Ever since Toy Story hit theaters in 1995, movies from Pixar Animation Studios have been radically raising the bar for American animation, from pushing the technological envelope on CG films to addressing big emotional topics that used to be taboo. Over the course of more than 25 years, Pixar has done more to redefine what an animated movie can be than any other US studio.
But given that studio has put out nearly two dozen feature films at this point, even animation fans may not have seen them all, and could maybe use a little help in laying out priorities for a Pixar deep dive or rewatch. So the Polygon staff got together to deliberate which movies represent Pixar’s most moving, ambitious, and exciting efforts. Ranking Pixar’s movies isn’t easy, since there isn’t really a terrible Pixar movie, just ones that fall flat compared to the most indelible classics. There’s one standard to uphold, though: The best Pixar movies aren’t just beautifully animated and capable of inspiring laughs — they also twist our stomach into knots and make us contemplate the value of life.
23. The Good Dinosaur (2015)
The worst crime of The Good Dinosaur, which went through several incarnations and a lot of behind-the-scenes drama as Pixar tried to figure out what do with its big dino film, isn’t the actual quality of the story or animation. It’s that it rarely lets viewers really care about its characters.
The idea of a world where dinosaurs never went extinct is rich. Certain scenes are breathtaking — Arlo the dinosaur sticking his head up into a sea of clouds! A nightscape set aglow with luminous fireflies! But the odd Western narrative (it’s basically a cowboy movie about a young rancher and his dog) doesn’t quite work for a land full of dinosaurs, where so much world-setting has to be done in order to build up the emotional core. The Good Dinosaur feels more like a panorama of this cool new world — cattle-rustling velociraptors! a farm run by apatosauruses! murderous pterodactyls! — than a transportive look at an alternate universe. —Petrana Radulovic
22. Cars 2 (2011)
Buckle up: We’re about to talk about the Cars movies.
The elements that make the Cars franchise great — particularly the “return to your roots” trope and strong found-family themes — are essentially blown out of the water in Cars 2 in favor of a chaotic global journey that ends with tow-truck sidekick Mater getting knighted by the queen. It’s technically a spy film; there are explosions and sneaking around, in addition to a scene where Mater and his spy friends are trapped in the gears of Big Bentley, which is literally just London’s Big Ben with a vaguely Bentley-inspired façade. There’s also a subplot about renewable fuel and corporate greed that comes to fruition a bit too late to be given the weight it deserves. Cars 2 is simply a Pixar movie stuck in cruise control. A fine film, but nothing more than that. —Palmer Haasch
21. Cars 3 (2017)
The third chapter in the Cars saga finds Lightning McQueen grappling with his own mortality as a slew of rookie racers begin to outpace him. To combat aging, he returns to his dirt-racing roots and discovers the joys of mentorship. Pixar sold this movie with the image of kids whimpering over Lightning McQueen ostensibly dying. That melancholic tone carries throughout the film itself, to a certain extent. Lightning McQueen — or at least, Lightning McQueen the hotshot racer — is dying, and it’s nigh-impossible not to feel at least one emotion while watching him make his victory lap.
Cars 3 introduces, rather than resolves, some of the lingering inquiries of the Cars universe, like car sexism, car racism, and how predetermined a car’s life is by their make and model. Still, between its quality of animation and McQueen’s passing on of the torch to a younger generation, Cars 3 is a fitting conclusion to the series. —PH
20. Brave (2012)
Somewhere inside Brave is a fantasy film worthy of Frozen, but the finished product has vision issues. Brave’s creator — experienced feature director Brenda Chapman, the first woman to take a director credit at Pixar — was removed midway through production and replaced by Mark Andrews, who at that time had never directed a feature film. The reasons given amounted to disagreements between Chapman and disgraced Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter, which was a bad look then and is an even worse look now.
Brave suffers for Pixar’s lack of faith. The dark tone of Chapman’s story, which is based partly on her relationship with her own daughter, feels muddied and the narrative splintered, in particular with the comedic sequences featuring Scottish princess Merida and her triplet brothers. But the forest sprites, the cursed bear, Merida and her mother’s turmoil, the entire “I’ll be shootin’ fer me OWN hand!” sequence — the promise of Brave is frustratingly present amid its pitfalls.
