Even if you don't read all of this I still want to see your votes!
1. Finding Nemo
2. Toy Story
3. Toy Story 2
4. Toy Story 3 - great
5. Up - excellent
6. WALL-E - excellent
7. Ratatouille - good
8. A Bug’s Life - good
9. The Incredibles - good
10. Brave - good
11. Monsters University - good
12. Monsters, Inc. - meh
13. Cars - bad
14. Cars 2 - bad
^ A few potentially scandalous placements, many of which contradict past statements I've made about the relative greatness of various Pixar films, even in the past week. Those statements were all made with at least a few Pixar films not fresh in the memory. My surprisingly enjoyable experience with Monsters University
led me to seek out Monsters, Inc
--which I hadn't seen in over a decade--and that experience (admittedly not a very good one) led to my revisiting all of Pixar's films in the course of a week (which on the whole was a great experience). The above list is a result of a careful consideration of each film's strengths and weaknesses relative to the others (except in instances where the films were so bad that they weren't much worth thinking about).
For a while I've been needing a project that would pull me out of my intellectual/spiritual/emotional slump both by being reliably enjoyable but also substantial enough to be worthy of inspiring my critical imagination into writing thoughtfully and at length, something I haven't done with the intensity and joy that I used to in a long time. The result is this list and these reviews, which I don't realistically expect most to read. This was mostly something I wanted to do for myself, and I'm posting it here in the hopes that others might find some of it interesting, and hopefully inspire you to revisit some of these films yourself. I don't expect a huge response from anyone else, but I would really appreciate seeing the thoughts and rankings of anyone who's up to it in addition to your votes! Especially welcome would be defenses of films in respect to the criticisms I make, as well as any other disagreements. I honestly can't think of the last time I had as much fun as I did watching these movies this past week, and I can't think of the last time I enjoyed writing as much as I did when putting together these reviews. Again, I hope you get something out of it too!
In a lot of these reviews I'm arguing not necessarily for how good it is, but for why I think it's better or worse than consensus opinion. So the Monsters University
reviews spend more time on what I like about them than what I don't like, and the WALL-E
reviews spend more time on what I don't like than I do like, even though I think the latter two are the better films.
Warning, with the exception of Monsters University
I did not point out spoilers. All of these reviews assume that you are already familiar with the film (imo the only kinds of reviews that really matter, but that's a discussion for another day).Toy Story (1995, John Lasseter)
Before my copy of this film became the most abused VHS in my family's already voluminous collection of animated features, I remember being a wide-eyed, imagination-drunk five year old boy sitting in a theater, knowing that I was witnessing the beginning of something big. The film was perfectly designed to be an enduring classic for people of all ages no matter when and at what point you first saw it, but having been witness to this first fully CGI film at its premiere at such a young age, I was in the ideal position to get the most out of it over the course of my lifetime, and I imagine that this may be true for many of the other posters on this board as well. If Andy's playtime which opens this film is meant to be a universal referent for our purer, more imaginative days, and if the characters and story of this cinematic universe became entangled with the characters and stories of my own then-unfettered, totally wide-open imagination (as of course they would at such an impressionable age), then the film's referent referring me back to myself in turn refers me back to the film itself: a loop of subjective signification is created and the result is something the power of which goes beyond mere nostalgia.
And indeed, the film for me is nonstop experience of this excession beyond nostalgia. I very much doubt I have seen any film as much as this one, and so the experience of watching the film is one of knowing exactly what's coming next on a millisecond-by-millisecond level. I know every cut, camera movement, joke, every flicker of light, nuance of a line reading, end of a melody. Some films cannot bear the weight of this kind of viewer familiarity. It may be just me, but I've found that The Godfather
--for all of its carefully considered characterization, interweaving plot strands, and especially sensitive camerawork--it eventually starts to lose its power once you internalize all of its aesthetic tricks (which are certainly among the best tricks in all of dramatic art). But that's what made my experience of this film all the more incredible. Despite knowing this film better than the back of my hand, almost every scene surprised me with its still shimmering freshness, imagination, and all around aliveness. Toy Story
is not a remotely mysterious film. It's perfectly clear why each and every creative decision was made; you can tell exactly where Lasseter and Co were coming from and what they were going for every step of the way. And what's so impressive is that I can't think of one example of when the effect they were going for didn't fully land. Almost every minute packed with jokes, every scene brimming with further details of characterization which feeds into further immersion in the necessity of narrative. No villain in the Pixar repertoire is as perfectly conceived as Sid. No twist resonates at quite the same frequency of his toys not being fearsome monsters, but the sympathetic wounded. Woody's jealousy of Buzz is an ingenious way to tap into a first child viewer's experience with jealousy of his new younger sibling, though the character dynamics are expansive enough to encompass more than that. And what better example is there in all popular cinema of symbolic castration than Buzz seeing his own television commercial, realizing that he is not a toy, that he cannot fly, lying broken at the bottom of the stairs to the tune of Randy Newman; one moment the righteous defender of the universe, the next: all illusions smashed, totally emasculated and indifferent to being dressed in pink, caffeine-drunk with despair at a tea party. Don't condescend to this film as something you grew up with and irrationally makes you happy in a way that is less impressive than the grown up films you now hold in higher esteem. The film is legitimately rich with searing irony and charged suggestion.
I understand the appreciation for Pixar's very impressive '07-'09 run, but as far as scripts go, I think this remains the studio's high point: every line works, there is not a wasted second. Admittedly the CGI graphics have dated, and don't look particularly great in and of themselves--whenever a human is onscreen there is the faint, gnawing suggestion of mid-00s video game cutscenes. But the guys at Pixar were in total aesthetic mastery of their limitations, and the superficially unimpressive "graphics" are offset by just how stunning and fully formed other aspects of their craft already is: Woody's lanky body is incredibly expressive from head to toe, everything cued perfectly to Tom Hanks' passionate and hilarious voice acting, which as far as I am concerned remains his greatest contribution to cinema. Add it all together and you have a film that's way better than it should be for a bunch of first-timers. For my money this is not just one of Pixar's very best among numerous great contributions, but probably the best Hollywood you're likely to find in the 90s. Verdict: Masterpiece
.A Bug's Life (1998, John Lasseter)
I came to this film with an opinion that had faded in the memory, and was expecting it to be a mildly amusing but possibly tedious ride. And though I've decided it is in fact flawed in some vital ways, I came around to its charms fairly quickly.
