Over the past 23 years, the animation studio Pixar has become one of the country’s most consistent purveyors of film, growing steadily since it released Toy Story, the first computer-animated feature-length film in history, on November 22, 1995.
From superhero adventures to lonely robots on a post-apocalyptic Earth, its movies have earned plaudits for being artistically adventurous and for telling stories ostensibly aimed at kids that have just as many adult fans. Even Pixar’s less notable works still provide solid entertainment. (Well, except for a couple.)
Naturally, the release of Incredibles 2, the studio’s 20th full-length feature film, meant it was time for your friendly neighborhood Vox staff to rank all 20 of those films so far. Should you have any quibbles with the results, please note that our rankings are 100 percent accurate. We’re glad to put the old debate of which Pixar movie is best to rest.
If you want to see our rankings of all of Pixar’s short films, go here.
20) Cars 2 (2011)
The best thing about Cars 2 is that its release came after a long, unbroken string of Pixar dominance that had lasted for the company’s first 11 features. (Even the first Cars, while obviously the weakest of those films, is an entertaining movie with something on its mind.)
Thus, the company was due for a backlash, and it almost seemed as if it released this film in an attempt to schedule that backlash and get it over with as quickly as possible.
The neat idea here is that of an international spy saga starring cars; the movie was essentially only greenlit because the first one sold so much in the way of toys and merchandise, so why not use it to experiment with what a Pixar film could be?
Sadly, its more overtly action-oriented trappings don’t really work, and the film lacks any deeper themes or ideas. The result is an unfortunate example of the one thing so many other studios’ films aspire to but Pixar films usually seem to transcend without blinking: a somewhat tolerable way to keep the kids entertained for a couple of hours. —Todd VanDerWerff
19) The Good Dinosaur (2015)
A troubling phenomenon that’s started to creep up on Pixar in recent years is the sense that all of its films are constructed from elements of other films. This is no big surprise; all films draw inspiration from somewhere, and Pixar revisits the same general ideas and themes over and over.
But in the past five years, the studio has seemingly gotten much worse at transforming those influences into something all its own, which is how we arrive at The Good Dinosaur, a visually stunning feature that lacks soul — the one thing a Pixar film must have above all else.
There are some potentially interesting ideas in The Good Dinosaur about overcoming fear and the importance of family (the latter being a Pixar staple), but they’re subsumed by an episodic story that’s full of false starts and never figures out what it wants to be. —Todd VanDerWerff
18) Cars 3 (2017)
Cars 3 is by no means a great movie, but it’s also not a bad one, and if you only compared it to its immediate predecessor, you might conclude it was the finest film ever made. Cars 3 tries to expand the world of the Cars films, and it does so to what’s essentially the breaking point. (In one scene, a character alludes to what amounts to car racism and a car civil rights movement. Sure.)
Where Cars 3 ultimately succeeds is in its interest in exploring a time-honored Pixar theme: the slow passage of authority from one generation to the next. Lightning McQueen is getting old, and now that he’s threatened by a new generation of race cars with better technology, he has to find a way to compete. Would you believe that he learns along the way that he has value to the world, even if he’s no longer the fastest race car of them all? Would you similarly believe that he thus completes a journey vaguely set up in the first Cars movie?
The Cars films are one of Pixar’s least fruitful cul de sacs, but Cars 3 at least provides a largely bittersweet sendoff to them, provided this is the last. —Todd VanDerWerff
17) Cars (2006)
Originally pitched as The Yellow Car, the first incarnation of Cars told the story of an electric car in a gas-powered world. Little appears to remain of that story (except the fact that the characters are cars); instead, the film stars Lightning McQueen, a brash, bright red race car. Stranded in a long-forgotten roadside town called Radiator Springs, Lightning learns a lesson in humility from a cast of “folksy” automobiles after running afoul of the law.
A hit with younger audiences, the film sets a fairly straightforward path to Lightning’s redemption and introduces one of Pixar’s more annoying sidekicks in the process: Mater the talking tow truck. Far more interesting than Cars’ main story are its secondary themes of buried history and authenticity, though like many parts of this film’s legacy, they’re largely lost in the flash. —Agnes Mazur
16) Monsters University (2013)
The prequel to Monsters, Inc. brings the story of Mike and Sully back to its unlikely origins. As college freshmen, the two characters — who perfectly embody the jock/nerd archetypes — are forced to work together to compete in the annual campus Scare Games (think American Gladiator, but with more spikes and teeth).
