BY JORDAN R. WILLIAMS
The Story of Pixar
Pixar animation studios has a lengthy history in Hollywood. Even though casual fans are aware of the studio’s first feature film being released in 1995, Toy Story, the animation studio actually has its origins in the 1970s. Before spinning off as its own company, Pixar was a part of Lucasfilm’s computer division. In 1986, with funding from Apple’s co-founder, Steve Jobs, Pixar became it’s own corporation before eventually being bought by The Walt Disney Company in 2006 for $7.4 billion.
Before 1995’s release of Toy Story, Pixar produced primarily computer animated shorts. However, financial woes and the loss of jobs resulted in a period of peril for the studio. On several occasions, then owner and chairman of the board, Steve Jobs, considered selling the studio. Luckily, he didn’t. Because we probably wouldn’t have received the successful outcome of the studio that we associate with Pixar today.
Is Pixar the best studio in Hollywood?
Now, fifteen feature films and nearly fifty short films and television specials later, Pixar Animation Studios is the BEST studio in all of Hollywood. Pretty bold claim, right? Yes, it is, but there is reason as to why I feel this way. With a nearly spotless track record of critical and commercial successful hits, as well as having some of the best talent working for the studio, there is substantial reason to believe my claim, and the claim of many others. So, before I jump into the primary purpose of this post, I would like to examine what makes Pixar such a powerhouse in Hollywood.
Since 1995, Pixar films have grossed a total of $8,631,979,838 at the worldwide box office. The average of the film’s grosses is $616,569,988. The studio has earned 15 Academy Awards, seven Golden Globe Awards, and 11 Grammy Awards, as well as countless other awards and acknowledgements. Since the inauguration of the Academy Award for the Best Animated Feature, seven Pixar films have won the award, Finding Nemo (2003), Toy Story 3 (2010), The Incredibles (2004), Ratatouille (2007), WALL-E (2008), Up (2009), and Brave (2012). Up and Toy Story 3, respectively, have also been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Additionally, Toy Story 3 is the second highest grossing animated film of all-time with a worldwide gross of $1.064 billion. For their important contributions to cinema, Pixar executives John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, and Lee Unkrich were presented with the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement by the biennial Venice Film Festival.
Numbers don’t lie, and Pixar has produced successful feature films since the studio’s very first outing in 1995. With the exception of Cars 2, Pixar films are critically acclaimed from movie goers and critics, and are regarded as some of the best films of each year. This, on top of the incredible box office success, illustrates how close to perfection the studio has been for 20 years. Pixar has revolutionized the way animation has evolved in Hollywood. Prior to its string of success, computer animation wasn’t a mainstream technology that studios used for animated features. Now, an entirely new film industry has catapulted to the top of the box office. Toy Story’s animation technical innovation ushered in a completely new era of animation, and other studios have tried to replicate the success of Pixar. For example, Dreamworks Animation has had profound success in computer animated features with films such as $3.5 billion dollar Shrek franchise, Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda, Shark Tales, and Happy Feet. Illumination Entertainment has also struck gold in the Despicable Me franchise. Finally, Pixar’s parent company and long-time distributor and co-financer, Disney, has transitioned to primarily producing computer animated features at the famous Walt Disney Animation Studios with films such as Wreck-It Ralph, Big Hero 6, and the highest grossing animated film ever, Frozen. The profound and influential effect of the animation juggernaut is undeniable.
But the most special aspect of Pixar lies behind the creative minds who dedicate themselves to delivering innovative concepts that resonate with all audiences. All of Pixar’s stories, characters and worlds have been created internally by their community of artists, engineers, animators, writers, researchers and executives. Ed Catmull, current president of Pixar Animation Studios and the Walt Disney Animation studios, has stated that,
“A movie contains literally tens of thousands of ideas. They’re in the form of every sentence; in the performance of each line; in the design of characters, sets, and backgrounds; in the locations of the camera; in the colors, the lighting, the pacing. The director and the other creative leaders of a production do not come up with all the ideas on their own; rather, every single member of the 200- to 250-person production group makes suggestions. Creativity must be present at every level of every artistic and technical part of the organization."
One of the formula’s to Pixar’s success is the collaborative culture that has been emphasized throughout its history. The teams that are assembled exist to help refine ideas in order to, ultimately, pitch these finely tuned idea to executives so that they can turn into feature films or shorts. Catmull has also gone on to say that since the production of Toy Story 2, it has become deeply ingrained in Pixar’s culture that everything they touch needs to be excellent. From the films, to the DVD production and extras, to merchandise and other consumer products associated with their properties. For the studio, excellence is the bar.