Probably the most important drop-off in quality after Toy Story
is in the characterization. Simply put, these characters are just expressive and interesting enough to be working parts in a good story, and little more than that. Who forgets Mister Potatohead's shrill wise-cracking, or Ham's know-it-all haminess? Those were detailed characters who were both used to further the ends of Toy Story
, but also to be memorable in and of themselves. Compare either of them to any of the supposed-to-be-colorful "circus bugs" in this film and it's clear that we're dealing with a lesser film. Even worse, compare the thematic and effective complexity of Sid's tortured freakdom fighter toys to the bad guys here: most of the grasshoppers are indistinguishable, and the ones here are distinguishable are uninterestingly so. One is distinguishable because he's the leader, another because he's a nebbish, another because he's a rabid psychopath. I can't explain precisely why, but somehow the differentiation feels more decorative and shallowly functional than organic. Perhaps even more fatally, all of the ants are rather boring and mostly hit the same beats throughout the film. Flic is a starry-eyed idealist inventor/planner, Atta is a worrying and incompetent leader, Dot is a young female version of Flic, all are marked by the same unironic, flat sincerity. Again, it's all functional and works for the story, but none of it is very dynamic either.
But it can't all be bad. For one thing, this is a big step up in the looks department from Toy Story
. The bug world is filled with gorgeous semi-transparency and tactility, and the characters all have a clay-like quality to them that almost looks like stop-motion, but more precise for being CGI. It still looks better than any of the CGI trailers I saw attached to Monster's University
. It's a not insubstantial contribution for a film that needs what it has going for it, but perhaps more importantly, this is Pixar's first truly widescreen film, and there are many more interesting "camera" effects than you have in Toy Story. Think of the snap-zoom on Flic's shocked face through the crowd of ants, or the long shot of the grasshoppers as they slowly step in to the colony through the fog. Maybe the film's single most outstanding component is Randy Newman's score, the main theme of which is so stirring that it almost seems like the platonic ideal of good-natured adventure films and so memorable that I'm still humming it days later. It's not as sophisticated a score as those by other Pixar collaborators such as Thomas Newman or Michael Giacchino, but it's consistently powerful enough to color moments that the characterization wasn't strong enough to cover by itself, genuinely lifting what could have easily been an average picture into thoroughly "good" territory, which really isn't a small feat when you think about it.
Of course, the biggest asset the film has is the Seven Samurai
-esque plot, which basically guarantees an entertaining viewing experience in anyone's hands. It's a story of teamwork and small-guys-against-the-odds that is timeless and you can't help but love. Maybe the final distinction to make about the film, and explain it's ultimate consignment to "good" rather than the "great" of other Pixar films rests on what it doesn't do that Seven Samurai
does: (1) Kurosawa's film was a perfect blend of a drama which wasn't afraid to use comedy to its ends; A Bug's Life
is all too willing to rely on comedy, but the problem is it's only rarely funny. Because it has the great Seven Samurai
story, it doesn't really need
to be funny, but having only one out of every four jokes land means a lot of dead air. (2) Concentrated, detailed characterization and exposition. Kurosawa gives us a few fully formed characters with evident strength and weaknesses, focuses on those characters, and builds the story around them organically. A Bug's Life
has too many characters, all of them at least slightly underdeveloped, and the result is a film putting more pressure on pure plot than should be necessary.
So, does this film live up to Toy Story
? No, but hardly any other film, Pixar or not, does. Still, I would say that this qualifies as a successful avoidance of severe sophmore slump (and it certainly wasn't one commercially or critically) and would probably rank it as the best of mid-tier Pixar. Verdict: GoodToy Story 2 (1999, John Lasseter)
I don't have any evidence for it, but I suspect that once it became clear that a Toy Story sequel would be underway, everyone working creatively at Pixar was instructed to study the first two Godfather films with a particular eye to pulling off the whole "some people think the sequel is even better
" thing (disclaimer: I would personally disagree in both cases with those who hold that the sequel is superior, but at the same time I don't blame those who think so). Basically a combination of keeping everything that was good about the former film in new variations, and feed that into generating expasions of the film's world in ways that are only
well-advised, interesting, and smart.
And in terms of creative decision-making, Toy Story 2
is nothing if not relentlessly smart. So your first film had a Mister Potatohead character who was an abrasive wiseass? Well then your second film should pair him with abrasive and shrill Misses Potatohead (and you should do so by hiring recently unemployed abrasive and shrill Estelle from Seinfeld
). Smart. So your first film portrayed the Toy World as one dripping in childlike imagination, both constructive (Andy) and destructive (Sid)? Well then your second film should maintain the childlike imagination, while expanding it to also encompass the adult world of This Toy Is A Collector's Item manboyishness both constructive (guy who fixes Woody) and destructive (Al of Al's Toy Barn-- by hiring recently retired constipated manboyish Newman from--also Seinfeld
). Smart. And use all of that to also add background to Woody's world that we didn't know about before (a la Vito Corleone) in the form of the Woody's Roundup Gang. Smart. And while you are adding background to Woody's world, let's expand Buzz's world in an extremely elegant ways that exploit what we did
know before: let's get to actually see and confront Emperor Zurg, let's get to see Buzz's confront his own former delusion in the form of another not-symbolically-castrated Buzz Lightyear toy, and then see that delusion and conflict reconciled in the shared delusion when Zurg and New Buzz have their own family moment, opened with a Star Wars reference and closed with a Star Trek one.
