Writer's Note: This is my fourth annual countdown of Pixar's library. I conduct this not-so-scientific venture after the release of each new movie the film house puts out. I review the new release in full, and place it among the rest of the Pixar fleet. But I also update my rankings from the previous year. Listed next to each film is a number in parentheses which indicates how high or low the film has fallen since my previous rankings. A (o) means the film has not moved. The reviews for Up, Ratatouille and Toy Story 3 are written by PopTometry film buff Dave Beauchene.
Imagine seeing your favorite pet get maliciously run over by a semi truck in slow motion. You can do nothing to stop it. You're helpless as you watch something so precious to you get taken away in such a violent fashion. That bastard semi driver doesn't even stop. He simply barrels over your choice of pet as he tears into another bite of beef jerky and turns up the volume on "Hotel California" because it's "the best part of the solo, man!"
That scenario is exactly how I felt watching Cars 2 for the first time last summer. A life-long Pixar enthusiast who saw Toy Story in theaters as a little boy and can remember genuinely feeling a sense of wonderment and newness, and who had grown up on the rest of Pixar's films (all virtually stellar), I wold suddenly have to hear two words I had before associated with Pixar.
"I love all of Pixar's films."
"Yeah, but... Cars 2 was kind of lame."
And they're always going to be right. I've seen Cars 2 four times now, each viewing spent digging, searching, hoping against hope that it will grow on me, and every time it's always disappointing. I felt like I had spent the previous year of anticipation (baited anticipation, but anticipation nonetheless) in vain. The movie's run at the box office wasn't even over before I had moved on to Pixar's next project - this year's Brave.
I had known about the film's development issues, with former director Brenda Chapman (The Prince of Egypt) being replaced by Mark Andrews (who directed the short "One Man Band"), and when Reese Witherspoon was initially supposed to voice Merida, the film's red-haired heroine with a knack for archery, but dropped out because of a "scheduling conflict."
I smelled something fishy, but was optimistic given Pixar's almost impeccable history (yeah, but). The ship would be properly righted, and Brave would be a glorious return to past successes.
What begins as something that feels sweepingly epic, the film gradually withers down to something that feels smaller, more contained and ultimately less satisfying than it should be. In the film's opening sequences we're introduced to Merida, her family, including her overbearing mother Queen Elinor, and are taken on splendid tour of the Scottish countryside. The scale is Pixar's grandest since Finding Nemo. But as Brave chugs along, its size eventually feels more reduced. What once felt like an entire world to roam in, becomes simply a castle and a few patches of grass in the forest.
And so goes the rest of the film, big being withered to small. The relationship between Merida, who is fiercely independent, and free spirited, and her mother, who is everything Merida is not, quickly becomes too conventional. Merida's little brothers, a rambunctious pack of triplets, are simply inserted for comic relief and serve no purpose but to make very small children laugh. The villain (villains?) is (are?) never developed enough to be intimidating, and the middle portion of the film sags from skimpy writing and an execution of the film's story line that is complacent to be just "good enough."
Roger Ebert said it best in his review. Brave feels like a Disney movie, not one made by Pixar. It has the vibe of a Tangled as opposed to Up or Toy Story 3. Everything about the film is on the surface - including the animation which rivals Pixar's most recent works in terms of quality. I just wish the story matched the animation's level of sophisticatoin
Still, Brave is the improvement over Cars 2 it should have been, but not the complete film it deserves to be.
Pixar Power Rankings
1) Up - 2009 (+2)
1) Up - 2009 (+2)
It is a profoundly special movie that can claim sequences of universal effect. It is very hard to imagine, for example, anyone watching the first 10 minutes of Up with fleeting attention; the sequence is, as I believe gravity holds me down, an absolute masterpiece. And it's easy to see the film that follows as a lighter, less resonant affair, almost detached from its introduction. But that is the brilliant composition of Up: it fills the majority of its running time with the secondary narrative. The adventure, in its relatively short sighted urgency, plays to support the bookends of the film that convey the primary narrative: the nature of life and adventure itself. The point is not that Carl and Russel (and Dug) escape Muntz, but what that time together means. As Russel transcendantly puts it, “I liked that curb...”
Wall-E so easily accomplishes something that must have been so hard to conceptualize and achieve; get people to invest themselves in a love story between two robots who can only make clicks and beeps at each other. Perhaps Pixar's most unconventional film to date, Wall-E's pro-environmentalism and not-so-subtle message on the perils of consumerism may have turned off a few viewers. But what I get out of the film is the power of even the simplest kind of love - holding hands. Something the emotionally detached humans in the film rediscover. It's not new age hippie jargon or bullshit. It's relevant. Simply relevant.
