Whenever someone is asked to give an example of an animated film that is great for both kids and adults, “Finding Nemo” almost always comes to mind. When trying to figure out a film that brilliantly tells a story in a unique visual way, “WALL-E” is one of the best modern day examples of such an art. Whenever we think of a truly heart-breaking scene that plays with all of our emotions, the beginning of “Up” takes the cake. And when we look at what movies have made their mark on the world as cinematic innovations, “Toy Story” is high on that list. In short, Pixar has not only become one of the biggest animation studios in the world, but is one of today’s leading filmmaking innovators in the world.
Pixar’s developed and memorable characters, the emotional depth, and the creative storytelling capabilities found within their films have lasted with us for over 20 years and made many of our childhoods. With their 17th film, “Finding Dory,“ now in theaters, it is time to see which work from Pixar’s filmography stands out as the best of the best.
- “Monsters, Inc.” (2001)
The first Pixar film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature (the film came out when the award was created) “Monsters, Inc.” is one of Pixar’s most creative works. The film takes the concept of our childhood fears of monsters living in our closet and is able to combine it with themes on business corruption and society surprisingly well. While the animation is a tad outdated compared to today’s standards, there are still enough playful designs and attention to detail to really help this movie shine. The voice acting is also top-notch, with Billy Crystal (Mike), John Goodman (Sully) and Steve Buscemi (Randall) all giving memorable performances. With all this and more, there’s nothing likely to scare you away from this Pixar gem.
- “Toy Story 2” (1999)
Sequels have a reputation of not being as good as their predecessors, but Pixar’s third animated film proved to be anything but. Following Woody, Buzz, Potato Head, Hamm, Rex and the rest of the gang yet again, “Toy Story 2” sees Woody being stolen by an obsessive toy collector and discovering that he is actually a popular collector’s item. Woody meets a new group of other toys, that include Jessie, Bullseye and Stinky Pete the Prospector, who all hope to have Woody as part of their trio so they can go to a museum in Japan and be loved by children worldwide. Woody soon begins to bond with his new friends and now must choose between going with them or returning to Andy, who he knows will eventually grow up and forget him.
While not as much of a cinematic game changer as its predecessor, and not as big or emotional as its follow-up, “Toy Story 2” is regarded as one of the greatest sequels ever made, and it’s easy to see why. The film truly does feel like the continuation of a story and not just a rehash of the previous movie. Touching upon themes of growing up, loneliness and abandonment, “Toy Story 2” plays with your emotions rather well and gives surprisingly good motives to its characters, particularly to Woody. This is most evident in a sequence where Jessie tells Woody her rough history in arguably one of Pixar’s most heart-tugging and beautifully executed moments with the song, “When She Loved Me.” Here, we can see Woody’s development into a sympathetic character taking full swing as he tries his best to make sure his new friends are happy. This is also arguably the funniest of the “Toy Story” movies, with several side-splitting sight gags, pop culture references, hidden adult jokes and nods to the first film thrown in everywhere and meshing in very well. With emotion, comedy and fun galore, revisiting this toy chest will always be something to look forward to!
- “Wall-E” (2008)
Pixar has always been known as the king of making stunning visuals to help tell their stories, but no other film that the company has created is better at doing this than “Wall-E.” The film takes place in a dystopian future where the human race has left Earth after decades of trash and pollution have overtaken the planet. Only the lovable robot, Wall-E, has been left behind — to clean up all the garbage. One day, a female robot named EVE comes to Earth to search for any remaining life, only to run into a now-lovestruck Wall-E. The two are soon separated and Wall-E must now go onto the supership, where all of mankind resides, to reunite with his true love.
On top of having a ridiculously adorable sounding premise, the folks at Pixar really went all out when executing this story. The entire first half of the film contains no comprehensible dialogue (other than the robots saying each others’ names) and is very much a visual story that requires the audience to pay attention to the characters’ simplistic yet intricate expressions. It is truly a thing of beauty to see such a big animation studio not have to rely on big voice actors to sell their film but simply tell a story in a refined, visual way.
Sadly, the movie doesn’t stay this way throughout, and once the robots go on the ship, things become slightly less engaging. Despite the fun characters and beautiful animation during these sequences, it is arguably more refreshing to see the simpler scenes between Wall-E and EVE. Fortunately, however, the film keeps enough focus on them and their struggle to stay entertaining throughout. The film also touches upon themes of respecting the environment and the world around you. Though it is definitely not the first movie to ever do this, it is still handled rather well and with enough freshness to stay memorable. “Wall-E’s” strong visual storytelling capabilities and heart-warming characters make this movie a must-see.