It's really just an ingenious example of mirrored structuring. Old Buzz and New Buzz represent the contrast between a toy who knows his toy narrative but has matured beyond it vs. a toy who only knows his toy narrative and matures within it: stark
contrast of how a toy can relate to his toy narrative. Woody meets Woody's Round Up Gang, becomes bewitched by the possibilities of his own toy narrative (which he never knew about before) but then comes to see its limitations: fluid
contrast of how a toy can relate to his toy narrative.
But enough about the excellence of the script. How about all of the great character acting (both voice and animation) of the first film, but also the CGI is much more sophisticated? How about the same amazing musical themes for unheard of nostalgia points? And am I the only person who cries without fail at that utterly sentimental Jessie's Song scene? It doesn't make sense for that scene to be so powerful. I guess you could argue that it's a visual metaphor for watching someone you love fall out of love with you, but I paid close attention to what was going on in my head this time, and I felt like what I was responding to had nothing to do with analogy, but with the specificity of the toy-like nature of it all. When Jessie sees Emily from under the bed, putting on nail polish, dragging an old phone around the room by the cord--I will certainly never experience anything like that. But put it in a montage with a sentimental song with simple love lyrics from a genre I don't even like and the result is waterfalls. I can't explain it, it just works.
I still rank it below the original because somehow that one seems a little more urgent, relevant, and straight to the heart of what makes toys and the whole experience of growing up as an imaginative kid wonderful. This sequel is more concerned with simply being a smart, successful, amazingly watchable sequel--but somehow it just seems less, well, relevant to real concerns of human life in any way. In this way it's more pure entertainment for me than the first film, which has more genuinely psycho-therapeutic qualities for me. But great, thoughtful entertainment is still rare, and valuable. Verdict: Great
. Monsters, Inc. (2001, Pete Docter)
This is where I start to deviate from the narrative we commonly hear about Pixar these days. My counter-interpretation: this film did not continue the studio's win-after-win streak, both Brave
and Monsters University
are better than it, therefore let's not all freak out because Brave
and Monsters University
don't match the winning streak of the '07-'10 run.
I really must say, to my mind there are only a few good things about this movie: (1) the basic idea of monsters scaring kids to power their world, (2) the very thin outline of a plot, (3) Sully's hair, and (4) the scene where they're in the huge room jumping from door to door is okay. Ultimately though, I don't care. The villains are uninterestingly simplistic in motivation. Ooh Randall is jealous of Sully's score record and so becomes a diabolical scare harvester instead of better scarer. Yawn. Ooh the owner of Monsters Inc is a greedy capitalist who therefore doesn't care about the safety of cute little kids. Snore. Mike is obnoxious, unsympathetic, and not funny. Sully is boring, hitting the same old paternalistic notes with regards to this girl he's ended up with, and yet we spend more time with him than anybody. The turn around scene where Sully realizes he scared Boo has no analogous relationship to anything meaningful in life, but unlike the similarly unanalogous Jessie's Song, for whatever reason it didn't move me.
Sully and Mike don't have odd couple chemistry, they just seem like really different monsters who are co-workers and roommates for no good reason; so when Mike acts shocked that Sully cares more about this girl than Mike's petty relationship problems, there is no conceivable reason to see why he shouldn't, and so there's no dramatic/emotional tension, and so I'm not interested. And while the characters in A Bug's Life
were merely functional with poor characterization and worse jokes, I have to admit that the voice acting there was pretty good. Here it's monotonous and one-note. Speaking of notes, no great themes in this boring Randy Newman score.
It's also the first film where the technical capabilities of Pixar were in excess of their aesthetic mastery of them. This is a big leap ahead in terms of rendering surface textures, but the aesthetic choices themselves are ugly across the board. Mike's skin is fucking ugly. The world is ugly. It's supposed to seem like a huge and expansive world that is parallel to the human world, but it seems small. Both this film and Monsters University
have jokes in the corners and cracks and backgrounds of each scene where the basic conceit is: this world is very similar to the human world... but with a twist
. But where almost every joke along those lines in MI
falls flat, almost every joke along those lines in MU
there are more of them. I really just don't want to write about this movie anymore. The critics rightly noted that Shrek
was the superior animated film starring a green monster that year. And I don't even really like Shrek
. Verdict: Meh
.Finding Nemo (2003, Andrew Stanton)
I saw this when I was 13 when it first came out, only returned to bits and pieces since then, and have to admit I had never considered it among my favorite Pixars, despite the outsized acclaim and popularity. I revisited it with mixed expectations. But at the end of the opening sequence, when Marlin held up Nemo's egg and it fade-matched to the moon's reflection in the water, and the title card emerged as the strings swelled in response to the descending piano melody in the utterly gorgeous score, I was practically vibrating in my seat, already fighting tears. I had just been through the emotional rollercoaster of watching A Bug's Life
and the first two Toy Story films (which are emotional enough without the added weepy points for nostalgia), but nothing from those first films was as effective as these few seconds of unexpected, sheer cinematic bliss.
Luckily, the rest of the film proved to live up to this high water mark. Despite the huge advances CGI has made over the past decade, this is still Pixar's most aesthetically pleasing film. The use of color is phenomenally eye-catching and expressive, and in terms of overall composition/framing, the "camerawork" is the most subtly sophisticated the studio would create until Up
and the first half of WALL-E
. Thomas Newman's score is exciting and painfully sad in its unending gorgeousness--it is consistently melodic, while never beating you over the head with the same themes--and does all this while also vividly evoking an appropriately bubbly, underwater atmosphere as well as a sense of curiosity, danger, and adventure. Since seeing this film I've listened to the score numerous times on its own, and it is a work of chill-shiver-inducing genius in its own right, but when combined with the beauty of the images, characters, and story in this film, it becomes almost unbearably perfect.