It’s also clear that Pixar was unprepared for the intense expectations placed on Brave as the studio’s first film in its nearly 20-year history to feature a female protagonist. The tomboy-princess marketing of Brave elided the fact that in the actual story, Merida isn’t rebelling against femininity, but rather her adult responsibilities — leading to much disappointment in an ending where she compromises rather than triumphs. —Susana Polo
19. Monsters University (2013)
Monsters University perfectly encapsulates both the stereotypical American college experience — feuding Greek life, drumline music dogging you everywhere you go on campus — and the bumpy path of friends coming to terms with their changing life plans. A refreshing twist on an Animal House-esque frat comedy, Monsters University is a true joy by virtue of both its ridiculous ensemble cast and the fleshing out of the Monsters Inc. universe. (Randy Newman’s chipper score goes the distance, too.) While other Pixar sequels or prequels like Cars 2 and Finding Dory have shifted the focus to secondary protagonists with varying levels of success, Monsters University does itself good by digging into Mike and Sully’s young adult years. —PH
18. Finding Dory (2016)
One of Pixar’s many belated sequels, Finding Dory shifts the focus to Finding Nemo’s bumbling sidekick character voiced by Ellen DeGeneres. Dory’s journey to find her parents tugs at the heartstrings, and baby Dory is incredibly, massively, intensely, super-duper adorable. Finding Dory brings back some iconic Finding Nemo characters, but only for brief appearances, choosing instead to focus on a slew of new characters. With the exception of Hank the grumpy septopus, most are forgettable.
The movie focuses on a specific aquarium, which offers an interesting take on the setting — watching Hank and Dory cross dry land is pretty fun — but never gets to show off the vast expanse of the ocean that made the first movie so visually stunning. Finding Dory is cute. It’s fun. It will make you laugh, maybe even tear up a bit. But unlike its predecessor, it doesn’t linger in the memory. —PR
17. Cars (2006)
The world of Cars is absolutely bonkers. It’s a film for kids, so governing universal laws don’t really matter. However, the film plays fast and loose with any kind of existential logic. They’re cars! Take it at face value! Don’t think about how they hold things, or whether they have nerve endings!
Cars eschews some of the wide-eyed Pixar protagonist charm in favor of Lightning McQueen’s full-throttle ego for most of the film. However, the residents of sleepy Route 66 town Radiator Springs make up for it, even as the writers slot them into predictable stereotypes. The found-family trope is strong with this one, and the film’s central message of “maybe the real Piston Cup was the friends we made along the way” is well-trod but still emotionally impactful ground. Also, Cars made two critical cultural contributions for which I am eternally grateful: the word “ka-chow,” and “Real Gone” by Sheryl Crow. —PH
16. A Bug’s Life (1998)
Like the movie’s absent-minded hero Flik, A Bug’s Life wobbles while still carrying its weight. Pixar’s loose adaptation of Aesop’s Ant and the Grasshopper, by way of Seven Samurai and the spaghetti Western, was an ambitious follow-up to the nostalgia-soaked Toy Story. But the animation technology of the time couldn’t quite realize the majesty and chaos of the insect conflict. (The water droplets, though — they were something!)
As in the best of Pixar’s films, it’s the characters of A Bug’s Life who save the day. Dave Foley as Flik is an underrated voiceover triumph, while his recruits, the Circus Bugs, have a rapport that the Toy Story gang never quite mustered. The ant-vs.-grasshopper battle stumbles under the weight of landscape textures and jerky arthropod motion, but the fear and the life-or-death stakes come to life in the performances. —Matt Patches
15. Incredibles 2 (2018)
Nothing in this world is perfect (except the first Incredibles), which is both the message of and truth about Incredibles 2. Picking up right where its predecessor left off, Brad Bird’s sequel delves deeper into the philosophical arguments around whether superheroes are good or bad, and the collective responsibility to do the right thing even when it’s the hard thing.
