Pixar's Film History - One Subjective Assessment

  • Posted on: 29 July 2015
  • By: Jay Oyster

Cars is severely underrated, no matter what your criteriaI don't write much here about movies. I'm not really sure why. I've been a devout fan of cinema for a long time, up to and including running the movie theater at my college while I was an undergrad. I took quite a few classes on film, including several with the respected film theorist and historian Louis Giannetti. I guess it's been because everyone and his brother has become an 'internet film reviewer' in the last two decades. So I usually stay out of it. But I'm still passionate about watching movies. And as my wife often somewhat bemusedly notes, while completly lacking any interest in this particular genre, I am a complete sucker for an animated film.

Chronological list of the Pixar films released over the past 20 years

Something's been picking at my brain recently. As I said, I love animation. Always have. From early Disney, through experimental shorts in the 70s and 80s, all the way up to the latest computer generated stuff. And I feel a bit out of sync with the world when it comes to the flicks of the greatest of all animation houses . . .Pixar.

I mean, yes, I agree that their films are, in general, among the best ever made in animation. They've released 15 feature films in 20 years. And their consistent level of quality has been astonishing. But when people talk about Pixar movies, they never seem to quite think the same ones that I do are truly the greats. It's disconcerting at times. I mean, why wouldn't everyone agree with my opinion. I'm just so . . . correct. Sigh. You are all very clearly confused.

I can hear the criticisms of this piece now . . . "Stop thinking so much." and "Stop taking yourself so seriously."  My reply to that is quite simple. To quote Jim Jefferies . . ."fuck off"

How I think the public would rank the pixar films right now


So I decided to go back and do a bit of a study on the situation. How do people rank the Pixar films? How would I rank them? And why the difference? Sure, this is all a matter of opinion. But I like my opinions, particularly about important stuff like Pixar films, and I want to know why the world doesn't agree with me whole-heartedly. 

I guess this is a study of my perception of how the Pixar films are viewed compared with some objective criteria about how they are officially graded by the public, and then where would *I* put them in such a list? Well, to start out, I decided to list how I think the public, meaning the greater culture of the United States in the year 2015, views the films. Now I know that there is an 'official' view . . how the movie reviewers think of them. But the public in general has an opinion, as evidenced by references in pop culture, blogs, magazine articles, on podcasts, in the media, and when talking to friends. My perception of that current reality is also highly subjective, but I see no other way to capture a snapshot of the zeitgeist except anecdotally.

So, if I had to say how the Pixar films are ranked by the public RIGHT NOW (and the timing of this is important), I'd put them in the order shown at right. This list is my opinion of how you all think about this stuff. Cheeky of me, no?

Finding Nemo at the top and Cars 2 at the bottom. How does that differ from how the arbiters of film taste see such things? Well there's a way to measure that one . . Rotten Tomatoes scores. Film reviewers tend to come at films from a different place than the general public. They are, on average, probably a bit smarter and more linguistically gifted, so they probably value script and structure a bit more than the average viewr. They also, as part of their job, have to watch a LOT of movies every year. So they also probably tend to be a bit more jaded. Pixar films ranked by Rotten TomatoesPerhaps less of an appreciation of nastalgia and sweetness over grit and artistic vision. These are generalizations, but I don't think I'm far off here. Here's how the cumulative scoring of all film reviewers tracked by Rotten Tomatoes rate the various Pixar flicks:

So how does that compare to my perception of the public's opinions? Generally, I don't think that they're that different. The reviewers tend to rate all of the Toy Story movies higher, in general. The top five, middle rank, and bottom of the list are basically the same, just slightly jumbled within each zone.

Here's my key difference from each of these public ranks . . . I think Pixar films have always tried to accomplish two very different things. And this dual duty is starting to create a certain schizophrenia in their work. The first job they clearly are aiming for is to make good films. Their emphasize on story above everything else is one of the main reason why they've been so consistently great at what they do for so many years. But they're also trying to make entertaining movies for kids . . . or at least for families. As a parent of young children, I feel this dichotomy every time I show my kids one of the Pixar canon. In my brain, I can feel the struggle between appreciating each movie as a film, versus viewing it as a film for my kids to enjoy. Because of that, I kind of have two separate rankings for the movies: one for them as works of cinematic art, and the other for them as pieces of family entertainment. And those lists are quite different, as you can see:

My rankings of the Pixar films, on two scales

How did I rank them as films? I tried to avoid ranking by recent-ness. Usually, public perception gives a boost to more recent films, such as Inside-Out. Older films tend to slowly fall down on ranking lists. I rank originality very highly, so sequels get dinged a bit on my list. Then, I rank highly for strong characters and good story. And I also have to admit that the visual beauty and emotional impact of the soundtrack also adjusts my rankings. Based on those criteria, I put Wall-E at the top of my 'as cinema' rankings, and like everybody else, I put Cars 2 at the bottom.