Another huge merit is Dory, who I would say narrowly beats out Woody or WALL-E as the single grestest Pixar character. Ellen Degeneres does the most gut-bustingly hilarious and impeccably timed voice acting I've ever heard (though Albert Brooks' Marlin is no slouch either). Add that to the stunningly impressive job the animation team did in rendering the surface tics of fucking fish
this loaded and packed with expressiveness and you have two great comic cinematic performances perfectly suited to each other. Just look at this clip
for a compact example of how resoundingly the joined talents of these folks coalesce into the perfect comedic storm of voice, eyes, fins, and overall movements (and that's just the delivery system: it doesn't hurt that the jokes being delivered are about as charming as you could imagine).
The whole universe of the film is as filled with pleasurable details as that scene, and all of this would be enough to get this into the upper echelon of Pixar's canon, but the fact that all this finely honed performative professionalism is intensely focused in the strongest, most excess-free script the studio has produced outside of the Toy Story films, and you have Pixar's strongest work overall. If the Toy Story scripts are more focused, Finding Nemo
's script is just as funny and emotionally moving while also having a richer undercurrent of suggestion and potentialities. It is a remarkably rich work which--like a film as radically different from this as say, Blue Velvet
--seems on the one hand to have a fairly straightforward thematic framework, but which on closer inspection can support and sustain multiple, semicomprehensive, seemingly contradictory but all equally valid undertones and interpretations.
Some highly acclaimed Hollywood films, like The Social Network
, have a great story, great performances, great cinematography, and great music, but somehow I come away from them thinking that all of this talent didn't quite come together--they are separately impressive categories in my mind, but the total experience of the film somehow leaves something lacking. But in this film, just like all the creatures come together to help reunite Nemo with his father, all the cinematic elements support and complement each other to create a beautiful, overwhelming, rhapsodic symphony of cinema. This is as good as popular art can get. It's not popular art on the level of glorified genre pic like The Godfather
. It's popular art on the level of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue
; pure cinematic music.
One of those films where you sit until the very end of the credits because you want to live in this world forever, soaking up its atmosphere and spirit. This is not just the studio at it's finest, this is not just mainstream commercial cinema at its finest. For me, it's hard to imagine a movie being any better than this, to the point that I think this may might as well be my favorite film of all time. Really, watching this, I cannot think of a time in the last decade that I have enjoyed myself this much engaging with a work of art. I savor the collected works of Ozu, Tark, Renoir, Capra, and Cassavetes, stand in awe before Beau travail
, and Taxi Driver
as much--or more--than I ever have (and that's a lot)--but if I'm honest with myself, this
is as good as it gets for me, and I'm more than okay with that. It tickles all of my pleasure circuits, and hits me as deeply as anything. I am glad I was alive in the time of Finding Nemo
. Verdict: Masterpiece
.The Incredibles (2004, Brad Bird)
This was the first Pixar film that I did not see in its theatrical release. In fact, until a little over a year ago I had only seen it in bits and pieces. Around the time I finally saw it proper, I was convinced of the greatness of Brad Bird, as I was a big fan of both Ratatouille
and The Iron Giant
. I think the auteurist in me wanted this to be one of my favorite Pixar films, and I tried liking it more than it's actually worth. Which is not to say that this isn't one of Pixar's good films—but like A Bug’s Life
before it and Monsters University
after it, it has some real flaws which hold it back from being all it could be (though in this case I think those flaws are less commonly acknowledged than in the other two).
I will admit right away that my biggest problem with this film is Holly Hunter. Her voice acting here (as Elastigirl/Helen) is so grating that I can't believe she wasn't fucking fired. I am a fan of Hunter elsewhere. She is spectacuar in Garcia's Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her
and Nine Lives
(probably the two most underrated American films of the past 20 years--get on it), and of course she deserved the Academy Award for The Piano
. But here... it doesn't matter what she's doing. If she's gloating, if she's being seductive, if she's worried, if she's being bossy, if she's incredulous... it doesn't matter, there's always this pervasive self-satisfied quality. It's hard to describe, but it's something like those misfit kids from high school who you could tell watched way too much Invader Zim and something around the edges of their snarky voices always suggested that they were barely fighting back laughing at their own jokes... not in a contained "I'm having fun way", but in a "I'm so cool and smart" obnoxious youtube reviewer way. And I guess that's really it: tonally, she's hitting the notes of an arrested adolescent, when on paper she's supposed to be not just a mature adult, but an adult playing the role that probably requires the most emotional versatility. So right away any scene that she's in (lots of them) are de facto
imperfect; Brad Bird honestly should have called up the No Name was who voiced the mom in The Iron Giant
The Edna fashion designer character also features a completely obnoxious vocal performance, but she's also annoyingly written and uninteresting, so that just feels more like a hopeless mistake than a real loss. I'll also say that I'm not a big fan of the film's villain, who has basically decided that he's gonna create a deadly as fuck expensive technological island and kill a bunch of shit because... he never got over Mr. Incredible not allowing him to be his sidekick? I guess at this point I'm supposed to say okay it's a kid's movie/it's a superhero movie and villains don't necessarily even need motivation anyway, but I can't dismiss it like that because his motivation is repeatedly foregrounded to the point that it's impossible to ignore. Bad attempts at parodying conventional cheesy superhero dialogue between Mr. Incredible and the villain's assistant over dinner and wine are a smaller problem.
