Even at their worst, Pixar films are still pretty good. At their best (and they’re usually at or near their best), they’re arguably the greatest, most timeless animated features ever made.
The visuals are breathtaking. The characters are unforgettable. The stories appeal to everyone. None of that "the kids watch it for the colors and characters, the adults pick up on the subtle innuendos in the margins" crap is applicable here. Pixar managed to strike a miraculous balance early on, where their films are neither too childish for older folks nor too mature for kids. They live in a Goldilocks zone where everyone walks away satisfied, delighted, and usually a bit misty-eyed.
That’s certainly no small feat. But we get it. The movies are all good. Most are great. But which Pixar films are the best of the best? Well, we went to Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic to find out, and after crunching the numbers, these are the best Pixar films ranked.
(Warning — there are spoilers below.)
23. Cars 2
In "Cars 2", the famous Lightning McQueen is on his way to the World Grand Prix race in Tokyo, where he’ll be competing against the best in the world. Unfortunately, the championship event is threatened by a group of sinister saboteurs known as the Lemons, who are opposed by a group of British spies. Naturally, good ol’ Mater gets tangled up in this espionage B-plot, and madness ensues. The good guys win, of course. There’s also a voice-activated bomb. Lightning McQueen gets knighted at the end. It’s okay.
But Pixar didn’t take over the animation world by just being "okay". So while "Cars 2" isn’t a bad movie, necessarily, it certainly qualifies as a rare miss for the studio. We suppose that had to happen eventually. Like Lightning McQueen, the studio couldn’t stay on top forever, and every new project was an opportunity to mess up. The movie’s got a Pixar-average-wrecking 40% on Rotten Tomatoes, where the critics’ consensus reads, "’Cars 2′ is as visually appealing as any other Pixar production, but all that dazzle can’t disguise the rusty storytelling under the hood." Pretty much.
22. The Good Dinosaur
It’s rarely a good sign when a movie’s release date is pushed back due to a revolving door of directors, scripts, and casts. That’s one major reason "The Good Dinosaur" flopped. The movie was constantly being tinkered with and brought into line with the visions of whichever director was in charge of it that month. The unfocused final product was proof that there were simply too many cooks in the kitchen. On top of that, the movie suffered from character design that was a bit too cartoonish (and, dare we say, ugly) for its own good (certainly a rare miss for Pixar), as well as unfavorable comparisons to "The Land Before Time", which was a much better movie about a young dinosaur having to find his way in a scary world after losing a parent. And yet, while frustrating, "The Good Dinosaur" isn’t necessarily bad. It’s certainly not one of Pixar’s best films, but there’s still a lot in here to learn about love, loss, and courage.
21. Cars 3
We’ll start by saying we’re not sure why there was a "Cars 3," given the fact that the first two movies — while they certainly had their moments — collectively represent a relative low point for Pixar. So if there was any property you’d think the studio would want to cut loose to save their reputation for animated excellence, it’d be this one. Instead, it beats out every other Pixar franchise except "Toy Story" for most sequels, when much better films like "Ratatouille," "Wall-E," and "Up" have none. Maybe Pixar doesn’t want to damage the legacy of those gems and was trying to redeem the disappointing "Cars 2" with a better third movie? If so, it was at least mildly successful. "Cars 3" is a good (not great) film that’s a notable improvement over its somewhat mediocre predecessor.
As always, the movie follows Lightning McQueen, who’s now past his prime as a rising generation of superfast cars threatens his legacy as the world’s best racer. It succeeds where "Cars 2" failed, largely because it doesn’t waste time with weird spy B-plots and because it remains focused on both its charming lead character and the themes of fame, age, and learning to let go. In the end, although it’s largely been forgotten, "Cars 3" is definitely worth your time.
"Brave" follows the adventures and misadventures of Merida, a fiercely independent, fiery-haired archer who hates the stuffy princess life that her queen mother, Elinor, is trying to force her into. In an attempt to change her mother into something a bit less controlling, Merida feeds her an enchanted cake that she bought from a witch, which ultimately turns her into a bear. Whoops. Don’t you hate it when that happens? In the end, Merida undoes the curse, repairs her relationship with her mother, and saves the kingdom. She also became a worthy addition to the Disney Princess lineup, which Pixar rarely contributes to.