Now that superheroes are back in the limelight, the next step is rehabilitating their public image. Unfortunately, the rise of the superhero also means the rise of the supervillain, and the tech-wielding Screenslaver is determined to see superheroes retired for good. Bird shows off his Spielberg-rivaling flair for action, making the big action scenes pop, and maintaining a sense of total clarity that’s rare in the contemporary CGI battle landscape. —Karen Han
14. Onward (2020)
In a way, all Pixar’s movies are fantasies, given their focus on living toys, talking animals, and grumpy monsters. But none of them explore the familiar tropes of epic fantasy like Onward, which takes place in a world full of elves, centaurs, fauns, and manticores, and follows two brothers on a quest to power a magical spell to briefly raise their father from the dead. Like Shrek, Onward takes place in a fantasy-skinned version of a familiar world, in this case one where cars and coffeeshops live comfortably alongside illusion spells and pet house dragons. But the setting is almost incidental to the story, which is more about an angsty teen who never met his father, and has become obsessed with everything he thinks he’s missing along with that relationship.
There’s certainly some solid grist for emotional connection in that premise, but it doesn’t fully land until the end of the movie, which is more of a straight fetch-quest adventure than any previous Pixar film. There’s plenty of room in the story for car chases, tunnel traps, and magic-assisted problem-solving, to the point where it feels like a pretty decent D&D session, with a powerful emotional punch at the end. It’s also a good-looking movie, packed with rich detail and color. It could just stand to have some of that emotional impact earlier on, to balance out the comedy and the chases. —Tasha Robinson
13. Up (2009)
The first 10 minutes of Up catapult the tragicomedy to the upper tier of this list. To set up exactly why Carl, an old man, would uproot his entire house to go on an adventure, the sequence — set solely to Michael Giacchino’s Academy Award-winning score — tells the story of his lifelong romance with his neighbor Ellie, up through her eventual illness and death. It’s heartwarming and heartbreaking in turn, and easily one of the best sequences Pixar has ever put together.
The rest of the film, which sees Carl chasing a dream he and Ellie never fulfilled while she was alive, isn’t quite as elegant (remember the dog-pilot dogfight?), but still earns Up the distinction of being one of Pixar’s better entries. There’s no denying the charm of the young scout Russell, hapless golden retriever Dug, and Kevin, the great bird who resides in the wilderness of Paradise Falls. —KH
12. WALL-E (2008)
Andrew Stanton’s science-fiction odyssey, set in 2185, is a triptych of disparate stories glued together with feels. There’s the dystopian tale of a worker bot tidying up a busted, deserted world that could easily stand alone as a short; there’s the love story of two robots, a pure blend of Asimov and Disney; and there’s the rescue mission, a galactic journey that whisks WALL-E to the Axiom mothership for an encounter with a HAL 9000-like A.I. Our li’l robot friend, brought to life through the beeps and boops of Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt, beholds every narrative jump with binocular-eyed wonder. So do we.
Elegiac and eerie, WALL-E is a love letter to everything Stanton would miss about Earth (Hello, Dolly! chief among them) and an impassioned plea for us slovenly earthlings to do what we can to save it before it’s too late. We’ll see if humanity can get its act together, but even if we’re destined to decimate the planet and float around in hover chairs on a rocket-powered shopping mall for the rest of our days, we’ll always have WALL-E and EVE dancing among the stars, an ode to the beauty that once was. As is the ongoing mission of Pixar, WALL-E conjures romantic truth. —MP
11. Toy Story 4 (2019)
No one really asked for a Toy Story 4, but it might be the best “fourth movie in a 24-year-old franchise” that we could possibly get.
Separated from the first three movies, Toy Story 4 is a fun and heartwarming adventure, showing us a completely new set of characters (save for Woody and Buzz) and a new side to life as a toy. Villain Gabby Gabby has the same sort of motivation as Stinky Pete and Lotso before her: She wants to be loved by a child. But unlike the other two, her grand plan isn’t a grandiose villain scheme, but a pragmatic means to an end. Instead of declaring that no toy should be loved because she can’t be loved, she wants to fix her defective part.
While Toy Story 4 introduces some standout new characters — such as beloved spork-turned-toy Forky — the staple characters from the first three movies take a back seat. The movie’s emotional end, where Woody decides to part ways with the toys and Bonnie, doesn’t hit quite as hard when we’ve almost forgotten they exist. —PR
10. Soul (2020)
Pixar’s first movie to center on a Black protagonist lands a little oddly when it turns out the film’s big moral message is “The things you love most in life aren’t necessarily the things that give you purpose.” Directors Pete Docter and Kemp Powers blunt what could be a slam-dunk emotional ending by giving it a more adult spin, in a way that may make it hard for children to grasp. (Most 8-year-olds are going to have a hard time empathizing with a character who feels like a failure because he has to hang out in a school and work with kids.)