Other than that though, the film has a lot going for it. For one thing, the action-adventure element is--at least from the point of view of someone who usually avoids action-adventure films--deftly handled. Every action sequence is as viscerally overwhelming as I would imagine Michael Bay would like his to be, but they are also intelligible. Take a look at the scene where Dash is running around the island. I have never gotten chills from watching anything like that, but I got them watching this. It's a great example of big budget animation really putting itself to the test and doing things that only big budget animation could possibly come close to doing. Also, the theme of superheroes struggling to fit into normal mundane everyday existence--while also not being free of the trappings of being genuinely normal in some ways--is fleshed out in an interesting and detailed way. As per usual with Pixar, the scenes which use parody retro footage are well done. Characterization, while not reaching Toy Story
or Finding Nemo
(or, for a thematically similar work, Watchmen
) heights, but it's much higher than the average animated film (and certainly better than ABL
). I also appreciated Samuel L. Jackson's Pulp Fiction
reference which was a reference not as a direct quote, but a reference purely through style of line reading, which I'm not sure I've ever seen before.
But for me where the film really shines is in the design of the various settings. The drudgery of Mr. Incredible's desk job is a great caricature of similar scenes in Office Space
, Fight Club
, and The Matrix
. Ditto on the Incredibles' flat suburban house in their flat suburban neighborhood. Then contrast that to the glorious, wide open splendor of Syndrome's island, especially the inside with the volcano wall. Really just an all around sophisticated use of the expressive capabilities of widescreen space that is continuous throughout the entirety of the film, making otherwise flawed scenes worth watching. I've done a 180 Brad Bird-wise and come around to thinking that this and Ratatouille
are the most overrated, if still good, of all the Pixar films. Definitely worth seeing, but certainly not essential.Vedict: Good
.Cars (2006, John Lasseter)
Something is wrong when the only enjoyable moment in your film is the use of a Sheryl Crow song. I really hate dismissing Pixar movies because I’m very sensitive to how much work so many people put into even the smallest details in them, and I really like, respect, and admire John Lasseter as an artist, producer, and human. But this movie just sucks. Everything about it is either boring (main character, love interest, nostalgia for dying towns) or annoying (Larry the Cable Guy). I kind of like George Carlin as the “Hey mannn” hippie Volkswagen, but even that just seems like a mediocre retread of the stoner turtles in Finding Nemo
. It’s just mind-boggling that someone who directed/wrote films as smart and moving as the first two Toy Stories would not only be okay with this piece of shit and its “Freebird!” jokes, but actively proud of it, as he professes to be. In addition to being one of their few bad films, it’s also one of their longest. It just keeps going and going without building any excitement or interest. I wanted to rewatch every single Pixar film to make sure there weren’t some hidden pleasures lurking in the corners of lesser films I was missing out on, but I should have just gone with my memory on this one. Even the usual performative pleasures are curtailed because the line readings are boring and cars are incapable of being expressive characters. Just goes to show that all of the labored over production values and artistry that goes into the surface of a film is all for nothing if your film is shit at the storyboard level. I'm glad it sells a lot of toys for Pixar, but as a film it's just a disaster for the parents who will have to see this one thousand times because of their kids. I mean really, Rascal Flatts, "Life is a Highway"? Verdict: Bad.Ratatouille (2007, Brad Bird)
Luckily, after Cars
Pixar rebounded with the first in a string of solid, original stories executed with an all-around craftsmanship far more mature than the typical Hollywood film of the 00s (though admittedly 2007 was Hollywood's great year that decade, and Ratatouille
got a little buried). I watched Brad Bird’s three animated films in isolation from the other Pixar films a year ago, and then I was impressed enough to decide that he might be my favorite Pixar director overall. But watching it back to back with the rest of the studio’s work makes me rethink that assessment, and certainly prompts me to disagree with this being so far the most critically lauded Pixar film (according to Metacritic, at least).
On the one hand it makes perfect sense that this would be the most well-liked film among critics. It’s basically about the nature of good taste, artistic creation, and criticism: all subjects that would probably be of more interest to the average critic than the average filmgoer. It also greatly benefits from coming after Cars
, by far the worst film the studio had produced up to that point (and possibly ever, depending on your taste). And without a doubt, Ratatouille
is one of Pixar’s most elegantly directed pictures. It’s very watchable, with clear, elegant camera movements and vivid angles. And as per usual, it represents a huge leap forward in terms of detailed surface textures and lighting effects. But like Bird’s other Pixar feature, The Incredibles
, I just don’t think it matches some of Pixar’s other films in terms of richness of execution, even if its thematic aspirations are higher.
For one thing, Bird is working with Michael Giacchino for the score again, and like his music for The Incredibles
felt more like a tasteful parody of classic superhero music than something that was truly integrated with the emotional current of the film, the music here seems like little more than a colorful parody of cosmopolitan “Pareee” motifs mixed with standard movie-scoring tropes. If you stop paying attention to what’s going on in the movie and pay attention to the music, you notice some interesting textures, but the way it works in tandem with the images is pretty rote and uninvolving (that said, the use of Camille's "Le Festin" at the end is the closest the film comes to being genuinely moving, and Giacchino's piece for the 2D animated closing credits is spectacular).
I also think that besides Anton Ego, the secondary characters are some of the least memorable of the better Pixar films, and even Linguini is pretty forgettable, with a fairly amateurish voice performance from Lou Romano. And though I think Oswalt’s voiceover is ultimately necessary given Remy’s relatively isolated position in relation to the other characters, both human and rat, it still felt a little redundant in areas which could have benefitted from the more pure storytelling through character-animation approach that you get in WALL-E
. Further, though both Linguini’s romance with Colette and the tension between Remy and the other rats help to further the plot, they don’t really produce much of interest in and of themselves: compare that to a plot point as minor as the sharks who want to stop eating fish in Finding Nemo
, or the Zurg video game and new Buzz in Toy Story 2
, or Buzz’s Spanish mode in Toy Story 3
, or all the great physical comedy created by Kevin the Bird in Up
Speaking of which, I don't think I laughed at this film once, it being more charming and interesting in conceit than it is funny. The three aforementioned films also each have scenes with more emotional weight than anything here (Up
and the Toy Story films with their scenes of dedicated emotional power, and Finding Nemo
with a steady stream of emotion coursing throughout in its entirety). Because of this lack of creative production of either jokes on the sidelines or emotion at its center, the film just doesn't have as much going on as most higher-tier Pixar, and so for me it becomes closer to the level of A Bug's Life
--but where that was raised to a higher level because of its score, Ratatouille
is raised to a higher level because of its thematic ambitions and a few memorable sequences such as the two where the experience of taste is expressed in terms of micro-psychedelic third-eye visuals, and of course Aton Ego's famous Proustian reversal of attitude and resultant speech on the nature of criticism.