But that’s also what keeps "Brave" out of the upper tier of Pixar movies. As Roger Ebert put it (in his still-favorable review), "The bad news is that parents will be disappointed if they’re hoping for another Pixar groundbreaker. Unlike such brightly original films as ‘Toy Story,’ ‘Finding Nemo,’ ‘WALL-E,’ and ‘Up,’ this one finds Pixar poaching on traditional territory of Disney, its corporate partner." But don’t let that scare you if you haven’t already seen the movie. There are far worse things to be compared to than Disney and far worse films that have tried.
You know the story. Lightning McQueen is an arrogant racecar who gets stranded in Radiator Springs, an old Route 66 community that was left in the dust by the interstate system and a changing world long ago. There, McQueen learns what really makes life worth living: Not fame or money but friendship, community, and kindness — the kind of things you can only attain and enjoy with humility. It’s a good movie, with beautiful animation, funny characters, and a stellar voice cast, although each of those things are almost a given when you’re discussing Pixar.
It is a bit predictable and on the nose, though, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth watching. In the end, what keeps "Cars" in the lower part of the list is the hit or miss sequels that damaged its legacy and the almost impossibly high bar set by Pixar’s first few movies, against which "Cars" would inevitably be compared ad nauseum. It didn’t quite reach the bar. But it came admirably close.
18. Monsters University
When Mike and Sulley meet in college, where monsters learn to be professional scarers, they’re anything but friends. Their relationship is further strained after they get into it during class and accidentally destroy a teacher’s prized possession, leading to their expulsion. Mike, desperate to salvage his future, convinces the dean to let them back in if they win the upcoming campus Scare Games. The dean agrees, but only because she’s convinced they don’t have a chance in hell. She sees Mike as too unthreatening to make it as a monster and Sulley — riding on his family name — as too lazy. But the pair team up with a fraternity of outcast monsters, learn to work together, and win the day. The film ends with their friendship fully established.
The main thing weighing the movie down is just how unnecessary it was. Yes, Mike and Sulley have an oddball relationship. One is a neurotic eyeball and the other a charming, blue-haired jock. But the first movie worked just fine without explaining why they were friends, so how badly did we need to see an origin story? We always assumed these two goofballs met at work or were just childhood buddies. The friendship feels cheaper now that we know its predictable roots.
But in the end, it doesn’t matter. "Monsters University" is just too funny and charming to break under that strain. It’s not as good as the original, but it doesn’t have to be.
In "Onward," gangly teenage elf Ian Lightfoot and his underachieving but charmingly nerdy older brother embark on an adventure through fantastical New Mushroomton to bring their long-lost father back to life with an enchanted staff, which Ian received as a birthday present. The world — filled with centaurs, cyclopses, and pixies — is yet another winning entry into the Pixar tradition of filling human-like societies with something other than humans (think "Monsters, Inc.," "Cars," and "A Bug’s Life"). It’s a tried-and-true comedic formula that only works if there’s a little more meat on the bones than just "ha ha, look, a caveman bought car insurance."
Luckily, "Onward" has plenty to offer. Sure, it’s got all the wonderful animation, top-notch voice acting from the likes of Tom Holland and Chris Pratt, and the hilarious jokes you’d expect. But Pixar movies would be nothing without a tearjerker ending built on character-explored themes. This one is about fatherhood and the many forms it takes. In the end, Ian learns that father figures can be almost any older guy who loves, invests in, and refuses to give up on you.
16. A Bug’s Life
In the world of movies, 1998 was a year of doubles. There was "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact," both so-bad-they’re-good killer asteroid blockbusters with A-list ensemble casts. There was "The Thin Red Line" and "Saving Private Ryan," two herculean World War Two epics. And then we had "Antz" and "A Bug’s Life," two critically acclaimed computer-animated movies about individualistic ants at odds with their colonies, who later redeem themselves by liberating their friends from hostile bug invaders.
"Antz" was excellent, but "A Bug’s Life" stands the test of time a bit better, both because its character design is less jarring and also because, as Roger Ebert put it in his glowing review, the Pixar film is "aimed at a broader audience and lacks the in-jokes." Ebert went on to say "’Antz’ may even help business for ‘A Bug’s Life’ by demonstrating how many dramatic and comedic possibilities can be found in an anthill. And the Pixar animators, using later generations of the software that created such a fresh look in ‘Toy Story,’ have made a movie that is always a pleasure to look at: There are glistening, rounded surfaces, the sense of three dimensions, an eye for detail." We couldn’t agree more.
