Total Recall

Every Pixar Movie Ranked From Best to Worst

With Inside Out hitting theaters, we run down the animation studio's complete filmography.

by | June 17, 2015 | Comments

Once upon a time, animation could be neatly divided into two eras: BD and AD, or before and after Disney. That all changed, however, with the release of 1995’s Toy Story, a movie that — although it bore the Disney logo — marked the feature-length debut of an upstart studio named Pixar. Pixar has released 13 films since then — 12 of which are Certified Fresh — and with the studio’s 15th outing, Inside Out, landing in theaters this weekend, we thought now would be an opportune time to take a fond look back at the studio’s extraordinary full-length filmography.

Whether you’re an avowed animation buff or simply a fan of innovative, entertaining movies, you’ve probably got your own list of favorite Pixar moments, so let’s relive them now, shall we? From Toy Story to Monsters University, to infinity and beyond, here’s this week’s Total Recall!

Toy Story 2 (1999) 100%

Considering how successful the first installment was — not to mention Disney’s original plan to make the sequel a direct-to-video affair — not many people would have been surprised if Toy Story 2 had fallen flat when it landed in theaters in 1999. But with Tom Hanks back as Woody, Tim Allen back as Buzz, and an adventure that took Andy’s toys on a journey every bit as exciting as their first, the second Story proved that some movie characters really do have more than one story worth telling — and that even when it came to movies with numbers after the title, Pixar meant business. Speaking of business, Toy Story 2‘s was extraordinarily healthy, to the tune of a $485 million worldwide gross — and the public’s obvious enthusiasm for the movie was backed up by the critics, who duplicated the original’s 100 percent Tomatometer on the strength of reviews like the one from Jay Carr of the Boston Globe, who wrote that it was “everything you could want in a sequel,” or Jeff Millar of the Houston Chronicle, who observed, “the Pixar people just get better and better.”

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 Toy Story (1995) 100%

In 1937, Walt Disney Pictures turned conventional wisdom on its head by proving that animation — heretofore the realm of short films starring talking critters — could be successfully utilized to tell a full-length story starring realistic human characters. That film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, charted the path the studio — and animation pretty much in general — followed for almost six decades, until Pixar came long and changed everything with Toy Story. Like Snow White before it, Toy Story was an eye-popping technical marvel with a heart to match its stunning visuals — and like Snow White, it kick-started the growth of a studio whose unprecedented success would redefine an art form. Of course, no one could have known all that in 1995; we only knew that it was, in the words of Roger Ebert, “a visionary roller-coaster ride of a movie.” Subsequent Pixar releases have deepened and refined the technology and storytelling approach seen here, but unlike pretty much anything else considered cutting-edge in 1995, it still seems almost as fresh as it did on the day it was released. As Michael Booth of the Denver Post wrote, “It’s a landmark movie, and doesn’t get old with frequent repetition.”

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Toy Story 3 (2010) 99%

By the time they reach their third installments, most franchises have either been corrupted by time (The Godfather Part III), stretched beyond sensible narrative limits (Die Hard with a Vengeance), or simply stopped trying (Superman III). Leave it to Pixar to create an exception to the rule with Toy Story 3, which used the decade-plus between sequels as a framing device for a poignant story about the exciting (and emotionally wrenching) transition between childhood and adulthood. Of course, it wasn’t all dramatic overtones; Toy Story 3 also made room for action-adventure, in the form of a daring, Great Escape-inspired plot to bust the toys out of their new home at the local daycare. It all added up to over $1 billion at the box office, five Academy Award nominations (including wins for Best Song and Best Animated Feature), and almost universal praise from critics like Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir, who called it “A bona fide summer delight loaded with action, humor, nostalgia, a veritable blizzard of pop-culture references and general good vibes.”

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 Finding Nemo (2003) 99%

After going somewhat high-concept with Monsters, Inc., the studio took things back to basics for 2003’s Finding Nemo, following the adventures of a single father (Albert Brooks) and his brain-damaged acquaintance (Ellen DeGeneres) as they desperately search for his kidnapped son. It reads like a tense, Missing-style thriller, but this is Pixar: the characters are all animated talking fish, and in lieu of pulse-pounding drama, it serves up the adorable antics of ocean critters like a porcupinefish named Bloat (Brad Garrett) and a laid back sea turtle named Crush (voiced by writer/director Andrew Stanton). Which is not to say that Nemo lacks action or adventure — there are numerous edge-of-your-seat set pieces — nor does it come without a valuable message, underscoring the difficulty (and the importance) of letting children develop their own identities. Audiences expected nothing less from Pixar at this point, and rewarded the studio with a worldwide gross just shy of $865 million; meanwhile, critics set aside their usual cynicism for a couple of hours to pronounce Nemo, in the words of Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, “a thing of beauty, hugely entertaining and way cool.”

