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A Bug's Life (#110 of 6)

Every Pixar Movie, Ranked from Worst to Best

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Every Pixar Movie, Ranked from Worst to Best

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Every Pixar Movie, Ranked from Worst to Best

Heavy on training montages and intergenerational torch passing, Cars 3 is an old-fashioned sports film at heart. Swap out the talking cars for boxers or baseball pitchers and Pixar’s latest would sit comfortably next to such films as Rocky Balboa and Trouble with the Curve, twilit dramas about a fading athlete struggling with age-old conundrums: how to know when to retire and how to do it with dignity. It’s the sort of counterintuitively mature theme that’s marked Pixar’s best output, but while Cars 3 may be the least objectionable entry in this series to date, it never hits the bittersweet emotional highs of films like Up and Toy Story 3. On the occasion of the film’s release, join us in revisiting the Pixar canon, ranked from worst to best.

The Conversations: Pixar

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The Conversations: Pixar
The Conversations: Pixar

Jason Bellamy: Aggregate movie review sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes are never more predictable than when compiling the reviews of a Pixar release. Through almost fifteen years Pixar has been a cinematic goose laying digitally animated golden eggs. Not all of Pixar’s ten features have been universally beloved, but even the studio’s disappointing efforts, like 2006’s Cars, have been treated by critics as mostly worthwhile. Generally speaking, to read reviews of Pixar movies isn’t to see critics wrestling with the question of “Is it good?” but rather “How good is it?” The result creates something of a critical paradox. When a Pixar movie earns a rare pan, the studio’s previous successes seem to work against it. Pixar becomes the A-plus student who suffers a C-minus grade for turning in B-plus work. It becomes the victim of a masterpiece-or-else set of expectations, thus making critical takedowns seem annoyingly nitpicky or pathetically contrarian (yep, that’s an Armond White reference). At the same time, however, when Pixar delivers something that’s truly and utterly magnificent, any praise heaped upon it seems empty. Gushing reviews of a Pixar movie come off like testimonials on the joys of army life written by soldiers in the North Korean military.

I mention all of this because it helps to illustrate how troubling it can be to have critical conversations about Pixar movies. When someone tells me Finding Nemo is “great,” do they mean “It’s a great piece of family entertainment with something for everyone,” or do they mean “It’s on my short list of the greatest cinematic experiences of all time, tied with Taxi Driver”? I can never tell if I’m supposed to be grading on a curve, if I’m supposed to be comparing Monsters, Inc. to just Dreamworks’ Shrek or instead to There Will Be Blood and anything else. If I tell you that I found Cars to be tedious when I saw it on DVD at the age of 30, is that a valid assessment, or am I supposed to analyze the movie through the eyes of the 10-year-old for which it is intended? Why is it that if I tell people I found Toy Story cute but not special, I get wide-eyed looks like I’ve just insulted the 9-year-old in the school play for not being Meryl Streep?

These are issues we can cover over the course of our conversation, but for now all of that is setup for this: I absolutely adore Ratatouille and I have a fondness for A Bug’s Life and Up, but at the top of the Pixar heap is WALL-E. This is the one Pixar movie that, while by no means flawless, I can call great without any hesitation or qualifiers. To me, it is a masterpiece, and not just of its genre. Of all the films I saw last year, there was a small handful that shared its company, but not a single one that was better. Ed, you hadn’t seen WALL-E prior to this conversation, citing little interest in the Pixar series. My question to you now isn’t if WALL-E is as good as I just described. Instead it’s this: Is WALL-E better than you expected, a notable Pixar achievement, or is it just more of the same?

"Talk About the Movie": A Bug’s Life and Up

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“Talk About the Movie”: <em>A Bug’s Life</em> and <em>Up</em>
“Talk About the Movie”: <em>A Bug’s Life</em> and <em>Up</em>

“Talk about the movie,” the little white-haired 3-year-old boy shouted up at me.

It was a command. He was my nephew. We had just finished watching A Bug’s Life, his favorite movie. He had never had a favorite movie before. He could (and did) watch it every day. I babysat him quite a bit in those days, and so I got to know A Bug’s Life by heart as well (One moth to another moth: “Larry! Larry! Don’t look into the light!” Larry replies in a droning zombie voice, “Ican’thelpitit’ssobeeeeeautiful ....” ZAP!) Nothing pleases a child more than endless repetition of something he loves. But just watching it was not enough for my nephew. The second the movie finished, he needed to “talk” about it, which basically meant relive it, moment by moment, so he would shout at whoever was present, “TALK ABOUT THE MOVIE.”