Though it’s laden with college movie tropes ranging from stolen mascots to fraternity hazing, Monsters University still manages to give the pair’s unlikely friendship the room it needs to grow. A notable twist near the end of the film keeps it from being too predictable, and the sheer variation and number of monsters populating the world reflect an animation team with a zeal for detail. Even the movie’s promotional materials, which include a full Monsters University website, brim with the color and character of a true Pixar production. —Agnes Mazur
15) A Bug’s Life (1998)
Pixar’s second feature-length film is a kinda-sorta remake of the samurai classic The Seven Samurai (already kinda-sorta remade as The Magnificent Seven), but starring bugs. The studio is clearly still feeling out its process in this one, which is good but not yet impeccable. Still, it boasts one of Pixar’s most entertaining ensemble casts, thanks to an elaborate bug circus that poses as a fearsome army.
In the lead role is Kids in the Hall and Newsradio star Dave Foley, who’s so good as a Pixar everyman that it’s somewhat amazing he hasn’t been added to every film the studio’s made since, John Ratzenberger–style. (Ratzenberger, the former Cheers star who’s been part of every Pixar movie to date, stars in A Bug’s Life as the owner of the circus.) —Todd VanDerWerff
14) Finding Dory (2016)
Thirteen years after Finding Nemo premiered in 2003, its sequel, Finding Dory, swam eagerly into theaters, trying to recapture the immense heart and sweetness that made Nemo such a success. Ellen DeGeneres reprised the role of Dory — the lovable blue tang fish with almost no short-term memory — backed by a largely new all-star cast featuring Ed O’Neill as a surly octopus and Kaitlin Olson as an enthusiastic whale shark. Together, they bring new life to Pixar’s underwater universe by building a franchise that kept the earnest spirit of the original movie alive.
And while Dory’s determined adventuring through a marine life rehabilitation center doesn’t quite have the same magic of Nemo’s open-ocean travels, the sequel manages to stand on its own by diving deep into what makes the thoughtful, forgetful Dory such a truly special fish. —Caroline Framke
13) Brave (2012)
Describing Brave as a “redheaded stepchild” might prove a bit too literal, given its hero Merida’s long, crimson locks, but it’s a worthwhile film that’s too often overlooked in retrospectives of Pixar’s best work. The first film in the studio’s history to feature a female protagonist (seriously, it took that long), Brave sometimes feels assembled from 17 different screenplay drafts. However, it has at its center a tremendously compelling story of how our relationships with our parents evolve as we age into adolescence.
Scottish princess Merida is struggling with the notion that she’s meant to choose a husband — she wants to do no such thing — which leads to her and her mother being cast out into the wild, forced to care for each other and come to a new understanding. Most refreshing: There’s no perfunctory love interest in sight. —Todd VanDerWerff
12) Toy Story 2 (1999)
Pixar’s first sequel (though, sadly, not its last), Toy Story 2 was changed at the last minute from a direct-to-video feature to a theatrical release. Surprisingly, this doesn’t show, as the film revisits its predecessor’s themes of friendship and finding one’s purpose, then shoots them through with a hefty dose of melancholy at the thought of children eventually growing up and leaving childish things behind.
It cannily reverses the original movie’s dynamics, with cowboy Woody now the one who’s unhappy being a toy and Buzz Lightyear having to pull him back from the brink. And when Woody gets a chance to attain immortality thanks to a toy collector, he’s seriously tempted, only to be reminded of his true calling.
Toy Story 2 has no reason to be as good as it is, but it adds substantially to the franchise’s mythology (such as it is). It also features a Sarah McLachlan song that will destroy you, guaranteed. —Todd VanDerWerff
11) Monsters, Inc. (2001)
Something Pixar doesn’t get enough credit for these days (possibly thanks to its recent focus on sequels) is the economy of its world building. Watch the first 10 minutes of Monsters, Inc. and you’ll understand, more or less, everything you need to know about the universe it operates in — while still having your mind blown by the beauty of said universe (the factory floor!) and being tickled by its wit.