But Soul’s visual verve and pure emotions are hard to beat. Just as lead character Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx) finally gets the jazz-pianist gig that might finally let him drop his time-killing gig as a middle-school music teacher and pursue music full-time, he dies in an accident, and finds himself in the afterlife, fighting to make his way back to Earth. There’s a lot of wacky incident involving a bratty soul who’s never been incarnated and doesn’t want to be, and a therapy cat, and a group of benevolent but neglectful pre-life counselors, but Soul’s core is really in the unbeatable moments where Joe expresses himself through music, inspiring other people or pulling himself out of his day-to-day life for a few minutes. Sometimes it’s a goofy and playful movie, but it’s firmly entrenched in the idea that life is a rare and wondrous thing that shouldn’t be taken for granted. —TR
9. Toy Story 2 (1999)
The original Toy Story wondered, “What if toys were alive?” The second introduced the concept of their longevity, the fact that one day their kids would outgrow them. Toy Story 2 is both a heartfelt examination of past, present, and future, and a sturdy step toward the more emotional territory of future sequels, introducing the juxtaposition of fleeting childhood and the permanence of toys.
Nothing sums up the emotional core of Toy Story 2 more than the “When She Loved Me” montage: Sarah McLachlan croons a bittersweet song over scenes of cowgirl doll Jessie and her owner Emily playing together, growing apart, and eventually completely parting ways. The sequence, swathed in a medley of autumn colors, is pure Pixar. —PR
8. Coco (2017)
Pixar has struggled to present perspectives outside of the experiences of Lasseter and the company’s elder creatives. You can see it in the long wait between The Incredibles and Incredibles 2. You can see it in Brave’s production woes.
But you don’t see it in Coco. The musical adventure, from Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich, mixes the best of the Pixar formula with the Disney formula, combining music, character, and a story-first approach to tell a tale of a boy who follows his dreams so hard that he fixes his whole dang family, living and dead.
As I said in my review, plenty of college kids on semesters abroad have discovered the aesthetics of the Mexican celebration of Día de Muertos, but Pixar’s vision of the Land of the Dead is rich, coherent, and a joy to inhabit. Coco charms; it has a surprisingly evil villain; it gets those Pixar Tears from your eyeballs. You’re probably still humming “Remember Me.” —SP
7. Ratatouille (2007)
The central ethos of Ratatouille — “not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere” — is so self-evident and yet often so hard to appreciate, that the clear terms in which Pixar puts it feel all the more remarkable. Ratatouille is the story of a rat who becomes a chef, i.e., finds where he belongs in the one place rats aren’t supposed to be. For a while, he manages it by teaming up with a talentless garbage boy, manipulating him like a puppet while sitting underneath his hat, but there wouldn’t be a movie if they didn’t eventually have to reckon with being discovered.
Life-affirming story aside, Ratatouille boasts one of Michael Giacchino’s best scores, as well as the most delightfully visual representations of how good food tastes. It can manifest in splashes of color and sound, or even plunge people back into their fondest memories. Ratatouille is gorgeous art, with a warming message and food you can almost taste. —KH
6. Toy Story 3 (2010)
Young girls who watched their Toy Story 2 VHS tapes over and over (who may or not be me) were just about to go off to college when Toy Story 3 came out. Toy Story 2 set up an ominous future — what would happen to the toys when their owner Andy grew up? At the end of Toy Story 2, the toys agreed that a short life of love was better than eternity in a museum. But Toy Story 3 brings us to the end of their time with Andy, who has long left his toys in their chest, and is moving on to higher education.
Woody and the gang are now desperate in a way only hinted at in Toy Story 2. They need love from Andy. Though the cowboy is the clear favorite to go along with the boy to college, he has to reassure the others that going into storage won’t be so bad. At the end, though, Toy Story 3 doesn’t take that easy path, and instead closes a chapter of the toys’ lives — and of Andy’s life as well.
One of the final moments, where Bonnie raises Woody’s hand to wave goodbye at Andy, and Andy’s expression catches for a moment, never fails to make me cry. —PR
5. Monsters, Inc. (2001)
From the second the cheeky, Saul Bass-esque title credits begin, it’s clear Monsters, Inc. is all spirit and heart. The film casts a friendlier light on things that go bump in the night by pulling the curtain back on the industry that drives it. Monsters rely on children’s screams to power their world, but are terrified of the children they harvest them from, believing them to be toxic.