Despite the fact that I've spent most of this review distinguishing it unfavorably from other higher-tier Pixars, there's nothing really glaringly wrong about it (as I think you could say about another critical darling like The Incredibles
). It's an engaging and interesting film, but I don't think it's as good as it could be, and I think that when more people start closely comparing it to other high-end Pixars rather than taking it in isolation, its star will fall to a more appropriate level. But then again, maybe I've missed something, and I'm open to suggestions. Verdict: Good.WALL-E (2008, Andrew Stanton)
Each film in Pixar's much lauded '07-'10 run prompted at least some segment of the critical and viewing population to declare the latest film the studio's best work yet. I know this not just because of observation but because I was one of those people in every instance, though obviously I've now decided that, at least to my taste, it was a slightly short-sighted pronouncement each time. But of all these films, WALL-E
has produced the most intelligent discussion, and its reputation has burned the brightest the longest, at least in the more-than-casual-viewer contingent. And it's easy to see why in both instances, despite it having fallen in my estimation since the initial round of hoopla.
I see its lasting acclaim as a combination of two factors: (1) The first section of the film is by far the riskiest, most aesthetically radical approach to storytelling Pixar has attempted, before or since--even if it's basically using the same classical storytelling techniques that silent comedies were using to great popular success 90 years before it; it follows that people feel they are being challenged while they are being entertained, and so admire the film more. (2) Despite Stanton's protestations that he wasn't designing a "message movie", the film certainly foregrounds its political presuppositions more forcefully than any other film in the studio's history, and the result is that it will produce more engaged writing from more people because more writers are capable of intelligently discussing a film's political themes than what it is doing formally/structurally/aesthetically.
Luckily, most of the aspects of WALL-E
's artistic execution (voice acting, character design, character acting, environment, atmosphere, score) are richly conceived across the board , and its themes are much more integrated into the action of the movie than in Ratatouille
, where the most intellectually interesting aspects don't seem out of place, but slightly more tacked on. Stanton and team really do deserve all the acclaim they get for the first section of the film, with its subtle, patient, and detail-oriented--but totally expressive and communicative--exposition and characterization. The film is at its best when it gives breathing room for WALL-E's chirps, coos, sad eyes, endearing gestures, and manic nervousness. Some people say that all humor is inherently condescending, but WALL-E is funny, like the best Pixar characters, because of his purely enjoyable particularity and mannerisms, not because we are looking down on him. For me, the most memorable moments are things like the sound he makes when the cockroach scurries through him and pops out of his neck or how he first says his name to EVE and tries to pronounce hers. I really just value WALL-E so much on this surface level that his small moments like these really carry the movie and make it one of the more rewatchable Pixars.
Unfortunately, the more the plot picks up, the more these small pleasures are crowded out for the sake of other elements which aren't nearly as interesting. Least objectionable of these is the romance between WALL-E and Eve, which Stanton points out, I think rightly, is more at the core of the film than any particular political message. The dancing sequence that comes out of this is a classic, the motif of joined claws is well thought out (if over-applied), but I have to admit that after awhile I got tired of hearing nothing but EVE and WALL-E calling out the other's name, and would have preferred silence. Ultimately the romance is fairly warm and fuzzy, but it gets less interesting as it goes along.
We also get more time fleshing out the dynamics of the ship, and this is where it starts to get spotty for me. First the good. I like the introduction of the little robot that tries to clean everything, and the security robots who can selectively disable other robots with their lasers are pretty cool. The derided "fat jokes" don't bother me so much because I saw it, as per Stanton, less as a comment on obesity than on how this sort of highly managed system (which weirdly seems both communistic with its emphasis on a strong state but also capitalistic in its shallow consumerism) would lead to everyone becoming, essentially, a "big baby". Fair enough as a plot device, but I have to admit I find it fairly uninteresting and unproductive of good jokes or interesting moments. I like the Captain geeking out asking his computer to define "earth", "dancing", "the sea", etc for him, and I like the 2001
-themed moment where he sees how the autopilot started in the background but slowly grew to overwhelm the pilot portraits. But I have to admit I wasn't very amused by the use of "Also sprach Zarathustra", though the larger problem really is that the Captain isn't nearly as funny as he should be. I felt like the film would have benefited from giving him a few good lines/moments/jokes/etc.
But the biggest problem with the second half of the film really is the often lamented, overly-frentic, overly-busy action sequences. On the one hand it's hard to be critical of them because they are necessary to the story, and they certainly don't approach Michael Bay-level incoherence, but they are fairly hard to follow and, imo, much less exciting than those in lesser films like The Incredibles
. There's just too much going on, there are too many characters who blend into the spacecraft, and it really does have an element of tedium to it all, especially noticeable by being in the same film as the delicate first half.
Fortunately the film wraps all of this up rather well, no small thanks to throwing in that problem of recovering WALL-E's memory at the end and the background vocals in Peter Gabriel's song for the credits. So again, I think this is a film that could have been better, but the things it does get right it does so well
that it's fairly easy to forgive it it's weakness and place it squarely above the "good" category and into the "exellent. Based on this and Finding Nemo
, I have high hopes for Stanton's next feature. Verdict: Excellent
.Up (2009, Pete Docter)
To get right to the heart of the matter, I agree with those who say that the early montage of Ellie and Carl is almost unquestionably the film's peak, and perhaps the single most self-sufficiently effective sequence in the studio's history. It is just as impossibly tear-inducing as Toy Story 2
's Jessie montage, only here that emotion is connected to a much more recognizably weighty, human experience, the quiet simplicity and power of which is as breathtakingly effective on my third viewing as it was on my first. I don't, however, think the film descends into mere mediocrity when it's done.