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Up (2009) 98%

After heading into space for WALL-E, Pixar returned to Earth for their next feature, 2009’s Up — but they continued to push the boundaries of mainstream American animation, using a story with a certain amount of surface silliness (grumpy old man uses balloons to send his house airborne and turn his back on society, only to discover a young stowaway) to explore such decidedly serious themes as death, regret, aging, and friendship. Like WALL-E, Up takes its time getting to the speaking parts, opening with an extended musical sequence depicting the decades-long love story between Carl Fredericksen (played by Ed Asner) and his wife Ellie (Elizabeth Docter). Without a single word of dialogue, Up reduced many filmgoers to tears — and it was just getting started. By the time it was all over, Up had taken audiences on a journey from crowded city streets to the tepui mountains of Venezuela, helped mend Carl’s broken heart, shared a message or two, and scored only the second Best Picture Academy Award nomination for an animated feature in history. At 98 percent on the Tomatometer, Up was one of the best-reviewed movies of the year, and a favorite of critics such as the Los Angeles Times’ Kenneth Turan, who wrote, “Rarely has any film, let alone an animated one powered by the logic of dream and fantasy, been able to move so successfully — and so effortlessly — through so many different kinds of cinematic territory.”

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Inside Out (2015) 98%


With the exception of the unloved <em>Cars 2</em>, most of Pixar’s recent efforts have performed respectably with critics in spite of a growing consensus that they weren’t quite on par with the studio’s best-loved work. Those concerns were laid to rest with 2015’s <em>Inside Out</em>, which forced all but the most stern-hearted of viewers to admit that no matter how high Pixar may have set the bar with its early string of classics, the studio’s braintrust was still capable of meeting — and even arguably exceeding — those lofty creative peaks. As with most Pixar films, the idea behind <em>Inside Out</em> is deceptively simple: Viewers are given a window into the inner life of an 11-year-old girl named Riley (Kaitlyn Dias) whose family’s move sets off a chain of events that send her on an emotional rollercoaster. And her <em>emotions</em> have quite the adventure, too: Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) all play a part in helping Riley come to grips with the changes she’s facing…inside and out. As with all of the studio’s best work, critics felt it worked on a purely entertaining level for younger viewers while resonating on a deeper level for an older audience; as Moira Macdonald wrote for the Seattle Times, “<em>Inside Out</em> movingly but casually plays with our emotions, like a baby walking her fingers across a parent’s face; it leaves you changed, entertained, nostalgic, dazzled.”

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The Incredibles (2004) 97%


Pixar has been known to build a winsome feature around what looks like a questionable storyline, but they’ve also developed some wonderfully original stuff — like 2004’s The Incredibles, which looks at what can happen when a superhero trades in costumed adventure for domestic tranquility too soon. Exiled to a suburban family life after a series of mishaps leads to the government putting the kibosh on super-powered crimefighters, the former Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson) deals with the monotony of his new job at an insurance company by sneaking out after hours and upholding truth and justice on the QT with his best friend, Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson). His secret doesn’t stay secret for long, of course — not from his superhuman wife (Holly Hunter) and kids, and not from the supervillain whose nefarious plot draws them all together. As with roughly 70 percent of all kids’ movies, The Incredibles teaches a lesson about the value of being yourself, but even if the moral of the story isn’t exactly unique, the characters and situations offered a nifty twist on the superhero craze — and writer/director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant) proved an excellent addition to the Pixar stable. It is, in the words of ReelViews’ James Berardinelli, an “exemplary mixture of top-notch storytelling, visual razzle-dazzle, accessible humor, and involving action.”