It was then my job to bring up different moments throughout the film, “How about when the grasshoppers show up?” and my nephew could then nod wisely in remembrance and say, “Yeah.” That was basically what “talk about the movie” entailed. A rote listing of moments, with my nephew nodding.

The Studio as Author: An Introduction to Pixar Week

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The Studio as Author: An Introduction to Pixar Week
The Studio as Author: An Introduction to Pixar Week

Among the certainties in the world of film criticism—there will be a series of pieces bemoaning critics’ inability to stop a terrible summer film from becoming a blockbuster; Armond White will often stake out a position in opposition to many of his fellow critics; movies about middle-aged men having their mid-life crises sorted out by women well out of their league will always receive mostly kind notices; etc.—there’s one that stands above all others. Every year, Pixar will release a new film, and every year, it will garner exceedingly kind reviews, often competing to be the best-reviewed wide release of the year on review aggregating sites Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. The reviews will contain some variation on the phrase, “Pixar does it again!” and champion the studio’s ability to come up with children’s films that also hold appeal for adults and tackle bigger themes than your usual computer-animated monstrosity. At the end of the year, said critics will often pen a few words about how Pixar can never get any love at the big races at the Oscars, even when their films win big critics prizes (as did Wall-E). And then the topic of Pixar as reliable geniuses, practitioners of a kind of ruddily American innovation, will be put back in the box until it is dragged out all over again the next time a Pixar film is released, to be repeated with much the same series of beats.

The House Next Door Presents Pixar Week: October 4 - 10, 2009

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<em>The House Next Door</em> Presents Pixar Week: October 4 - 10, 2009
<em>The House Next Door</em> Presents Pixar Week: October 4 - 10, 2009

In the nearly fourteen years since it first released Toy Story, the first completely computer-animated film in history, Pixar has somehow gone from a well-liked animation studio to the last, best hope of the Hollywood studio system, the final piece of proof many critics can point to and say, “See? The old system can work if you know what you’re doing.” Since the release of Toy Story, Pixar has gone through A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, Wall-E and Up, and nearly all of these have die-hard defenders who proclaim their film of choice to be a modern classic (well, maybe not Cars). The release of each new Pixar film in the summer can be rather predictably greeted with a spate of critical hosannas, but with a few exceptions, reviews of Pixar’s work often boil down to the following: “Pixar makes great films that both parents and their kids can enjoy!” And true though that may be, the studio has provoked surprisingly little solid critical discussion in mainstream outlets, outside of the annual attempts to rank Pixar’s latest effort against their former films.

Enter Pixar Week at The House Next Door, running Oct. 4-10, 2009, to coincide with the re-release of Toy Story and its sequel in theaters on Oct. 2.

What sorts of pieces are we looking for? Follow us after the jump for more.

Through Fresh Eyes: Monster House, Cars, and the Evolution of CG Animation

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Through Fresh Eyes: <em>Monster House</em>, <em>Cars</em>, and the Evolution of CG Animation
Through Fresh Eyes: <em>Monster House</em>, <em>Cars</em>, and the Evolution of CG Animation

We are in a golden age of cinema right now—the golden age of computer-generated (CG) animation. Every year brings a new breakthrough in technology or storytelling. It is fast coming into its own as an art form with an ability to take well-worn film genres—plus bits of grammar and technique refined over a century—and make it all seem new again, simply by translating it into a new medium. Already Pixar is building a body of work than rivals Disney in its pioneering heyday (the 30’s and 40’s); and there are now so many new CG animated features released each year that when we go to see one in a theater, all the previews are for other movies of the same ilk.

Pixar’s Cars and Sony’s Monster House were the two that stood out this summer, and I was much more impressed with the latter. A basic haunted house story that’s way too scary for tots, Monster House held me almost to the end, when its need to hit all the notes of a conventional action/suspense climax finally wore me down a little.

The title structure is a demonic eyesore in an otherwise pleasant suburban neighborhood, situated on a lot right across the street from our young hero D.J. (voiced by Mitchel Musso). All the neighborhood kids are frightened to play near it; if they lose a basketball or even so much as set foot on its lawn, old man Nebbercracker (Steve Buscemi) will storm out, (“Get away from my house!”) shoo them away and punish their trespassing by stealing any toys they leave behind. When D.J. thinks that sole proprietor Nebbercracker has died from a heart attack, he becomes convinced (and rightly so) that the house is angry and wants to punish him. It’s Halloween eve and D.J.s parents are away on a trip. Under the not so watchful eye of babysitter Zee and her beer-swilling loser of a boyfriend Bones (wonderfully voiced by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jason Lee), D.J. enlists the aid of best friend Chowder (Sam Lerner) and new girl Jenny (Spencer Locke) to help him destroy the house.