- “Ratatouille” (2007)
One of Pixar’s slightly more overlooked projects, “Ratatouille” serves up one delicious animated dish! The story follows a rat named Remy who dreams of being a chef and creating food for humans. For obvious reasons, however, he finds his dream rather hard to obtain. He soon finds his way to a famous French restaurant whose owner recently passed away and is struggling to satisfy the crowd, especially after a bad food review. That is, however, until Remy befriends a new young chef and finds a way to control the human like a puppet to help him create some delicious dishes. The restaurant begins to find success again, but when the food reviewer returns for a second helping, Remy must find a way to save the restaurant.
The brilliant Brad Bird-directed film has a lot going for it, from its slick animation to its quirky character designs to its beautiful soundtrack. However, the film’s strongest asset lies in its maturity. Surprisingly, for a movie about talking rats that can cook, there are some powerful themes, pieces of dialogue and direction throughout that give the film a more grounded sense of reality and emotion. In particular, a final monologue by the food critic stands out as being a beautiful and complex piece of writing that may just be able to teach adults just as much about criticism of the new, if not more than children.
While it would’ve been nice if Remy was a bit more interesting as a character and had a stronger chemistry with the humans he befriends, the film is still strongly executed enough for those to become minor complaints. There is also a warm atmosphere to the entire picture that is felt through the stunning views of Paris, the soothing melodies of the soundtrack, and through many of the character interactions that is pretty hard to find in any animated film. Seeing the film is required to truly understand it. With one of Pixar’s most clever setups and a delightful mood throughout, “Ratatouille” is a true feast to the eyes!
- “The Incredibles” (2004)
Another Brad Bird-directed Pixar film, “The Incredibles” is one of the studio’s most recognizable and beloved trademarks. The film is about a family of superheroes who must hide their powers from the world after “supers” are deemed too dangerous to the public. However, Mr. Incredible, the father of the family, has dreams of reliving the “glory days” when he could use his powers to save the world. Later, he hears of an opportunity to secretly do missions where his powers could come in handy, and he quickly suits up again to complete them. But when he discovers a secret plan to wipe out all supers, it is up to the entire family to team up and save the day.
“The Incredibles” is arguably Pixar’s most inspired work, with themes from spy films and superhero comics strongly present throughout. However, the film still provides a powerful punch of emotions as the family deals with real issues, such as being there for each other, and handles them in rather mature ways. “The Incredibles” also contains an eclectic cast of some of Pixar’s most memorable characters. From the strong and caring Mr. Incredible to the fearsome Syndrome to the hilarious Edna Mode, there is no shortage of charismatic energy here. The film’s action sequences are also all well handled and expertly crafted, with fast-paced movements and gripping fights all set to a jazzy score to help give it that James Bond vibe. “The Incredibles'” combination of comedy, action, good characters and memorable themes make this film a super-powered hair raiser!
- “Inside Out” (2015)
After a series of slightly more disappointing films during the 2010s, Pixar came back in full force with one of their most creative, emotional and engaging outlets yet. Taking place in the head of an 11-year-old girl named Riley, we meet the emotions Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust and follow them as Riley’s family moves to San Francisco. Finding it hard to cope with the move, Joy tries doing her best to keep Riley happy, but things become complicated when Sadness leads Joy out of headquarters and the two become lost in the expansive space of Riley’s mind. Now they must find their way back before Riley makes any regrettable decisions.
The way symbolism is interwoven into the story is both powerful and subtle, and it’s never shoved into the audience’s’ face. Seeing the effect of her emotions on Riley, as they try to keep her stable, is natural and never feels like it is there as a plot convenience. The themes here are possibly the strongest that Pixar has ever put out, teaching us how important all our emotions are to us and how to keep them in balance. It’s a theme that is surprisingly thought-provoking, and adults can appreciate and relate, too.
The animation also deserves some recognition, as everything from the specific character designs and movements, the beautiful colors found throughout Riley’s mind, and the creative variations of animation mediums and visuals used throughout are all stunning sights to behold and help tell the story. The developed characters, powerful themes, creative animation and strong emotions all help make “Inside Out” a modern-day classic.
- “Up” (2009)
The second animated feature in history to ever be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, “Up” has something for just about everyone. The story is about an elderly man named Carl Fredricksen who lives a lonely and unhappy life after his wife passes away. He decides to fulfill his and his wife’s life dream of traveling to a remote plateau by attaching his house to thousands of balloons. Things soon become difficult for him when a young boy gets caught up in the adventure. When the house crashes into the jungles of South America, the two must journey through the forest to the sought-after plateau, meeting a wild cast of characters on their way.
