I’ve wanted to do a series on the Pixar canon ever since I started this blog, but wasn’t sure how to do it. I didn’t want to just review every movie in depth as I did for the James Bond Overdose series, mostly because these movies are all recent enough and familiar enough to the general public that full reviews would be redundant.
But with Inside Out blowing audiences away right now and The Good Dinosaur looming on the horizon, now is as good a time as any to do this.
So, what I wanted to do was create (insofar as is possible with a canon of movies that are so consistently incredible) a ranking of all the Pixar feature films in order from best to not as best but still pretty fabulous. I’m not sure how unbiased I can be…but I’ll try. Each film will be rated according to 5 criteria: the concept, the characters, the story, the humor, and the heart. Each criterion will be rated out of ten, and then the total score will be doubled, giving a final ranking out of 100. I won’t be rating the animation because we all know the animation has always been one of the best in the industry. Each week (unless said week features a big premiere of a movie that I must see), I will be looking at three films, so this whole thing should take 5 weeks, which is much less terrifying than the 23 week madness I spent in the James Bond world.
So here we go!
This week, we’re going to be playing, as most children do, with toys and bugs!
Toy Story (1995)
Overview: Woody (Tom Hanks) has always been Andy’s favorite toy until the flashy Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) joins the ranks of Andy’s toys. Nettled by Buzz’s charisma with the other toys and the space toy’s belief that he is actually Buzz Lightyear and not an action figure, Woody tries to knock Buzz down a few notches…and ends up knocking him out a window instead. The two toys must then join forces to find their way back to Andy before he and his family move to their new house.
The Concept: 8/10
The living toy trope is hardly new, but this one uses toys that audiences recognize from their childhoods. Plus, I like how the characters actually look and act like toys, with each character being limited by their unique joints and construction. They’re not simply miniature people. Also, this movie places more of an emphasis on the imagination of the child playing with said toys and the character of that child (Andy loves his toys while Sid tortures his toys), which is very different from other living toy stories. It’s able to reinvent what could otherwise been quite cliche.
The Characters: 10/10
Buzz and Woody are such layered, wonderful characters. Both have flaws and both have virtues, and by the end of the movie, you feel like you’ve always known them. The fact that Pixar took issues that only a toy would deal with and make us care so much about them is impressive. The side characters are all colorful and fun. I especially like Mister Potato Head. He’s not really a villain…but he kind of is at times…but we like him. Plus, his removable facial features are the source of many a hilarious gag that are still funny even though I’ve seen this movie a million times. Sid’s the only real “villain,” but the main source of conflict is Woody overcoming his jealously, which is a much more powerful driving force.
The Story: 7/10
The buddy comedy trope of two characters who hate each other but become friends while enduring trials together is as old as the hills. Even though it’s incredibly cliche, it’s well written and briskly paced so that we don’t even really notice that the story itself is quite predictable. The world of toys that is created is so fun that we enjoy how Woody and Buzz get home rather than wonder if they will.
The Humor: 10/10
This movie still makes me laugh out loud. The layers of sight gags, puns, and double entendres (“What’s with him?” “laser envy.”) reward multiple viewings, and I think Tom Hanks is the standout in this category. The scene where everyone is oohing and aahing over Buzz, and Woody is having a temper tantrum is just wonderful (“he’s not a Space RangERRRR!”). The script is whip-sharp and not at all dumbed down for little kids.
The Heart: 8/10
Unlike later Pixar films, this one doesn’t take itself quite so seriously, so there aren’t any real tearjerker moments, but the relationship between the toys and Andy is so sincere and relatable that it’s enough to hit anyone right in the childhood. The moment where Buzz realizes he’s not a toy is well done, though a bit melodramatic. The core of the Toy Story series is how much the toys love Andy, and this one really establishes that beautifully
Overall Score: 43 = 86/100
Now onto the next one!
A Bug’s Life (1998)
Overview: Desperate to prove himself to his colony and to find a way to protect them from a horde of bullying grasshoppers, misfit ant Flik (Dave Foley) mistakenly hires a troupe of circus bugs (thinking they’re warriors) to repel the horde which is led by the villainous Hopper (Kevin Spacey), all while trying to win the affections of the tense princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfus).
The Concept: 7/10
1998 was the year of animated movies featuring ants, but I think Pixar’s entry is more fun (Antz is too self-congratulatory and hipster-y for me). I also love how it’s basically a western, paying homage to The Magnificent Seven and others. It’s a blending of genres that have been done to death, but even though it’s unoriginal, it’s fun.
