he and Ellie had always dreamed of, is a perfect coda to a story of finding a way to live again when it seems there’s no point. And having lost my Ellie, although not in as tragically permanent a way, it’s a story that has even more resonance now.
John Ratzenberger Watch: He appears early on, as a construction worker who tries to convince Carl to finally sell his house.
Most Memorable Moment: As powerful as the opening is, it’s given deeper meaning by the moment when Carl discovers Ellie’s adventure book, and realizes that her great adventure wasn’t travelling the world, but being married to him. And then he reads her good-bye to him, exhorting him to go on a new adventure of his own. I’m tearing up just thinking about it. It’s cathartic, it’s redemptive, and it’s simply beautiful.
Most Valuable Voice: When we so desperately need to laugh, along comes Bob Peterson as Dug. Irresistibly full of goofy enthusiasm and affection, and so essentially dog-like, Peterson is also capable of making us cry, as when Dug tells Carl, “I was hiding under the porch, because I love you.” There’s a simple honesty in the performance, one that probably would have been lost had it been some celebrity cameo.
Finding Nemo was one of my favorite filmgoing experiences ever. I saw it at a late morning show on opening day, and a few minutes before it started, in came a busload of six-year olds. And their reactions to the film were almost as entertaining as the film itself. They were hushed and attentive when they needed to be, and completely unrestrained in their laughter when the time was right. Their response to Dory speaking whale was one of the purest expressions of delight I’ve ever been witness to, and their spirit really made my viewing something special. To me, this is the pinnacle of Pixar’s storytelling might. There’s not a wasted beat, not an extraneous scene, not an indulgent moment. The film is an absolute machine, fine-tuned and humming on all cylinders. It moves deftly from incident to incident, each stop on Marlin’s journey to find his son not only something thrilling or funny, but a moment that defines the characters, that either reveals or develops them. It really is a masterpiece of screenwriting. Plus it has perhaps Pixar’s most well-realized character in Ellen DeGeneres’ Dory, and it’s a stunning performance from DeGeneres. At first you think it’s only a matter of time before you’re going to get tired of her and her memory lapses, and then all of a sudden there she is breaking your heart with her impassioned speech to Marlin begging him not to leave lest she forget him. It’s a stirring declaration of love without the words “I love you” ever once being uttered, and never in a million years did I think DeGeneres had the chops to pull that off so convincingly. When you see her and Marlin together at the end of the film, it’s not some calculated happy ending. It’s completely earned.
John Ratzenberger Watch: In perhaps his most gleefully enthusiastic role for Pixar, Ratzenberger is a helpful school of Moonfish who seem quite taken with Dory.
Most Memorable Moment: Dory’s speech aside, the sequence where the tale of Marlin’s search for Nemo passes from the turtles in the East Australian Current across the ocean to Sydney is so amazingly cinematic. It conveys a sense of distance and time in such an effortless manner, and it’s a stirring evocation of the power of storytelling, something Pixar definitely understands. Topping it off with the look of awed admiration on Nemo’s face when Nigel recounts the story to him is just icing on the cake.
Most Valuable Voice: With all due respect to Andrew Stanton’s wonderfully laid-back Crush, it can’t be anybody but DeGeneres. What could have easily been a lazy bit of stunt celebrity casting turns out to be the best performance in the film.
You might be wondering how, after waxing so rhapsodic over Finding Nemo, it comes in at #2 on this list. And it’s a simple matter of heart versus head. While I admire Finding Nemo, I am completely, absolutely, hopelessly in love with The Incredibles. There’s this totally Pavlovian reaction whenever I hear any bit of Michael Giacchino’s score; I get this tingly, happy feeling, and the memory of this film washes over me, and I want to watch it again as soon as I can. It’s just so right. It hits me deep inside where that ten-year old boy still lives, who wants to be Dash now and Mr. Incredible when he grows up. It’s a love letter from Brad Bird to both Marvel Comics and James Bond, and a better example of both than much of what the genuine articles have offered up over the years; it’s easily the best Fantastic Four film ever made, and a better Bond than anything Pierce Brosnan ever did. I could talk about the kinetic pacing, the dynamic action scenes, the warm character interactions that give the spectacle a soul, but what it all boils down to is that The Incredibles fills me with indescribably joy from start to finish. I can think of no better compliment to the film than to say that when the family dons their masks at the end, ready for action, I’m ready to watch them for another two hours, every single time. Logic, critical thinking, analysis, all escape me when it comes to this film. It’s a gift to my inner child that I get to unwrap over and over again, Christmas morning with every viewing. How could I place this anywhere but #1?
John Ratzenberger Watch: The film is nearly over before he makes his appearance, but what an appearance: burrowing up from the earth in his drill machine as the sinister Underminer.
Most Memorable Moment: Dash is fleeing for his life from Syndrome’s guards, rapidly running out of land. He closes his eyes, certain he is in for a painfully wet crash landing into the lagoon. Instead, he opens his eyes and discovers he’s running so fast, he’s skimming along the top of the water. You want a pure distillation of my love for this film? It’s in Dash’s delighted laugh when he realizes what he can do. That’s how this film makes me feel.
Most Valuable Voice: Bird is hilarious as super-hero fashion designer Edna Mode, but the real MVP here is Craig T. Nelson as Mr. Incredible. He’s got the strength to be bold and heroic, the comedic timing to play the harried husband and father, but also has sensitivity to give the scenes where Mr. Incredible thinks he’s lost his family a real emotional impact.
And there you have it, one guy’s opinion on what Pixar has done for us so far. It’s really a remarkable filmography; even with three sequels in the mix, there’s not a lot of repetition, and even with the relative disappointment of Cars, there’s not an outright bad film in the bunch. Above all, Pixar’s work demonstrates an innate understanding of human emotions, even if they’re being felt by toys or fish or robots. And they have an almost magical ability to tell stories that use those toys and fish and robots to make us look at those emotions in different ways. For a company that’s made its mark by using technology to create artificial worlds, Pixar has shown that it’s what goes on in our real world, in our real hearts, that truly matters. Here’s hoping their next twelve films make the next list as difficult to put together as this one was.