Monsters, Inc. is also Pixar’s first attempt to do something radical, asking children to identify with parent figures, in this case Mike Wazowski and Sully, as they try to care for and protect a creature they love but don’t entirely understand. Boo awakened parental feelings that 13-year-old me had never felt before, and have been stirred only rarely since. —Dara Lind
10) Up (2009)
Up is not just the first Pixar movie to make me cry but the first movie to make me do so as an adult. Its famous opening sequence, in which a married couple experiences some of the highs and lows of their lives, is one of the most blunt depictions of growing up and letting life pass you by that I have ever seen in a film, animated or otherwise.
But this introduction sets the stage for a movie that at its core promises it’s never too late to go out and accomplish what you want; after all the disappointment we witness in the first few minutes, from the loss of a potential child to the death of a loved one, an elderly man quite literally defies gravity to finally take the trip to South America he and his wife always dreamed of. —German Lopez
9) Incredibles 2 (2018)
In so many ways, Incredibles 2 is Pixar’s most dazzling achievement. It’s true that computer animation doesn’t age as well as hand-drawn animation, thanks to continued technological leaps. It’s also true that the original Incredibles no longer looks as spiffy as it did in 2004, and, thus, it’s not hard to imagine this sequel looking similarly wrung out in (ye gods) 2032.
But goodness does director Brad Bird know his way around an action sequence! So much of Incredibles 2 offers some of the most visually inventive, most astonishing superhero sequences in all of moviemaking, and it’s hard to conceive of those losing their punch when all is said and done. That those sequences are also wrapped around a surprisingly complex and intriguing story about ideas of exceptionalism, justice, and community makes it sort of an ur-text for everything Bird has been obsessed with for his entire career.
The story perhaps lacks some of the emotional heft of the first film, and it occasionally cuts awkwardly between its superhero-driven main story (starring Elastigirl!) and a domestic comedy subplot about Mr. Incredible having to be a stay-at-home dad. But both storylines are tremendous fun, and when they finally converge in the movie’s second half, it takes off to join some of Pixar’s best. —Todd VanDerWerff
8) Coco (2017)
So many of Pixar’s movies are a tale of two halves. You’ll be watching the first half of the movie, wondering if it’s going anywhere, only for the second half to sock you in the gut with unexpected emotional payoffs. Or, in the case of a handful of the studio’s movies, a terrific first half is followed by a second half that gradually deflates.
Coco belongs to the former category, with a slightly tedious first half that feels like the studio repeating itself in its themes of family and community and even mortality. Sure, the visit to the Land of the Dead (as depicted in Mexican mythology) is visually stunning, with a bright neon glow unlike anything else in the Pixar canon. But so much of that early going feels rote and familiar. It gets by with this by being a mystery, more or less, as young boy Miguel investigates several family secrets after accidentally landing in the afterlife. But it’s hard to escape the feeling of having been there and done that.
And then the second half hits, and you realize just how much Coco has been playing you. As Miguel finally uncovers the sadness at the core of his family, the movie becomes effortlessly transporting and, finally, in its closing sequence, incredibly moving. It’s the only movie on this list that might make clicking a “Remember Me” box on a website’s login screen make you tear up. —Todd VanDerWerff
7) Toy Story 3 (2010)
Toy Story 3 might not be the best film in the franchise, but it’s the one that hits you the hardest. There’s always been a Velveteen Rabbit–like quality to the Toy Story movies — they’re thoughtful pieces of art that make you question what it means to be “real” or “loved.” And in Toy Story 3, Buzz, Woody and the rest of the toys just want to be loved as Andy heads off to college.
Their yearning sets them on a voyage to a day care from hell, where they clash with a maniacal teddy bear named Lots-O-Huggin’ and end up in one of the most emotionally devastating scenes Pixar has ever produced. —Alex Abad-Santos
6) Ratatouille (2007)
Ratatouille is Pixar’s ode to the infectious joy of making art. The plot is a standard (if sprightly) tale of genius overcoming limitations: Would-be gourmet chef Remy is the genius, and the unfortunate fact that he is a rat is the limitation.
