The title of this Top 5 could possibly be offensive to you, and honestly, it is slightly offensive to me. Undertaking the task of rating Pixar movies is a little bit like doing a Top 5 on books of the Bible! Even more dubious would be completing a Bottom 5! (Let’s see…I really don’t ever read Jude, so can that book go there? Martin Luther didn’t think James should be a book of the Bible, so…).
Thankfully, just as with books of the Bible, I have no say over Pixar canon, so I feel much more comfortable concocting a Top 5 Pixar movie list (yet not that comfortable considering the mountainous task at hand). I dove deeply; I read broadly; I agonized immensely, and I am confident this list accurately reflects a good cross-section of what people think about the Pixar movies. You will probably strongly disagree with my #1, and that is understandable, but you’re wrong.
5) FINDING NEMO
I struggled, big time, with my #5. How could I possibly put one of my favorite Pixar movies over another favorite? How could I neglect the one that launched the stratospheric success Pixar has had over the past twenty years? Toy Story was the only Pixar movie of my formative years since I was 11 when it hit the theaters. I remember it took the movie world by surprise and started their inevitable march to Oscar after Oscar for Best Animated Feature, although it would take years for their quality to be recognized with gold statuettes.
The movie had Tim Allen (Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor) and THE Tom Hanks! It set the firm foundation of everything Pixar is built on and cannot be cast aside. However, as much as I love Woody, Buzz, and the gang, I’ll save their moment in the sun for another slot and slide in the movie that wore out our DVD player when my oldest was little and pick Finding Nemo for the difficult #5 position.
As a father of four, it strikes the all the right chords in my daddy heart. It’s also the only movie on this list that starts with the tried and true formula of other Pixar movies like UP (another movie I had to tragically leave off this list). They start the movie with the saddest part; Coral, Marlin’s wife/fish partner for life, dies at the hands of a killer barracuda bent on eating their recently spawned eggs/kids. Not only does she die, but so do all the eggs but one damaged one! Dang it, Disney, why you gotta do that to a dad/kid-at-heart!
That egg is Marlin’s son Nemo (Alexander Gould), who is precocious and curious. However, Marlin is incredibly paranoid and over-protective and rightfully so! He is responsible for the last living tie to Coral and the tragedy that broke apart their family! And when Nemo gets lost touching a butt! This clownfish has been through quite the circus and it is no joke!
My favorite parts of this movie are the redemption/healing narrative and father/son relationship between everyone’s two favorite clownfish (unless you have a pet clownfish) and the third member of the main cast, Dory, played by Ellen DeGeneres. The best parts of kids movies are the frenetic and crazy energy of the comic relief, and DeGeneres is an ideal mixture of live-wire enthusiasm, loose screw comedy, child-like wonder, and trust. The main message of the movie is when we confront and process past hurts, we embrace a child-like faith and joy that propels true, abiding love. An amazing picture of God’s grace in a movie about tropical fish.
Last month I had this to say about The Incredibles in my Top 5 Brad Bird Movies:
“The Parr family is simultaneously relatable but also has touches of the magical, the most obvious being their superpowers. Their superpowers function less on the “wouldn’t-it-be-cool-to-have-those-powers” level and more on a metaphorical plane of their individual personalities. My favorite one being Helen and her super elasticity as an amusing analogy to the super human task of being a mom; the dinner table scene with Violet and Dash being the poetic petrie dish of the image.”
In 2015, the movie market is over-crowded with superhero movies. Starting in 2016 it is only going to be standing room only! In 2004, movie-goers weren’t so over-saturated. That might account for some of the success and effectiveness of Brad Bird’s directorial debut with Pixar. It wasn’t a medium we were familiar with, yet.
However, whatever superhero movie cognizance existed 11 years ago or today, The Incredibles endures for its distinct and dazzling visuals, as well as the wonderful story of a family dealing with mediocrity, anonymity, coming-of-age, and rising to a challenge. Deftly juggling these multiple themes and storylines has a final product that looks less like the crazy, frenetic circus act of Finding Nemo and is much more controlled; gleaming like a multi-faceted story diamond.
3) TOY STORY 3
I promised their time would come and it has arrived in the #3 slot!
It is hard to think of a trilogy of movies that almost unanimously delivered in all three movies. Fans of Star Wars who weren’t under 5 when Return of the Jedi came out must, at the very least, acknowledge the marked difference between the final chapter of the original trilogy and it’s two predecessors. The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II are cinematic classics, but the third movie is not even close to being in the same conversation as the other two. Only the Toy Story series can boast a Metacritic score of over 85 for each installment and host a legitimate conversation for each movie having merits for being the best one of the series.