3) Toy Story - 1995 (-1)
I've seen this movie more than any other throughout my lifetime. I still have hefty chunks of the film memorized like some reverend recite the scripture. At this point, there isn't anything else new or insightful to say about Toy Story. Chances are you've seen it just as many times as I have and have your own stories to tell about it. Insert whatever meaning you find in this film here.
4) Toy Story 3 - 2010 (+2)
Toy Story 3 goes so much lighter on its audience than it seems to, dedicating the vast majority of its running time to the adventure at hand, even as the story's sad angles very clearly work their way into view. It really generates one hell of a piece of entertainment, regardless of its grander implications, which Up sometimes lacked. The characters are hilarious and true, the plot balances suspense, heart, action and hilarity deftly, and leaves it until the absolute end to demolish you sentimentally. As I get older, I appreciate this sparring indulgence of the serious stuff until it's absolutely right, and for no longer than necessary, both as an audience member, and a person. Moments of the heart are, in actuality, fairly fleeting, and the trick is to know them when they come. The ending of Toy Story 3 is undeniable. The dance sequence that follows over the credits, that was just fun.
This under the sea adventure marked the moment when Pixar took their A Game from stellar, to unstoppable. Still their most stunning techinical achievment to date, Nemo keeps you laughing with it's cuteness, but it keeps you watching for its incredible visuals. Need a reminder? Just watch the first 15 minutes and tell me your still not mesmerized. I dare you.
A witty twist on the superhero genre, as well as a funny skewer of the age old trappings of suburbia, The Incredibles is one of the easiest Pixar films to enjoy. Its two hour running time may be a bit much for all of the exposition to be found in the film, but Incredbles benefits from its perfect balance of action, drama and humor. The film also sports one of Pixar's best villains to date, as well as a wise casting of one Samuel L. Jackson.
7) Ratatouille - 2007 (0)
I think people go a little too crazy for Brad Bird's Pixar flicks. A lot like The Incredibles, Ratoutuille is , in the grand scheme of movies, fantastic. It's also a little too self gratified about the food thing (I know that's what the movie is about, food is such an irreverent love affair, though, isn't it? Ultimately?) and doesn't convey the profundities its stellar reviews might suggest. And though I often love Patton Oswalt's standup, his voice doesn't fit Remy for me. But. But, but, but, but never the less, this is one of the easiest Pixar films to enjoy, at any time, to any degree of attention. It is, of course, unbelievable to look at, and filled with unreasonably pleasant French music, but in the end there's a just soundness to it all. While less amazing than heralded, it is some kind of small masterpiece in lush competence.
8) Monsters Inc. - 2001 (0)
The older I got, the more I simply found Monsters Inc. to be too cute for its own good. And while cute is O.K., I crave more than just "cute" from Pixar. It took a recent review of the film to remind me just how clever, and funny, this story was. But you know what I'll never forget? How the film's tale of laughter and friendship over evil and fear was the right message at the right time just three months after the events of 9/11.
Intended to be a straight to DVD release, Disney knew a good thing when they saw it and decided to give Toy Story 2 the theatrical treatment. Though not as fresh as the first, nor as endearing as the third, the second films continues the legacy by telling us more of who Woody is, introducing new characters, and clever useage of a Sarah Mclachlan montage... wait.
10) Brave - 2012 (N/A)
What begins as something that feels sweepingly epic, gradually withers down to something that feels smaller, more contained and ultimately less satisfying than it should be. There is plenty about "Brave" that feels rushed, flawed and skimpy, but I won't lie and tell you that the film's ending didn't genuinely move me or charm me throughout its running time. The improvement over "Cars 2" it should have been, but still the film it shouldn't be.
11) A Bug's Life - 1998 (-1)
12) Cars - 2006 (-1)
Always have, and always will, call this tale of ants and grasshoppers Pixar's lost film. It's a shame too seeing as how A Bug's Life ranks as one of Pixar's funniest movies. However, the laughs can't disguise the less sophisticated story telling. Oh well, I guess this is what happens when you're sandwhiched between the first two Toy Story films.
Often times seen as the weakest link in Pixar's excellent cannon of films (until the dreaded sequel) Cars has modestly grown on me over repeated viewings. It has plenty of small-time charm and enough chuckle-worthy gags to win you over, only to waste it all on "Git-R-Dun" dialog and a useless montage featuring a James Taylor song. It's a mixed bag yes, but understandably disappointing coming from the same people who have made more superior films like Up.
13) Cars 2 - 2011 (-1)
Different story lines compete for attention, and yet never once seem to be fully resolved. There are more race scenes compared to the first film, but they take a back seat to Mater's stupid, and repetitive gags. The alternative fuel story line is too preachy, and the secret villain is too obvious to spot. Somewhere beneath all the grime is a modest movie at the best, but somehow, and I still don't know how exactly, Pixar has done what they were never supposed to do... make a bad movie. Cars 2will stay in the basement for a long time.