15. Finding Dory
Pixar sequels aren’t always the best of the bunch. "Monsters University" and "Cars 2" come to mind as movies that we could’ve done without (even if they’re about as good as what you’d expect from another studio). But while 2016’s "Finding Dory" didn’t quite match the wondrous thrills of 2003’s "Finding Nemo," it stands out as one of the better follow-ups in the Pixar canon. The movie follows Marlin and Nemo on a quest to find a missing Dory, who gets lost in an aquarium while searching for her parents.
As expected, the animation is beautiful, the voice acting is terrific, and the new characters (especially Hank, the grouchy but well-meaning octopus) provide plenty of hilarious fun. But the most memorable part by far is when Dory follows a trail of shells to her parents’ home, where she learns they’ve spent the years since her disappearance laying out similar trails in the hopes that, one day, she’d find them. We’re not crying. You’re crying.
14. Incredibles 2
"Incredibles 2" picks up where the gem of an original left off, with the super Parr family defeating the evil Underminer and continuing their campaign to restore the public’s trust in superheroes. They get a big opportunity when Helen is approached by DevTech, a group run by a brother and sister duo that aims to stage and publicize superhero missions in the hopes that they can make superheroes, well, superheroes again.
Problem is, this forces a jealous Bob to stay home and watch the kids — a task he’s simultaneously insulted to be stuck with and incapable of doing properly, at least until he learns that being a good dad is just as honorable as being on the front page. The big reveal that one of the DevTech leaders is actually a villain who wants to maintain public distrust of superheroes is a bit underwhelming and nonsensical (why join an effort to restore public trust in supers at all if you already had them where you wanted them before?), but it hardly leaves a dent in this largely excellent, funny, worthy superhero family adventure.
13. Monsters, Inc.
"Monsters, Inc." is about a society of monsters in a parallel dimension, who enter our realm through magic doors, scare children on the other side, collect their screams in yellow tubes, and convert that into electricity. Also, they’re deathly afraid of children themselves and treat the accidental presence of human kids in their realm as a biohazard emergency.
This is exactly the scenario that faces our protagonists — giant, blue-haired Sulley, a superstar kid-scarer, and short, green, one-eyed Mike, Sulley’s neurotic right-hand man and best friend. Eventually, they befriend Boo, the little girl who initially terrified them and made them fugitives for simply being near her, and defeat the villainous Randall, Sulley’s lizard-like rival who tried to expose their secret and take them down.
Okay, now read all that again. It’s insane. We can’t imagine the thought process that led to anyone imagining such a bizarre story. All we know is that the movie itself is a wonderfully imaginative, unforgettably fun adventure that stands out as one of Pixar’s most underappreciated golden era gems.
It’s generally believed that Pixar’s best work was in the mid-’90s to around the end of the aughts, with most of their releases in the 2010s being a bit more hit or miss (although there are still plenty of keepers). But "Soul" was an excellent return to form.
Jamie Foxx voices Joe Gardner, a New York middle school music teacher whose dreams of being a professional jazz musician are cut short by his untimely death via open manhole. He wakes up approaching the Great Beyond, a point of no return for dead souls. Not ready to pass on, he flees to the Great Before and agrees to mentor a problematic unborn soul, 22, hoping it’ll give him a chance to revisit Earth and find a way back to life.
The second act is a bit sloppy, with some meandering parts about soul pirates and turning into a cat, but the voice acting and animation is beautiful. Also, the film’s message is as powerful as it is unique — that life isn’t only worth living because of passions and dreams but because of all the little moments of joy and mundanity along the way that we too often take for granted.
We don’t say this lightly: "Coco" is perhaps the most beautiful non live-action film ever made. The animation itself is as mesmerizing and impeccable as we’ve come to expect from Pixar, but the fiery colors that wash over the screen when Miguel enters the Land of the Dead are simply spellbinding.
Plus, Miguel is a wonderful protagonist, and the songs — a relative rarity in Pixar films — are touching and catchy. Sure, the movie isn’t perfect. It suffers from a somewhat forgettable villain and a bit of a meandering second act, which is unfortunately all too common for Pixar’s later offerings. But you’ll hardly care or even notice by the end, where Miguel uses a simple tune to remind his great-great grandmother, the titular Coco, of her husband who passed away — but only physically. It’s a reminder that our loved ones are never really gone, as long as we treasure memories of them in our hearts. Predictably, it’ll have you in tears.
10. The Incredibles
"The Incredibles" is hands down the best non-Marvel or DC superhero movie ever made. It’s also a worthy spy thriller, a hilarious comedy, and a heartwarming family adventure. What more could you want?