With critical and commercial success, memorable film hits, groundbreaking contributions to cinema history and some of the most creative minds in the world, Pixar has proven why it has no equals.
So, with such an epic string of successful feature films, it will be difficult to rank out each of Pixar’s projects. However, with the release of their newest feature, Inside Out, now is an appropriate time to decide which film is the best of the best. Without further adieu, below is my personal ranking of Pixar’s feature films from best to worst.
Note: This list will be updated after I see Inside Out, and take time to digest its ranking among Pixar’s filmography.
14. CARS 2 (2011)
Let’s get this out of the way: I’m not a fan of the Cars franchise. The first film is pretty good, but it didn’t really capture me like other Pixar films. Maybe if it wasn’t associated with the Pixar brand, I would be more receptive to it. However, Cars 2 is simply not a good movie. The film detours from the first film in order to dive into a new genre. Cars 2 goes all-out spy flick, and has some great action sequences, and a fast paced script, but the movie doesn’t have the heart and charm of other Pixar offerings. Overall, the plot was just too confusing, and Tow Mater’s voice (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy), is just unbearable to withstand.
13. CARS (2006)
Even some of Pixar’s worst work is better than most. As I said above, the Cars franchise contains my least favorite Pixar films, and are the least loved of the studio’s portfolio. Set deep in Radiator Springs, Cars tells the story of Lightning McQueen who learns that winning isn’t everything. Cars doesn’t contain the brilliance of Toy Story or The Incredibles, but animation was evolving in visually appealing ways in this film. There’s certain a lack of focus in this film, but it beats out its sequel due to better storytelling, and much less of a focus on Mater.
12. A BUG’S LIFE (1998)
1998's A Bug’s Life is an impressive sophomore effort from the studio, following the success of Toy Story. Advancement in technology and complexity is present throughout the film, and it boasts an impressive voice acting cast including Kevin Spacey. An achievement in storytelling and character development, A Bug’s Life continued Pixar’s trend of raising the bar for the computer animation industry.
11. BRAVE (2012)
Brave is the first Pixar film to have a female protagonist at the lead. It’s also the first Pixar film to be set in the past - medieval Scotland. The film is a fun fantasy-adventure that’s all about the relationship between mothers and daughters. The detail to this film is off the charts as well from the fiery red hair of the arrow-shooting Merida, to the incredibly rich and detailed Scottish environment. Merida as the heroine is one of the film’s brightest points, but, overall, doesn’t, offer up as much groundbreaking work like its predecessors.
10. MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (2013)
Monsters University, the follow-up to Monsters, Inc., is Pixar’s first prequel. Though not as good as its predecessor, the film is entertaining, fun and clever in it’s own right. What is probably most entertaining about Monsters University is Pixar’s take on college life. That has always been one of the studio’s biggest strengths - detailed universe building that engulfs you into the worlds that have been created. The film’s tone remains consistent with its predecessor, but I applaud Pixar for still making it a distinguishable film from the first Monsters film.
9. MONSTERS, INC. (2001)
What a genius concept - A city’s power that is generated by scaring children at the titular company, Monsters, Inc. This is another Pixar outing that is enjoyable for all ages, though not quite as sophisticated as the Toy Story films. The film that stars John Goodman and Billy Crystal gives life to many childhood fantasies that we’ve, pretty much, all had. What’s most lovable about this film is "Boo,” a 2 year-old girl who actually isn’t afraid of monsters. Quite simply, she stole the monstrous show.
8. FINDING NEMO (2003)
Finding Nemo probably contains the most recognizable Pixar characters opposite of the Toy Story ensemble. This was truly the point for Pixar where the tide started to turn for the studio. Finding Nemo ended up becoming Pixar’s most massive hit, up to that point, and delivered excellent animation in an underwater universe. It’s easily one of the most gorgeous computer animated movies ever made. The film is even more impressive on the voice acting side with a cast that includes Ellen DeGeneres, Willem Dafoe, and Albert Brooks. The storytelling in Finding Nemo is so profound, and does a magnificent job at relating to adult audiences. It’s an amazing feat that the animation studio does such a good job at making us, as humans, relate to sea creatures and toys.
7. RATATOUILLE (2007)
Ratatouille is a worthy addition to the Pixar pantheon. An very intelligent, and highly entertaining outing from director Brad Bird, Ratatouille offers up a visual spectacle with the beautiful backdrop of Paris, France. Let’s not gloss over the fact of how risky this film was. How do you successfully blend cuisine and a rat? Well, Pixar did what they do best. Create a loveable character that isn’t exactly human, but exhibits very human characteristics, and win us over with comedy and charm. The film is also packed with action, drama, and romance. Ratatouille is as inventive as any.