When monsters Sully and Mike discover that a young human girl has somehow entered the factory, they do their best to smuggle her back home safely. Along the way, however, they wind up challenging their preconceived notions about children as well as the business they’re in. If the emphatic proclamation of “Mike Wazowski!” doesn’t make you laugh, or the nickname “Kitty” doesn’t immediately make you tear up, do yourself a favor and watch (or rewatch) this movie. —KH
4. Finding Nemo (2003)
The movie that launched a thousand ill-fated pet clownfish sends Marlin (Albert Brooks) across the ocean with a forgetful blue tang (Ellen DeGeneres) from an idyllic coral reef to an eerie sunken battleship, from the depths of the abyssal zone to the roaring East Australian Current. The movie switches between Marlin’s quest to find his son and Nemo’s new life in a fish tank. Neither storyline is dull, with Nemo’s basically turning into an escape plan helmed by Willem Dafoe’s Gill. The movie also boasts a colorful cast of side characters — from the struggling vegetarian sharks and Nemo’s precocious classmates to the quirky tank gang and Crush the surfer-dad turtle — who help the movie “just keep swimming.”
At its heart, though, Finding Nemo is a story about being a parent, about doing whatever it takes to protect your child — and about learning when it’s time to let them go. —PR
3. Toy Story (1995)
The first Toy Story was something of a miracle: a technological revolution that still managed to tell a story. While the sequels really gnawed away at the existential questions dredged up by the first, the original movie just focuses on the toys and their love for their owner, Andy. The buddy-cop dynamic of Woody and Buzz shines as the two navigate a contentious relationship and an identity crisis. The entire concept could’ve been played straight for laughs, but instead turns into a heartwarming tale of friendship, conflict, and the halcyon days of childhood.
Pixar’s first film was born out of conflict — Disney hands tried to make the plot more adult — but it’s a true testament to how animation can meld with human emotion. Equal parts humor and heart, terror and triumph, Toy Story still holds up after all these years. —PR
2. Inside Out (2015)
Inside Out takes place largely inside the mind of 11-year-old Riley, which allows the artists at Pixar to stretch their world-building and design imaginations. The aspects of the human psyche become bubbly personifications — Amy Poehler is terrifically cast as the embodiment of Joy, along with Mindy Kaling voicing the snooty Disgust — but the movie amounts to more than a wacky adventure into consciousness. Inside Out handles the delicate and complicated feelings of growing up. Joining Sadness and Joy on their quest through Riley’s mind is kooky imaginary friend Bing Bong, who gets a surprisingly poignant arc.
Pixar films never shy away from the big emotional beats, but by virtue of Inside Out being a film about emotion, its climax — the epiphany that Sadness (Phyllis Smith) is a necessary part of processing emotions — hits particularly hard. —PR
1. The Incredibles (2004)
Back when superheroes were still a goofy thing for kids, or at most a guilty treat for adults, Brad Bird’s The Incredibles bounded onto the big screen, combining the Fantastic Four, the nuclear family sitcom, the entire midcentury modern aesthetic, and basically the same story setup as Watchmen into what might be the crispest, most tightly orchestrated action movie ever made.
The Incredibles is superbly plotted and paced, and skips along to a Giacchino soundtrack that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Bond film. There isn’t a single throwaway scene or line — nor are there throwaway characters. The Parr family makes up the heart of the film, of course, while the entitled Syndrome and his ambitions form the spine of the plot. But when you widen the net? No duds, people.
Frozone: Instantly beloved. Bob’s weaselly insurance boss, the weaseliest boss to ever exist; Super Relocation Agent Rick Dicker, shaped and voiced as if you had distilled every Tommy Lee Jones role down to its most concentrated essence. The Parrs’ hapless babysitter; supervillain second-in-command Mirage, even freakin’ Bomb Voyage — I bet you can picture every one of them. And is there a secondary character more instantly iconic than Edna Mode?
And to boot: this collection of memorable character designs, all in the first Pixar film in which the company had attempted to present human figures as the leads. It’s nothing short of … well, you can guess. —SP