The Characters: 7/10
This is one of those movies where you love the side characters, but don’t care much for the main characters. Flik and Atta are cute, but they feel a bit generic. Hopper is a good villain, but again, he’s a bit of a mustache twirler. I do, however, completely adore the circus troupe. They legitimately feel like a group who has been together for some time, and you just wish there were more scenes of them all standing around riffing off one another. David Hyde Pierce, Denis Leary, Madeline Kahn (one of her last projects before her untimely death), John Ratzenburger, and Bonnie Hunt are especially wonderful. I would gladly have accepted a sequel featuring just these characters.
The Story: 5/10
It’s one we’ve seen before. It’s essentially Three Amigos (which is sort of a spoof on The Magnificent Seven, which is a remake of Seven Samurai). And, the next year, Galaxy Quest would do the same thing. Actors (or circus performers) mistakenly being hired to defend a small country town (or planet, or island) besieged by a gang of villains. We know the story. It’s plotted well and it’s entertaining, but it doesn’t feature the same originality of Pixar’s later projects.
The Humor: 8/10
When it’s funny, it’s very funny. Like I said, I loooove the circus troupe and they feature in some of the most hysterical scenes, including the giggle-inducing Flaming Death sequence. I also need to give a nod to the “outtakes” from the end credits which still make me laugh out loud (though the DVD release has all the outtakes as a special feature, only including a few in the end credits…so that’s sad).
The Heart: 5/10
The central conflicts of the characters (fitting in and finding a purpose) are great, but this is more of a “fun” movie than a “deep” movie. The message is a bit trite and the character’s arcs are fairly predictable. Compared to later Pixar projects, this one is much simpler and clearly aimed at much younger audiences.
Overall Score: 32 = 64/100
Toy Story 2 (1999)
Overview: After Woody is stolen by a greedy toy collector (Wayne Knight), it’s up to Buzz Lightyear and pals to rescue him. Little does Woody know, he’s a collector’s item, a piece of memorabilia for a vintage children’s show that went off the air in the 50’s. After being reunited with his fellow “Woody’s Roundup” toys (Kelsey Grammar and Joan Cusack), he must decide which family he feels more at home with.
The Concept: 9/10
The central issue of toys as toys vs toys as collector items to be displayed is wonderful. I like how the promise of immortality is genuinely tempting to Woody, but his love for Andy and his friends wins out. I do like the idea that, while Al treats his toys with extreme care, he’s just as bad as Sid because he’s not using the toys for what they were actually designed: to be played with.
The Characters: 10/10
Now that the Buzz/Woody bromance is well-established, the writers could have been a bit more lazy with the characters, but they really did a beautiful job showing how devoted the two of them are to each other. And the new characters, especially Jessie, are just marvelous. Jessie’s backstory and her resultant mistrust of children and fear of rejection really makes her the emotional core of the movie. I also love Kelsey Grammar in a villainous role. He’s a layered villain and, even though he’s pretty focused on one goal and one goal only, you do understand a lot of his angst. I also must express my undying love for Mrs. Potato Head. She’s just marvelous.
The Story: 8/10
This one uses another common template, the “rescue the kidnapped friend” trope, but they really do a marvelous job, especially when Woody’s own indecision and temporary loss of faith in Andy factor into the main conflict. This one is much bigger and moves much faster than the original movie, and it’s paced really well. I also love Buzz’s side plot, encountering another like himself and basically playing the Woody role to this new Buzz.
The Humor: 7/10
This one takes a while to get into its comedic groove. After the delightful Buzz Lightyear prologue, it starts out a bit darker with Woody getting damaged, shelved, and then haunted by dreams of being discarded. After that, he’s kidnapped and there aren’t many comedic opportunities until Buzz leads his friends into the toy store. I adore the scene beforehand where they’re crossing the street in traffic cones and cause a horrific pileup in the process. The rest of the film’s humor comes from a number of film homages. It’s certainly funny, but not as quotable as the first Toy Story.
The Heart: 10/10
This one’s more serious tone allows it to get into some more complex emotions. As I mentioned before, Jessie really is the movie’s core. Although both she and Stinky Pete are angry at being rejected, she actually wants to be a toy and find a girl like the one who rejected her once she grew up, even though she mistrusts kids. Also, I think Woody’s main dilemma is well written. He can either live forever, admired and respected or he can take a chance that Andy will play with him for a bit longer. It’s beautiful.
Overall Score: 44 = 88/100
That means that the current standings are as follows:
1. Toy Story 2 (88)
2. Toy Story (86)
3. A Bug’s Life (64)
That’s all for this week, folks! Next week, we’ll be taking a break as I look at Marvel’s Ant-Man, and then Pixar by Numbers will return the following week!