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WALL-E (2008) 96%

How do you deal with the incredible expectations created by eight films, and almost 15 years, of solid excellence? Conventional wisdom would say to play it safe and fall back on everything that’s worked for you before — but Pixar has never been conventional, and they proved it again with 2008’s WALL-E, a movie that took the studio’s knack for adorable characters and hyper-realistic CG animation and flung it into the uncharted (and even a little avant garde) regions of outer kidvid space. It’s hard to imagine any other studio having success with a family film this idiosyncratic — a movie about a lonely trash-compacting robot with a mostly dialogue-free first act doesn’t exactly scream summer blockbuster — but audiences trusted the Pixar brand enough to show up in droves, and they were rewarded with not only one of the best-reviewed animated releases of 2008, but what was, in the words of the Boston Globe’s Jay Carr, “the best American film of the year to date.” WALL-E came with a surprising bit of controversy, drawing fire from conservative pundits who were annoyed with what they interpreted as a left-wing, anti-business message, but its 96 percent Tomatometer and massive $534 million gross drowned out the chatter. As with just about everything Pixar has done, it works whether you’re looking to be edified or simply entertained; as the New York Times’ A.O. Scott noted, “it is, undoubtedly, an earnest (though far from simplistic) ecological parable, but it is also a disarmingly sweet and simple love story, Chaplinesque in its emotional purity.”

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Ratatouille (2007) 96%

For anyone who’d been counting down the days until Pixar’s inevitable downfall, the period between the lukewarm critical reception afforded Cars and the debut of 2007’s Ratatouille seemed like it might be the beginning of the end: not only was the studio working on a movie with a rather unappetizing protagonist — a rat who wanted to be a gourmet chef — but the movie itself had something of a troubled journey to the screen, including a Pixar-mandated director swap that ousted the film’s creator, Jan Pinkava, and replaced him with Brad Bird. All’s well that ends well, though, and by the time Ratatouille reached theaters in June of ’07, it was abundantly clear that all the creative turmoil had paid off — not only did it provide Pixar with another box office bonanza, gathering up more than $621 million in worldwide receipts, but it quickly established itself as yet another critical winner for the studio, ending up with a 96 percent Tomatometer rating and a bunch of glowing reviews from critics like Newsweek’s David Ansen, who called it “a film as rich as a sauce béarnaise, as refreshing as a raspberry sorbet, and a lot less predictable than the damn food metaphors and adjectives all us critics will churn out to describe it. OK, one more and then I’ll be done: it’s yummy.”

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Monsters, Inc. (2001) 96%

It starred Billy Crystal as a fast-talking schemer who was physically dwarfed by his sidekick, but despite that surface similarity to the misbegotten My Giant, Pixar hit another home run with its fourth feature, 2001’s Monsters, Inc. The tale of Mike (Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman), two employees of the titular kiddie-scaring company, Monsters imagines a world in which children’s screams are the energy source that powers the secret city of Monstropolis — and one in which the monsters themselves are just 9-to-5 clock punchers with problems of their own, such as mistakenly letting a child follow them back to the office. Mike and Sulley are worried about more than just getting written up — the monsters believe the children are toxic — but they soon discover that not only is inter-species harmony possible, but it may hold the key to their civilization’s looming energy crisis. It’s admittedly rather heady stuff for a family-friendly CGI comedy, but Pixar has always been good at slipping subtext into a candy-colored shell, and Monsters, Inc. is no different. “The analogy to our dependence on, say, oil is soon abandoned, the better to blur the distinction between abstract and concrete,” wrote Lisa Alspector of the Chicago Reader, pointing out “something older viewers of this 2001 animated adventure may appreciate more than younger ones.”

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A Bug's Life (1998) 92%

Inspired by Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper — memorably animated in the Silly Symphonies short titled, suitably, The Grasshopper and the Ants — Pixar’s John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton spearheaded the development of Pixar’s second feature, A Bug’s Life, the story of a nonconformist ant named Flik (voiced by Dave Foley) who ventures beyond his colony’s island shores to recruit an army of bugs that can defend them from a gang of mean-spirited grasshoppers (led by Kevin Spacey). When the naïve Flik mistakes a group of circus performers (including Denis Leary as a sass-mouthed ladybug) for fighters, the stage is set for another round of CGI-fueled family fun. Though A Bug’s Life was overshadowed somewhat by DreamWorks Animation’s superficially similar Antz, and critics weren’t quite as unanimous in their praise as they’d been for Toy Story, neither a $363 million worldwide gross nor a 91 percent Tomatometer are anything to sneer at — and in the end, as CNN’s Paul Tatara observed, “if this movie doesn’t make you smile you may not know how.”