Admittedly, the plot here is, on its face, one of the least interesting the studio has produced. I'll also say that I didn't find either Carl or Russel very funny (with the exception of Carl's motorized descent down the stairs), and was equally unmoved by any of their shared, supposedly touching moments. But the film makes up for these problems in a number of ways. The most reliable, and perhaps most essential, boon to the film's quality is how far it goes beyond any other Pixar film in its sustained, concentrated, and economical mode of expression. It is as detail-oriented in its elegant simplicity as the first half of WALL-E
, but here that restraint is maintained almost without exception through the entirety of the film. And where it was really the character of WALL-E himself that contained most of that film's endearing simplicity, here that endearing simplicity characterizes the entire universe of the film. Every camera angle and movement is perfectly calibrated for optimum effect. Not only is there never any more information onscreen than need be, but we are always directed to notice precisely the most interesting dynamics going on in a shot due to the delicious precision of each framing. Almost impossibly, this approach holds true even through the film's third quarter, by far the weakest section, when we are reintroduced to Muntz as a villain and all of the action scenes which that entails. The screenplay is similarly simple, relying on numerous touchstones around which to structure itself: balloons, the concept of flight, the crossed heart, the grape juice badge, the tennis balls, and "squirrel!"
I'm also a sucker for well-done physical comedy, and the film's mode of economical expression extends to this arena as well, most notably in Kevin the Bird, perhaps the film's single greatest semiotic function. I love how Pixar captured the dead stupidity of a bird's eyes as a way of anchoring and enhancing every funny thing she does, whether she's stealing chocolate, twitching her head, cooingly cuddling Russel on her chest, rearranging her feet, imitating Carl's reprimands with microflaps and gobbles, or whatever this is
: those same dead, open eyes (or the inevitable return to them which you know is coming) really just adds a hilarious quality to everything she's involved in. And while the leader's broken voicebox didn't work for me, I have to say that I really enjoyed all of the dog jokes, and thought that they provided a great opportunity for the film's winning humor to be integrated into what would have otherwise been well-directed but probably numbing action sequences. Another strong point is of course when Carl looks at Ellie's Adventure Book again before having his change of heart, though imo it doesn't quite match the power of the first montage.
Add to all this the fact that Giacchino's score is the most affecting he has produced for Pixar, and you really have one of the most well-crafted movies that you could hope for given the limitations of the script. Not to mention it's totally gorgeous, front-to-back--check out those flesh tones, check out that lighting, check out the clouds underneath Paradise Falls! I don't know what happened between 1999 and 2009, but in that decade Lasseter went from being Pixar's best director to its worst, and Doctor went from being its worst to its best. I have high hopes for his next contribution, Inside Out
. Verdict: Excellent.Toy Story 3 (2010, Lee Unkrich)
Is there any other film trilogy where people really seem to have trouble coming to a consensus about which entry is best simply because of just how fucking good all of them are? I guess some would now nominate Linklater’s “Before” series for that, but I’m frankly still more impressed with these family movies. Right now this is the highest ranking Pixar on both IMDB and RYM, and while obviously I would disagree with that, I don't have a problem with it either, because this movie really is great.
But because it’s great in exactly the same way as the other Toy Story films, it’s hard to explain what’s so great about it without listing off the same familiar strengths: tight engaging script, amazing voice acting, characters so great they write themselves (and who you like so much that you actually get worried during action sequences), interesting and intelligent expansion of what it means to be a toy rendered in emotionally meaningful terms, drama which comes out of organic character-driven situations rather than melodramatic ornamentation, a relentless stream of jokes all of which succeed, multiple scenes of concentrated emotional intensity, and a pleasure in seeing these characters tackle and resolve surprising and imaginative problems in surprising and imaginative ways. These elements are so strong and presented with such invisible virtuosity that it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t match WALL-E
in terms of visual splendor or stylistic ambition.
Andy’s transition into adulthood is brilliant. The split rooms and bureaucracy of Sunnyside is brilliant. The whole Barbie/Ken dynamic is brilliant. Mrs. Potatohead's eye getting lost in Andy's room and then gleaning vital information is brilliant. The establishment of Bonnie as the necessary endpoint for these toys is brilliant (big ups for her introduction, where she shyly hides behind the nanny after being introduced, adding the imaginative-introvert kid type to the series to counterbalance imaginative-extrovert Andy). As mentioned before, Buzz in factory setting and then in Spanish mode provides two brilliant, functionally productive, and inherently entertaining twists. Bravo the Mister Tortillahead; Bravo Mister Cucumber. Yes for Lotso’s backstory. LOL @ “…just a dinosaur”. I’m even on board with the threat of death by fire, and the even more controversial claw rescue. Stupid childish tears on demand when Andy hands over Woody.