But one thing you might notice is that the rankings for them as family films is much different. This is where the schizophrenia of Pixar's dual mission truly appears. A film that entertains young children needs themes that they are ready to grasp, which is often quite different than those deep, dark themes that Pixar has embedded into some of their most highly rated films. Toy Story 3, for instance, is way too dark and scary for most kids under 10. UP is a great film . . . but it isn't quite as great when you're taking along a six year old. Sure, there's a young boy in the film, but the story isn't told from his perspective, it's firmly told from the perspective of an old man. I'm not saying that that's bad . . . in fact Up is one of the best films ever made about the true impact of getting old and finding meaning in later life. But as a parent, it isn't one of Pixar's best films to show my kids.

So, what does it mean?!I added a delta column to my two lists to compare how I view the order of these films compared to the only objective data I have, the Rotten Tomatoes scores, to study the differences. Thinking about these lists carefully, I came to the following conclusions:

Cars is WAY underrated -- No matter whether you're looking at it as cinema or a family film. I have it ranked eight positions higher than the public as a piece of film and 11 positions higher when ranked as family entertainment. I often hear snark in social media about the film, but I find it a wonderful, uplifting story about breaking out of our insular bubbles, finding our history, embracing the wisdom of our elders, enjoying simple friendship, and appreciating community. I suspect it's dinged by the choice of Owen Wilson as the protagonist's voice, by it's unabashed sentimentality, and by the NASCAR crowds who would be a natural fanbase . . . because Lightning doesn't win the race in the end. But that's all just supposition. I can't figure out why nobody else seems to like this film. My four year old and nine year old boys love it.

A little light-hearted family entertainment - Toy Story 3Toy Story 3 is way overrated -- if you're showing it to kids. Don't get me wrong, it's a really good movie. But the fact that it's a sequel, that much of the 'easy' emotional potential had already been plumbed in the first two films, so they had to go way-dark to reach similar levels of quality story telling in the third film, those all weigh it down in my estimation. This is where the schizophrenia of Pixar shines through. They made a third film based on characters that had previously been great for both adults and children, but with themes that are so heavy that most kids end up a bit shell-shocked by it.

Their top 11 movies are all masterpieces, otherwise how to explain the fabulous Ratatouille being 11th on my personal list. Pixar's films only fall into the slightly mundane at rank 12 through 15, and A Bug's Life at number 12 is still a pretty good movie, and a really great family film.

I rank Wall-E and The Incredibles much higher than most other people do, largely because of creativity and because the characters are so amazing. Wall-E takes the amazing story-telling technique of the first 15 minutes of UP, and manages that high-wire act of telling a story mostly without words for an entire move. The Incredibles is just an incredibly good story. It suffers a bit as a family film because its so good as a portrait of a middle aged married couple dealing with the real-life struggles that lfie brings. But it's fricken great as an adventure tale.

Inside Out is slightly overrated right now -- but it will likely find it's own place in the middle of the list soon enough, as it ages in our collective memories. My 9 year old, in particular, got a great deal out of it. He's a sensitive old soul who truly appreciated it's explaination of the islands of personality. And it's a pretty good story for adults, with a wonderful metaphorical representation of our emotional lives. I suspect that the sequel, Upside Down (my pick for the name, nothing I've heard), will be tons better, with the introductions of the new characters of Love, Hate, Jealousy, and Envy. Puberty is going to be one wild rollercoaster ride. This first one, perhaps as a natural extention of being so wildly creative, spent so much time setting the scene that it couldn't spend much of it's running time on a story. What I think both I and my four year old got out of watching it was, mostly . . . anxiety. 

Finally, to find the common ground here, I have to say we all seem to agree on a few things. Everybody agrees that Toy Stories 1 and 2 are amazing. And no one challenges that Cars 2 is, BY FAR, the most disappointing thing Pixar's ever made. And Monster's Inc, Ratatouille, A Bug's Life, and Brave are firmly in the middle of the pack. And everybody knows that Monsters University was purely a money grab by a Pixar Studio now firmly owned by the Disney Corporation. Monsters University was not necessarily bad, but probably largely unnecessary. 

I think Pixar is in a bit of quandary right now -- If you go back up to the chronological list of the last five films Pixar has released, there is a recent, troubling pattern. Think about it: Toy Story 3, Cars 2, Brave, Monsters University, and Inside Out.  Despite some finger-wringing by some members of the intelligentsia, it isn't really a problem of quality, despite the existence of Cars 2. Nope, it's those pesky dual duties their trying to serve. Cars 2 and Monsters, Inc. were probably caused by their need to pander to their new corporate owners as well as their need to satisfy a public clamouring for follow-up stories. (Artists should usually ignore those calls, in my humble opinion.) But, Toy Story 3, Inside Out, and to a lesser extent, Brave . . . I think they're all a victim of Pixar trying to do too much. Too many adult themes and story lines in films marketed as family entertainment. Pixar wants to be Mirimax. But their core audience is Disney. Maybe they should learn a lesson from something that Disney actually did very well several decades back . . . they spun off their more adult-oriented fare into a new brand - Touchstone Pictures. Sure, it might be hard to market an animated film for grown-ups, but isn't that what Toy StoryUpWall-E, and Inside Out essentially were?