It’s almost impossible to talk about this film without talking about the first 10 minutes. Highlighting the life of Fredricksen and his wife, and containing almost no dialogue, the scene has been acclaimed as one of the saddest sequences in all of animation. And it’s no wonder: The combination of Pixar’s beautiful visual storytelling and a tender musical score ultimately help set the mood to this scene perfectly, and it successfully lets us connect with the characters. Fortunately, the rest of the film does not lack in the slightest. The colorful cast of fun characters, the side-splitting comedy and quirky designs all add to the overall feel of adventure. “Up” is a movie with enough heart, adventure and lovable characters to lift anyone’s spirits.
3. “Toy Story”
One of the most important films ever made, “Toy Story” was not only Pixar’s first film but also the first feature film to ever be made using nothing but computer-generated imagery — a medium and style that just about every animated film since then has kept alive. Following a cowboy doll named Woody and his band of toys owned by a young boy named Andy, things start becoming heated in the child’s bedroom as Woody finds competition in the new toy around the block, Buzz Lightyear. Added to the fact that Andy seemingly appears to forget about Woody, the space man action figure also has the crazy notion that he is, in fact, the real Buzz Lightyear and not just a toy. Woody’s jealousy leads to the two being lost, and the two must find their way home.
One of the reasons “Toy Story” is still remembered and loved by so many to this day is not only because of its technical achievements in the world of cinema, but also because of its strong writing and well-developed characters. The screenplay is both funny and rather snappy, garnering the film an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay — the first animated film to ever have been nominated for the title. The characters here are also nothing short of memorable and have some of the most acclaimed voice performances ever. This mostly shines through with Tom Hanks’ portrayal as Woody and Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear, with the two brilliantly working off each other’s conflicting personalities. With some tight writing, characters and one of cinema’s most lasting legacies, “Toy Story” remains Pixar’s most important work.
- “Finding Nemo” (2003)
Pixar takes us on one of their most emotional, fun-filled and memorable rides with “Finding Nemo.” Taking place in the Australian oceans, we follow a clownfish named Marlin who, after his wife and almost all of his unborn children get killed by a barracuda, acts as an overprotective father to his only remaining son, Nemo. When Nemo is taken away from his oceanic home by a dentist, Marlin must team up with a forgetful regal tang called Dory to look for his son, taking the two on an adventure across the sea.
Where do I begin with this masterwork of animation? Well, probably with one of its greatest features, the animation itself. For a film created in the early 2000s when computer-animated films could look good but not super realistic, “Finding Nemo” still holds up as being one of the most stunning looking animated films. The detail given to lighting, textures and movements is jaw-dropping at times but still contained enough to not look too realistic. Of course, talking about “Finding Nemo” would be impossible without mentioning the outstanding voice work and characters. On top of having a strong protagonist with Marlin, the supporting characters have all gone down as some of Pixar’s most memorable including Bruce, Crush, Nigel and the tank gang that Nemo meets.
Special mention must be given to, arguably the film’s most memorable character, Dory, voiced to perfection by Ellen DeGeneres. She successfully takes a character who could’ve easily gotten annoying very fast and keeps things fresh by treating her as a three dimensional character and not just a throw-away comic relief. The emotional depth given to all the characters allows their motivations to take center stage. That we support them throughout doesn’t take away from the film’s fun vibe. “Finding Nemo” has remained one of Pixar’s most acclaimed, beloved and remembered works, even more than a decade later.
- “Toy Story 3” (2010)
To have a sequel be as good or better than the first is a miracle. Having the third installment be even better than either of them is practically unheard of. But here we are, in the real world, with “Toy Story 3.” Taking place 11 years after the events of the previous film, we now see Andy as a young adult on his way to college. The toys have all been forgotten and have tried to be played with for years. After a mix-up, Andy’s mom donates the toys to Sunnyside Daycare, a paradise for toys that seems too good to be true. But when the toys discover that the daycare has a dark secret, it soon becomes a great escape to leave before it’s too late.
The second Pixar film and third animated film overall to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, “Toy Story 3” is an exceptional case for any film franchise. What mainly works here is that the film completes the story that the first film started — and does so in a creative and interesting ways. The theme of growing up that was touched upon in the second film is brought into full force here through some pretty emotional moments. Even if the film does rely on your nostalgia to get those emotions going at times, the majority of it still stands out enough to be a strong standalone experience. The characters’ development has come full circle here, and now that we have connected with them in the previous films, we can have a lot more fun with them in several entertaining scenes. The great escape element is also clearly inspired from older prison escape movies, and is executed brilliantly here, with plenty of fast paced animation and fun gags. With more emotion, depth, and brilliant writing than any film from the company previously or since, “Toy Story 3” holds the crown as Pixar’s greatest work.
Mikael Trench, 18, is a rising freshman at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). He is an aspiring filmmaker who specializes in working with stop motion animation. His latest short film, The Tree That Refused To Fall, can be found here.
Don’t forget to check out Mikael’s “Finding Dori” review.
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