But in all of the movie’s truly indelible passages, cooking is just a symbol for any creative endeavor — say, filmmaking. Remy’s first adventure in combining one type of food with another (a bit of cheese with a strawberry) is a jazzy bit of synesthesia, and the joy that Pixar’s animators felt in illustrating it just leaps off the screen.
Later, the film’s final act, involving the skinny and therefore deeply suspicious restaurant reviewer Anton Ego, offers a moving bit of wish fulfillment: Every creator would love to turn the heart of his harshest critic. —Dara Lind
5) Finding Nemo (2003)
This underwater tale opens with a jarring, devastating loss that sets the charge on the emotional minefield that is parenting, making clownfish Marlin’s paranoia for his son Nemo’s safety sting that much more. And once Marlin’s worst fears are realized, the two embark on parallel journeys that make them face their fears head on.
Between the schools of fish, (mostly) friendly sharks, slightly stoned sea turtles, and misfit aquarium inhabitants they encounter along the way lie some poignant lessons about life. But the true beauty lies in Finding Nemo’s gorgeous animation and the enduring love of family. —Caroline Framke
4) Inside Out (2015)
Pixar has mastered the art of telling children’s stories adults can relate to. But this year, the studio showed it can also do the opposite. Inside Out, about a tweenage girl named Riley, feels like a story for grown-ups that’s wrapped in a candy-coated, kid-friendly shell.
The film explores what it’s like to feel listless, to face the inevitability and pain of growing up. And while Pixar’s movies have certainly dealt with heavy topics in the past (a lost parent in Finding Nemo, the loss of love in Wall-E and Up, etc.), Inside Out transcends its cinematic cousins to tackle a more pronounced ache and sense of sadness — feelings the movie beautifully depicts as a crucial part of life. —Alex Abad-Santos
3) Wall-E (2008)
A trash-collecting robot is an unlikely protagonist for any movie. But Pixar managed to win over audiences with a wide-eyed waste compactor named Wall-E who’s assigned the thankless task of cleaning up the heaps of trash humans have left all over Earth.
Wall-E stands out from other Pixar movies thanks to its general lack of dialogue, as the title character only utters a few words throughout the entire film — including his own name and that of EVE, the sleek white robot he courts in a whirlwind romance. Wall-Eshows what Pixar can do with a minimal approach, and the result is solid: a tearjerker of a movie that appeals to viewers of all ages. —Sarah Kliff
2) Toy Story (1995)
There’s no talking about Pixar’s brand without talking about Toy Story, the studio’s first full-length movie that remains one of its best, even 20 years later. The story of a boy, his imagination, and his toys that come to life the second he leaves them alone set the tone for everything Pixar has done since.
The development of an unlikely bond between cowboy pull-toy Woody and intergalactic superhero Buzz Lightyear is pure silliness on its face, but Toy Story comes to life just as swiftly as its toys thanks to the wit of a zippy, heartfelt script (the work of several different writers, including Finding Nemo’s Andrew Stanton and Buffy’s Joss Whedon).
As Woody and Buzz dodge toy-breaking neighbors and grapple with playroom politics, Toy Story imparts lessons about friendship, grief, and growing up without ever losing its brilliant sense of humor — or, more importantly, its earnest sense of wonder. —Caroline Framke
1) The Incredibles (2004)
Our choice for Pixar’s very best film is this action-packed superhero comedy that doubles as a story about a family splintering apart, then coming back together and/or — depending on your political/philosophical leanings — a weird defense of Ayn Rand’s theories of objectivism. (The Incredibles contains the line “If everyone’s special, then no one is,” which has one context in a superhero story and quite another everywhere else.)
What’s clear in every frame of this film is that Pixar is at the top of its game, dishing out hilarious jokes (like costume designer Edna Mode’s rant against capes), top-flight action sequences, and genuinely touching moments. It was the first film made for the studio by Brad Bird, whose future contributions would include 2007’s Ratatouille. —Todd VanDerWerff
Correction: This article originally said that Wall-E only says one word throughout the course of Wall-E. His vocabulary is limited, but it’s not that limited. We’ve corrected the error.