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Brave (2012) 78%

Princesses have made Disney some pretty big bucks over the years, but by 2012, Pixar’s creative team could feel the cultural tide turning against damsels in distress. Enter Brave, in which a classic medieval story about an impetuous king’s daughter gets a postmodern twist – and forsakes the tired old princely rescue narrative in favor of a story about the timeless, occasionally troubled bonds between girls and their mothers. And while critics weren’t shy about arguing that Brave‘s depiction of the fraught dynamic between feisty princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) and her steadfastly traditional mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), could have gone even further in upending decades of conservative Disney storytelling, most agreed that the movie’s positives outweighed its drawbacks – including the raucously funny work turned in by Billy Connolly as the beleaguered King Fergus. As TIME’s Richard Corliss sniffled, “By the climax, at which all right-thinking viewers will have dissolved in a puddle of warm appreciation, the new Pixar film has earned two cheers and a big bear hug.”

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Monsters University (2013) 78%

Nine times out of 10, a prequel that films a dozen years after its predecessor will have to replace pretty much its entire cast. But that rule doesn’t apply in animation, as Monsters University reminded us in 2013, when it reunited Monsters, Inc. stars Billy Crystal and John Goodman for a look at how Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan met back in their college days. Without the nifty storytelling twist that inspired Inc., University was little more than a chance for Crystal and Goodman to riff off each other in a fairly standard campus coming-of-age story, but given the prodigious talents of the chemistry-rich duo – ably aided and abetted by a stellar supporting cast that included Helen Mirren, Steve Buscemi, Alfred Molina, and Charlie Day – that proved to be more than enough for most critics. “Execution matters,” noted Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri. “Verve, and energy, and inventiveness matter. And Monsters University is funny, fast, and likable, with occasional moments of real visual surprise and laugh-out-loud offhand gags.”

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Cars (2006) 74%

Even the most successful family can have a black sheep, and at a relatively paltry 74 percent on the Tomatometer, 2006’s Cars was Pixar’s for a long time — at least, until its sequel came along. While not poor enough to break the studio’s chain of Fresh certifications, the reviews that greeted this John Lasseter-directed tale of a young racecar (Owen Wilson) and his quest to wrest the Piston Cup from a pair of challengers (Michael Keaton and Richard Petty) weren’t up to the usual Pixar standard; whether dismissing it as unoriginal (Christy Lemire of the Associated Press accused it of “[ripping] off Doc Hollywood, almost note for note) or overlong (the Chicago Reader’s J.R. Jones called it “not a test of speed but endurance”), the critics concluded that Cars ran a little too rough to stand alongside earlier classics. Audiences didn’t mind, though — it grossed over $460 million — and even if it didn’t measure up to Pixar’s previous efforts, it was still good enough to earn praise from scribes like Chris Vognar of the Dallas Morning News, who wrote, “no other outfit can match Pixar’s knack for plucking heartstrings without tearing them off the frets.”

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Cars 2 (2011) 39%

Cars did well at the box office – and well enough with critics – but it was far from the first Pixar film most fans thought of when entertaining thoughts of possible sequels to the studio’s hits. The movie had one important fan, however, in director John Lasseter, who also happened to be the chief creative officer at Pixar, Walt Disney Animation Studios, and DisneyToon Studios; once he became convinced there needed to be a Cars 2, a follow-up was pretty much a foregone conclusion. Unfortunately, when the movie arrived in theaters in 2011, it found few critics who agreed with Lasseter; in fact, Cars 2 went down as Pixar’s biggest critical dud to date, scoring an uninspired 39 percent on the Tomatometer while being roundly derided as a merchandising-driven misstep from a studio that had trained audiences to expect the best. Still, as a pleasantly undemanding diversion for younger viewers, Cars 2 had its defenders, with a handful of critics pointing out that the movie – which reunites most of the original voice cast for a story that sends Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) out to compete in the World Grand Prix while Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) bungles through a bit of international espionage – wouldn’t be held up to such scrutiny if any other company had produced it. “Minor Pixar, but it would be a major film were it made by just about anyone else,” wrote Deadspin’s Will Leitch. “I, for one, will not get greedy.”

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