The story follows Bob and Helen Parr, two superheroes who’ve been forced into retirement by laws that criminalize their breed of spectacular but often destructive vigilantism. They’re raising two superpowered kids and a baby who they believe, incorrectly, has no powers at all. At least once a week, Bob sneaks out with his old pal Frozone to save the day in ski masks. Eventually, this leads to Bob getting hired for more professional, underground heroism by a mysterious organization operating from a secluded, volcanic island.
But things are not what they seem. This leads to a string of events that involve the whole family being forced to fight together against a serial killer of supers named Syndrome. This villain’s dastardly plan is to stage his own superheroics so he can then sell superhero gear to the general public in the hopes that "if everyone’s super, no one will be." It’s probably the lamest evil plan ever hatched. But it hardly matters. The movie is endlessly rewatchable and will remain so for years to come.
9. Toy Story 4
Nobody asked for "Toy Story 4." Actually, nobody asked for "Toy Story 3" either, but that film wrapped up the story of Andy’s adventurous toys so well that it instantly joined the first two films as an instant and enduring classic. The trilogy was so perfect, in fact, that fans believed its legacy could only be damaged by further installments.
We’ll admit that the fourth film is the weakest of the bunch and certainly the least necessary. But not by much. It’s still a heartwarming, breathtakingly animated adventure-comedy that gives us another chance to hang with some of our favorite characters. And don’t flip out when we say this, but Bonnie is a better character than Andy ever was. Andy was always more of an idea — a largely off-screen symbol of a good toy’s duty to be there for the kid who owned it. But Bonnie felt real, perhaps because we can all empathize with her sense of imagination and wonder when she plays with these particular toys. We get it, Bonnie. They made our childhoods too. Treat them well for us.
"Up" is one of the first Pixar movies to suffer from a weird, forgettable second act. Actually, its narrative problems extend beyond the two-thirds mark. We remember grouchy old Carl, of course, and Russell, the plucky Boy Scout who gets him to rediscover his love of adventure. But does anyone really remember what the villain was all about? What about that giant bird? You probably remember Doug and something about squirrels and talking dogs. But a lot of the movie gets lost in the haze.
Guess what, though? Doesn’t matter. The characters are too strong to let it fall apart. The animation is too lovely. The image of the house floating away on balloons and landing by a South American waterfall are too unforgettable. And that opening sequence sure is something else. Oscar-winning epics pale in comparison to the narrative power of Carl and Ellie’s 10-minute short story that opens the film. It’s not even a particularly amazing tale if you think about it — just one of a couple growing old together until one outlasts the other. But the way it’s told — wordlessly, with a simple musical track — is movie magic. Admit it. You got a lump in your throat just thinking about it.
On some level, "Wall-E" is a cautionary tale about more than one thing. It warns us about the dangers of climate change, pollution, obesity, and tech addiction run amok. We’re sure there’s more that we’re forgetting. But the movie’s not overstuffed, and it’s not preachy. Far from it. Nobody looks in the camera and tells us to get our act together before it’s too late, as much as we need to hear exactly those words. The message is better told through the incredibly emotive mechanical eyes of our mute title character, whose job of cleaning up Earth’s bottomless oceans of trash is interrupted by the arrival of a "female" robot, who he follows back to a starliner where humanity has spent many generations.
The people in this film are boneless, gluttonous slobs with no purpose, wasting away in hover chairs and waited on hand and foot by machines. We’re sure there’s another lesson in there about how we’re becoming more robotic than our robots. Whatever. It all works. The movie is gorgeous and touching and full of imagination. It’s also more than a little sad. There’s likely as much science here as there is fiction.
6. Inside Out
If only adolescence was so simple to understand. In "Inside Out," memories are stored in colorful orbs, and each of our emotions are individual people who collectively operate our brain from a sensory headquarters surrounded by "personality islands", which fall into a colossal Memory Dump when things fall apart. When one or more core emotions are incapacitated, there’s an imbalance that leads to issues outside.
So the chaos that unfolds when emotions Joy and Sadness wrestle for control over Riley — a young girl who had to move thanks to her dad’s job — looks like an unpredictable accident. And yet the behavior it produces in Riley very closely matches standard preteen angst. So what’s causing Riley’s misery — the conditions outside or the turmoil within? Both, perhaps. We know it’s all unscientific, but "Inside Out" is also one of Pixar’s most heart wrenchingly relatable films, so maybe there’s some truth in here after all. In the end, we learn that Sadness isn’t a villain but a necessary and sometimes beautiful part of who we are.