So yes, this film is packed with great moments and is resultantly a great film. So, why do I place it below the other two? It doesn’t have quite the same powerful psychological undercurrents of the original, or the resonantly ironic structuring parallelisms/inversions of the first sequel. Also “We Belong Together” is the poorest Newman-penned Toy Story track, and “You Got a Friend In Me” just isn’t as moving in a Spanish dance version. But these are minor quibbles. Masterpieces are rare, and entertainment this satisfying is to be revered first and picked apart only as a secondary curiosity. Verdict: Great.Cars 2 (2011, John Lasseter)
It's just hard for me to believe this exists. I know Lasseter says he likes to work collaboratively, but I feel like other creative people in studio maybe just have to put on a poker face when they are around him because of his importance as a producer and executive, slugging through these miserable Cars
products in the hopes that it will build goodwill towards having them used on a film that actually has any value whatsoever. I understand that Lasseter is really into cars and that both of these films somehow have a personally resonant significance for him (!), but I just have to say that it plain doesn't come across when you are watching them. Again, at the storyboard level these things are bland, the cars and boats and planes as rendered are hopelessly unexpressive, none of the jokes are funny, and none of the emotional cues have any power whatsoever. Where the other film was boring because it was slow, this film is boring because it has too much shit going on and none of it matters. Which kind of boring is worse is a moot point, because they are both borderline unwatchable. I could go to town explaining in detail why nothing in the film works, but as I have said wrt Cars
, I like Lasseter, Lasseter is helplessly in love with it
and I would feel too much like Anton Ego to relish the opportunity. Hopefully here is the last of this miserable franchise. Verdict: Bad
.Brave (2012, Mark Andrews/Brenda Chapman)
I was underwhelmed with this at first, but it has grown fondly in my memory and I unexpectedly found I appreciated it more the second time, especially when more acquainted with some of the unacknowledged weaknesses of more acclaimed Pixar films. At this point it's fairly evident that I like it more than most, though my reasons for liking it are more personal/thematic than aesthetic and I don't necessarily expect others to like it as much as I do and understand if they don't.
I can see, for example, why some would watch the sequence where Merida rides her horse through the woods while shooting arrows and dances in front of a waterfall to Julie Fowlis singing "Touch the Sky" and simply get the point that this is the film showing us Merida being a free spirit and want to move on. For my own part I find it exceptionally moving, being a unique example in the Pixar catalog of a powerful montage which really evokes a certain ebullient joy of experience as it really can be lived by real people (even if for us it wouldn't necessarily be horses and woods and waterfalls)--it gave me chills both times. But perhaps this is because the scene ties into the larger thematic focus on Merida reconciling her freespirit tomboyishness with the traditional expectations of her mother. This tension is well illustrated by the scene with intercutting between her mother's explanation to her husband (but really Merida) that she does all of this out of love and Merida's explanation to her horse (but really her mother) that this would be a profound denial of herself. This inner tension is externalized in the larger ideological forces of the film, with Elinor's loving but suffocating pre-Christian traditionalism against Merida's rebellious self-centeredness leading to the powerful but dangerous forces of witchcraft. I like how structurally the film ultimately neglects to embrace either side fully, but uses their clash as an opportunity to arrive at a powerful, transformative synthesis where the values of tradition are acknowledged, and the spirit of spontaneity and improvisational following your own heart are neither demonized or idealized.
Perhaps the most underrated element of the film is its humor. While I think it goes without saying that it's not as funny as Up
, or the any of the Toy Story films, I think it's generally gone unacknowledged that there's probably a greater amount of laughs here than in more acclaimed films like Ratatouille
, The Incredibles
, Monsters Inc
, or A Bug's Life
. I love the hi-jinks of the three little boys (especially after they turn into little bear cubs), the presentation of the three suitors is a great example of the humorous power of good character design, and I really like the witch's cauldron as an operating system. The film is also one of the most aesthetically pleasing and unified the studio has put together. Merida's horse Angus, her red hair, the thick vegetation of the woods, the ever more accurate fleshtones, the sound of the wisps; it's all stunning.
Still, as has been noted before, the second half of the film doesn't live up to the promise of the beginning. I'm not really oppossed to Merida learning her lesson by transforming her mom into a bear, but it honestly doesn't produce as smooth a transition into the finale as you would hope, and the result is a drastically weakened story. If it had followed through on the promise of its set up, I probably would have ended up liking it more than Ratatouille
. Still, the film is continuously funny enough to be entertaining. Not one of Pixar's best, but I think a little better than its reception implies. Verdict:Good.Monsters University (2013, Dan Scanlon)
Well, it was my being pleasantly surprised by this film that initiated my project of revisiting each Pixar film, so I thought it would be appropriate to end it by watching it again and deciding how my response changed and stayed the same after such a marathon. I didn't enjoy it as much the second time, but I don't hold it against the film too much because the first experience was so enjoyable, and it only rarely helps a mainstream film to see it twice in quick succession.
I will admit that there are problems. Where Monsters, Inc. was driven by original ideas expressed poorly, Monsters University is driven by much more generic ideas expressed well, but not unpredictably. It also does one of my least favorite things a mainstream movie can do, which is feel like it's going to reach it's absolute climax two separate times, doesn't, and then seems to end too quickly and without real emotional resolution. I also would have appreciated it if the way Mike and Sully got from University to Inc could have been part of the action instead of as an afterthought in a series of photos during the credits, though I admit I'm not sure how they would have gone about doing that in an interesting way. I also think Dean Hardscrabble is repetitive as written as as voice acted by Mirren.
But to me these all feel like a bunch of tolerable weaknesses that add up enough to hold the film back, more than a bunch of glaring problems which ever make the film unpleasant to watch, and overall I found it to be a much more enjoyable film than the first monsters movie, and am a little puzzled by how few seem to agree with me. What in the first film is as funny as [SKIP TO NEXT PARAGRAPH IF HAVEN'T SEEN FILM] the two headed debate team member or the slug running to class or the multieyed monster reading multiple books or the multihand monster sipping multiple lattes scurring up the stairs or the prospect of a future as a scream can designer (and the teacher of that class!) or the mom interrupting the initiation ritual to wash clothes or the librarian or the type of music the mom listens to? I'll also admit to being moved by the scene where Mike takes his team to look at the Scare Floor, as well as a number of other moments.
More importantly, the University setting I think gives you a better idea of what it is like to be a monster (and the sorts of things the monster world consists of) than does Monsters, Inc.
, which mostly just lays a few basics out and then makes boring jokes fitting Bigfoot into their mythology. It's definitely an imperfect film, but Pixar have made worse films in the past without people thinking the company is falling apart. If you are a Pixar fan you should give it a shot while it's still in theaters. Verdict: Good.