All of that being said, it is an even greater feat for the third movie to not only be better, but maturate its storylines, pop culture references, and themes while still speaking to children, having fun, and making grown adults cry. Toy Story 3 has a wistful nostalgia that appeals to childhood sensibilities of longing for a simpler time while also connecting with the potentially alienating notion of life stage transition and the fear of the unknown (death, moving, destiny).
The introduction of more characters, a hallmark of the Marvel movies as they continue to develop, can be a potential land mine. However, Pixar doesn’t nimbly prance around the mines but clears them away like a bored computer nerd playing Minesweeper. Ned Beatty, Michael Keaton, Jodi Benson and Emily Hahn as Lotso, Ken, Barbie, and Molly blend seamlessly into the cast of characters and seem as natural a part of the crew as Joan Cusack did when she joined as Jessie in Toy Story 2. It’s a potential traffic jam of stars that is expertly routed by Pixar like a hyper-vigilant GPS!
Lastly, you cannot talk about this movie without addressing the penultimate scene at the garbage dump. Even after seeing it so many times, I still get choked up when they all hold hands (even while I type this I’m welling up!). You cannot navigate life and its pitfalls, its transitions, and its inevitabilities, like death and irrelevance, without a lot of help from your friends. Toy Story 3 teaches us this lesson. To spurn the need for community is to end up as a raspberry-smelling, strapped-to-a-garbage-truck grump.
One of my favorite review of WALL-E comes from New York Times critic A.O. Scott where he says:
“In his recent documentary “Encounters at the End of the World”, [Werner] Herzog muses that ‘the human presence on this planet is not really sustainable,’ a sentiment that is voiced, almost verbatim, in the second half of “Wall-E.” When the whimsical techies at Pixar and a moody German auteur are sending out the same message, it may be time to pay attention.“
I love that last line of the quote. Not like any of you weren’t paying attention to Pixar before this, but WALL-E was the culmination of Pixar’s maturing cultural cache, as well as their heightening sense of existential awareness. Combine that with a continuing development of computer animation and magical artistry, the movie was a Sci-Fi wonder in a children’s movie package.
Physical comedy, intricate sound design by Ben Burtt (inventor of countless sounds and voices for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T. etc. and also the voice of WALL-E), and sensational terrestrial landscapes account for the total first half of the movie. It plays like an old Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin silent film, depending solely on the mis-en-scéne to communicate laughter, loneliness, love, and possibly more “L” words. When we finally do humans, the resulting storyline is a grim testament to the un-sustainability of “our human presence on this planet” and also a narrative for a hopeful future. Like the best Sci-Fi movies, it communicates uncomfortable truths through a different medium to make those truths easier to process and digest. For this and many other things I don’t have space to mention, WALL-E is deserving of its spot high up on this list.
Another Brad Bird Pixar film, this is not the most popular choice for the best Pixar movie. As I perused different “Best of Pixar” lists on Letterboxd, it was rare to even find this movie in the Top 5. I find it shocking, to be honest, and I don’t understand why this film is not higher, if not #1.
Like my comments on The Incredibles in last month’s Top 5 Brad Bird Movies, I had some high praise for Bird’s second Pixar directed film:
“The humor is funny and sophisticated, the animation is so ground-breaking the food looks edible and mouth-watering, and the character performances are equally outstanding. From top to bottom, the voice actors (Patton Oswalt, Ray Romano, Jeanine Garofalo, Ian Holm, Peter O’Toole, and the list goes on) give inspired performances that add dashes of charm, dollops of drama, and a heaping helping of hilarity. Say what you will, this is a classic film that is ambitious and gratifying and so much fun!”
I re-watched this movie after the list and before I put out this one, and my thoughts turned to the metanarrative of Pixar’s classic. “[Ratatouille is] the creative joy of our Creator imaged through the creative joy of a rodent controlling a mop-headed garbage boy.” Not just a movie about food, it expresses the joy of being creative by a bunch of creatives. Peter Hartlaub said about the 2007 film in his review, “It’s a movie made by people who love to create, and they want you to know what it’s like to feel that same rush.”
The film reaches a level of sophistication that even its more adult-aimed movie brethren fail to achieve. While the movie is filled with a bunch of cringe-inducing rats, thanks to the true-to-life decision to animate rats like real rats, it is surprisingly human in its mannerisms, themes, tone, and language. Like The Incredibles, it expertly handles different character arcs and themes that all cook together into one of the most amazing cinematic dishes you will ever experience. Truly the apex of Pixar’s output, to date.