It seemed impossible for Pixar’s winning streak to continue after catching lightning in a bottle so many times in a row. But continue it did with 2007’s "Ratatouille," which follows the adventures of Remy, a rat who loves to cook. He dreams of leaving his rodent family and their lives as sewer scavengers to be a chef in Paris. But they don’t let just any human run the kitchen, much less a rodent.
You all know the story. Remy meets Alfredo Linguini, a bumbling busboy at a once grand but now declining five-star restaurant, and uses him to cook by pulling on his hair like a puppet. The restaurant becomes the talk of the town, but Linguini can’t hide his secret forever. The story is "Monsters, Inc." levels of weird. If it hadn’t been for that Pixar logo, most of us would’ve either ignored the movie outright or approached it with the same snobby skepticism Anton Ego had when he was served a helping of Remy’s titular dish. But we all know what happened next — pure magic.
4. Toy Story 2
"Toy Story 2" is everything a good sequel should be. It took what made the original work and expanded on it without losing touch of the characters, old and new, in the process.
Everything works here. The story and the world are bigger. We’re not stuck in Andy’s neighborhood anymore. We get to see the town and very nearly leave the country, although the quick thinking of our heroes keeps us on the ground. We get to meet new characters too, and they’re as wonderful as the originals. And we learn more about Woody. Of course he’s a collector’s item from an old 1950s children’s show. And yet we never saw that or anything else coming. That’s the mark of a genius film. Nothing is predictable the first time you watch it, but looking back, there’s no other way the story could’ve worked.
Perhaps most impressively of all, the characters haven’t regressed since the end of the first movie. Their arcs seemed pretty complete at the end of the ’95 film, but this movie finds ways to teach them — and us — new lessons about friendship and selflessness that enrich the original ones rather than tread the same tired old ground.
3. Toy Story 3
So much time passed between "Toy Story 2" and "Toy Story 3" that most people stopped expecting a second sequel at all. But it was worth the wait. Like everyone who watched the original movies as kids, Andy is now grown up and heading for college. He has no use for his old toys anymore, and yet they hold out hope that he’ll take them out of the dusty old chest and on another grand adventure. It’s not to be. The toys are donated to a local daycare with dark secrets, presided over by a stuffed bear who’s too jolly and welcoming to be trusted.
They all escape in the end, but Andy donates them to Bonnie, an imaginative little girl in his neighborhood. It’s not an act of neglect but mercy, and it’s not a decision he makes lightly. The toys have to say goodbye but now have a whole new childhood to serve and enjoy. The ending of the movie is just about the saddest thing you’ll ever see in an animated feature, but there’s hope in there too. We all have to learn to move on from each other one day. It’s just a marvel that an animated feature about talking toys can teach us that hard lesson better than almost any film ever made.
2. Finding Nemo
"Finding Nemo" is one of the high water marks in animated movie history. Here, Marlin — a widowed clownfish — loses his only surviving son to a scuba diver and has to swim across the Pacific to find him. Along the way, he meets Dory, a forgetful fish, and then runs into sharks fighting a losing battle against their own hunger, meets up with a group of surfer sea turtles, gets trapped in a horde of jellyfish, and winds up swallowed by a whale. The things we do for our children.
Speaking of which, Nemo’s subplot works just as well. He finds himself imprisoned in a dentist’s fish tank, alongside other captives who are planning to bust the joint. The movie has as much heart and energy and delightful charm as any animated feature ever made. It’s the kind of movie that has you smiling the whole time without realizing it. It was so good, in fact, that we didn’t even want a sequel (although we were happy to have it when it arrived well over a decade later). We were perfectly satisfied with the wonderful film we got.
1. Toy Story
What else could top this list? "Toy Story" started it all, in more ways than one. It was only ever supposed to demonstrate the capabilities of computer-generated animation. It appears they accidentally made a perfect film while they were at it. Oops.
And we don’t say that lightly, by the way. "Toy Story" is indeed a perfect film because it can’t be improved in any meaningful way. The premise is brilliant, the characters lovable, the voice acting superb, the lessons unforgettable, the plot flawless. No better version of this story could’ve possibly been told. Sure, the animation is dated today, but it’s over 25 years old, and it blew minds at the time, as well it should have. The story was all about Woody, a cowboy and Andy’s former favorite toy, who seethes with jealousy after being replaced by Buzz Lightyear, a "space ranger" toy and the hot new item on the shelves that year. But in the end, Woody learns to let go of his pride. We can’t imagine it was easy for rival animation studios to do the same when they saw this movie and realized, all at once, that everything had changed.