Words: J. Wood
I sit here writing this article on the day that Toy Story reaches the 20th anniversary of its premiere, feeling very old, so I’ll just let that sink in. In the two decades since that momentous beginning Pixar has become synonymous with excellence, magic and wonder as the finest purveyor of animated cinema anywhere in the world. Pixar so often pushes the boundaries, and we as a collective cinema going public should be so pleased that they do. When you look at a Pixar Top Five that does not include films as brilliant as Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc. and Ratatouille you get an idea of how great a back catalogue they have, and how difficult this list was for me to narrow down to just five films (more on that later). In anticipation of The Good Dinosaur, the studio’s latest release, which hits cinemas next week, here are my favourite Pixar movies.
5: Wall-E (2008)
Owing a great debt to the science fiction films of the 1970s that I so love, Wall-E for me marked the first time Pixar made a film that was probably more suited to adult audiences than children, albeit remaining in the parameters of the U Certificate. It is a film of two halves, the first a near silent love story between two robots on a desolate, post-apocalyptic Earth, and the second a more slapstick comedy set aboard off world colony ships. I have often thought that Wall-E never quite got the credit or respect it deserved. If a live action film had been made of the script for the first thirty minutes at least, I would have expected to see it win numerous awards, yet this animation feels somewhat forgotten. I am not quite sure about the off-world sequences; they are brilliant, yet coming off the back of the stellar opening movement they just feel lightyears away from the film I had until two minutes earlier been watching, a not insurmountable problem but a tonal shift I struggle to adjust to. That aside the design team here did simply wonderful work on the post-apocalyptic landscape, and indeed on Wall-E himself, a beautifully cute piece of design that helps you warm to an otherwise alien story somewhat. Ben Burtt’s sound work is often praised, and here should be no exception, as it is his great skills used to add personality to Wall-E and Eve that elevate the film to a higher plain.
4: The Incredibles (2004)
I am a comic book reader. I am a huge superhero fan. I totally lap up any and all press regarding superhero comic book movies, and yet with the exception of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy I would class The Incredibles as the finest superhero comic book movie of last decade. It may not have the serious, awards friendly implications of much of Pixar’s more lauded output (of which more later) yet it shows off the studio as a fantastic animation studio. Making fun, fast paced, cinematic films that are written as sharp as a tack, and extremely funny at the same time. I do like the almost Watchmen like premise of superheroes retired, living normal, mundane family lives despite having incredible powers, and even the children heroes, often such an annoying idea, work a treat here. With the exception of Samuel L. Jackson the film never felt the need to use big name Hollywood stars, and still proved to be a wonderful piece of cinema. Rewatching it again only recently I was struck by how much of it now appears to be a cliché, simply because so many films of the superhero genre follow a similar narrative route, yet how this film somehow managed to pre-emptively satirise much of this. Highlights include Jason Lee’s hilarious Syndrome, a villain who simply blows more modern, sub-par interpretations out of the water, and Edna Mode, outfitter to the heroes. Brad Bird, a great director of live action cinema, will be returning for The Incredibles 2, something to genuinely look forward to.
3: Inside Out (2015)
Pixar has employed some great directors throughout its twenty years of feature film production, but this summer Pete Docter proved once and for all that he is the cream of the crop, a man who quite happily takes the naturally daring attitude of the studio and amplifies it to unexpected levels. Inside Out is a film that seems to me to be aimed squarely at adults, with the bright, shiny characters seemingly a concession to the children. On a design level alone this film simply knocked me for six with its breath taking interpretation of the human brain as a world with banks and banks of Minority Report style memory balls, vast canyons of forgotten memories, and a whole industry backing up the internal workings of an eleven year old girl. To make the main characters the five key emotions of said girl was brave, bold and a total success, written in such a way as to have scenes of the girl in the real world as explanatory moments as to what effects the main characters actions are having upon her, as Sadness and Joy tussle and get lost, causing an emotion vacuum leading to an animated child character displaying symptoms of depression. In a family animation. The film never forgets to be funny, but also at the same time remembers that fear factor is also something worth thinking about in children’s cinema. The main cast all expertly encapsulate rigid character archetypes with aplomb and although even I do feel that some of the concepts introduced (abstract thought) veer a bit too much into philosophy, and the idea of going into other people’s minds is underused, missing a trick, this is a truly special film and a fine return to top form for an amazing studio.
2: Toy Story / Toy Story 2 / Toy Story 3
OK so I cheated a bit here but I’m sure you will forgive me. As you know I often try to avoid putting multiple films from the same franchise, or actor/director collaborations into these lists, but being asked to choose between the Toy Story films is tantamount to being asked to choose between your children. Each of them are special in their own particular way and, although they have a wide appeal to people of all ages, I find that they resonate most with children the same age as Andy is in that particular film. The first film is a life lesson in sharing, maybe acclimatising to getting a younger sibling and no longer being the centre of your parents’ attention. Toy Story 2 shows that there is a wider world out there to be explored, not feared, yet never losing sight of home while Toy Story 3 (my personal favourite) is all about letting go of childhood but still fully embracing the joys it gave you. Each of them is full to the brim with their own merits, be it the surprisingly horror inflected bedroom of Sid in the original, the Star Wars inspired joys of Emperor Zurg in the second and the heartbreakingly beautiful scene in the recycling compactor in Toy Story 3. Woody and Buzz are simply the two greatest animated characters ever and, in Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, are brought to life just perfectly. The wide ranging supporting cast are so cleverly written that there is nary a moment goes by throughout the trilogy without a laugh, and the sight gags are at times breathtakingly brazen. Each film is given the perfect antagonist(s) to aid the story, and if I ever were to have children these would be the first films I would show to them. I do have trepidation regarding the upcoming Toy Story 4 simply because the trilogy ended on such a perfect note, yet these three films are so brilliantly made that I have upmost faith in the film makers, and come on, who wouldn’t want to spend more time in the company of Woody, Buzz et al?
1: Up (2009)
My very favourite animated film of all time, Up is yet another symbol of just how brave a studio Pixar can be and just how great a fit director Pete Docter is for the studio. Up is an emotional rollercoaster of a film, one that breaks you with the bravura opening montage and spends the rest of the film putting you back together. Ostensibly the film is sold as an adventure film about a cantankerous old man who flies his house with a bunch of balloons to a magical land of talking dogs and brightly coloured birds, with a young Boy Scout accidentally in tow. What the film is actually about are the themes of overcoming loss and not letting life end for you, and how to handle rejection from someone who ought to be vital to your life. Both Carl and Russell have had hard deals in life. Carl’s story opens the film, with that astounding montage which depicts his whole life with his wife, taking in the devastation of being childless before heartbreakingly widowing him. This is after ten minutes. Russell is a little less obvious but he has clearly come from a broken home, and is in need of a father figure. Their bond is what makes the film, as both characters are perfect for one another, it just takes Carl almost the whole film to realise this. In some respects I understand why some claim the film’s action adventure heavy second half undermines the emotional intensity of the film’s message but I disagree, I believe it underlines it. Put simply, Russell has never been taught how to properly live life, whilst Carl has been unable to bear living life without his beloved Ellie, yet their shared experience jolts them into a life they either did not know or had left behind. The Charles Muntz character may not be the most interesting Pixar villain but he more than serves his purpose, whilst the talking dogs are scene-stealingly hilarious. Up is a film I could talk about for hours, a film that brings tears of sadness and easily replaces them with tears of laughter. It is one of the great films of the century thus far, and will long remain so.