6. TOY STORY (1995)
The godfather of them all. Toy Story ushered in a new era in cinema, and a completely new industry entirely. CG animation wasn’t a thing in Hollywood. But this heartfelt tale of toys couldn’t be ignored. Even more impressive than its innovative technology is the surprisingly human story that is an underlying theme in all of Pixar’s films. The rivalry between two toys - western-style wooden cowboy, Woody (voiced by Tom Hanks), and the much cooler and more futuristic space-age action figure, Buzz Lightyear (voiced by Tim Allen), uncovers an emotional depth that many other animated films fail to achieve. It’s all about the fear of becoming obsolete - something that we all deal with at one point or another. Toy Story knocked it out of the park and serves as the archetype for the animation juggernaut known as Pixar.
5. WALL-E (2008)
Another risky and innovative film from the Pixar troupe, WALL-E delivers a stellar visual experience that takes place almost entirely in space. For the majority of the film’s first act, we don’t hear any dialogue from the titular character as he exists in loneliness. The spectacular visual adventure quickly takes off, and evolves into an emotional love story. WALL-E pushes the boundaries of animation and filmmaking. I dare say that no other Pixar film rivals WALL-E in terms of visuals. But again, as stated with most of these films, the visuals come second after the emotionally tugging performances from the story’s characters. Dark and apocalyptic, but rooted in optimism and love, WALL-E triumphs as one of Pixar’s greatest achievements.
4. THE INCREDIBLES (2004)
Pixar’s genre exploration into the world of superheros was an adventurous and thrilling story of a family of super-powered heroes, The Incredibles. Husband and wife, Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl, and their super children Violet, Dash, and Jack-Jack, are a formidable family that, despite their otherwordly powers, still deal with real-life issues. The Incredibles is stylistic, and filled with, quite possibly, the best action scenes in any Pixar film. Think about the epic scene of Dash running on water, or the climactic battle against Syndrome where Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Frozone, comes out of retirement to deliver a frozen spectacle. The Incredibles is a bit satirical in its approach, but it contains a dark edginess that most of its counterparts don’t venture into.
3. TOY STORY 3 (2010)
The first animated movie in history to generate over $1 billion in ticket sales, Toy Story 3 was an epic installment into the groundbreaking franchise. The movie works as a comedy, drama and an action film. The story of Andy leaving home for college, and ultimately having to part ways with his childhood toys was gripping. As I sat in the theater for this film, It dumbfounded me how we literally grew up with Andy. From his early childhood adventures with his signature toys, to his maturation into a departing college student, we had vicariously lived Andy’s story, through his loveable toys. The final 15 minutes of this movie are excellently crafted - a moment i’ll never forget because it felt so personal. I was, and still am, absolutely flabbergasted at how masterful this film is. You’ve all been warned: have your tissue handy for this one.
2. UP (2009)
What happened in the final 15 minutes of Toy Story 3 happens in the first 10 minutes of Up - a powerful montage of the story’s main character, Carl, and his story with his life’s love, Ellie. We adventure from their first meeting as children, to their marriage, and ultimately end with her death. I couldn’t believe that this had happened within the first 10 minutes of this film. Where would it go from this point? However, Up never lost steam. We are treated to an adventure between Carl and a young boy, Russell. Carl creates a flying house using nothing but balloons to travel to the place he and Ellie had always dreamed of. Up is a high-flying adventure that is hilarious and entertaining. Truly, a beautiful film.
1. TOY STORY 2 (1999)
Why the second Toy Story film, you might be asking? Well, Toy Story managed to do what very few sequels do - outshine the original in every way. The fun and spirit of the original film is maintained, by the creators of Toy Story 2 reinvent their characters by delving deeper into their stories, while thrusting them into entirely new environments. The story of Woody’s abduction by a toy collector, and ultimately meeting his fellow toy comrades from the ‘Woody’s Roundup’ gang presented an enticing conflict. Does Woody stay with the roundup gang, and live forever as a collector’s item, or does he go back to his friends and Andy, who could potentially tear up his toy body at any moment. This leads to a hilarious and thrilling adventure with Buzz and the gang attempting to go save Woody from captivity. This is really great stuff here. The final twenty minute climax of the film is superb, as well. Ultimately, Woody made the choice that we all wanted him to make, and he even brought Andy some new toys. Toy Story is an achievement in its own right with a unique plot, and deeper character development. In my mind, it stands as the strongest of the threequel, which ultimately will be remembered as one of the greatest film franchises of all-time.