By Drew Taylor | The Playlist June 19, 2013 at 2:50PM
This weekend Pixar's latest digital marvel, "Monsters University," roars into theaters (you can read our review here). Few studios can claim the kind of quality that Pixar often does – for a while there it was the most critically and commercially adored studio in the history of cinema (though they are not without their faults; read our controversial The 5 Worst Things About Pixar feature). And for good reason. It seemed like year after year they would commit a new classic, an endlessly re-watchable delight full of characters that will be beloved by children the world over for decades to come. In fact, the amount of excellence made ranking the films a blurry and burdensome proposition. But in hindsight (and after a couple of shoddy 3D conversions), it becomes clearer which movies are truly more special than others. This is what we've attempted to do, with our worst-to-best Pixar retrospective.
It goes without saying that some of these rankings represent a fractional superiority of one over the other and that this list was really hard to make and arrange. It also goes without saying that it will undoubtedly piss a lot of people off, so we encourage you to respond in the comment section below.
14."Cars 2" (2011)
There's a reason that "Cars 2" is the only Pixar movie not to be nominated for the Best Animated Feature Academy Award (since the category's inception). Seemingly fueled more by commercial need than creative necessity, this sequel to the amiable and charming "Cars" totally negates that movie's message that life is only worth living if you slow down once in a while, instead delivering nonstop thrills and dizzying set pieces which are hung loosely inside the garage of a spy movie spoof. Bafflingly, original "Cars" director John Lasseter, who was brought in after initial director Brad Lewis couldn't cut it (during an incredibly difficult period for Lasseter, personally, coinciding with the death of his father), decided to shift the focus of the story away from hotshot race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and instead built the movie around his dimwitted tow truck sidekick Tow Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). Mater finds himself mistaken for a crack secret agent, in a pin-balling plot that involves international espionage and a potentially deadly alternate fuel source. The whole thing is nonstop insanity that never makes much sense, except for the coldly cynical fact that it opens up the "Cars" universe to include boats and planes, ripe for sequels and spin-offs of their own (two "Planes" movies have already been scheduled). It did help inspire one of the studio's towering non-cinematic achievements, though: the Carsland section of the Disney California Adventure theme park.
13. "Cars" (2006)
The low ranking of the first "Cars" suggests that the film, as many have claimed, is downright awful; the first bad Pixar movie. It's not. But the other movies are much, much better and "Cars" (at least at the time) did feel like something of a letdown. Set in a world where anthropomorphic vehicles drive themselves, it stars Owen Wilson as an egotistical racecar who is sidelined in the sleepy town of Radiator Springs, a relic of the Route 66 days, where he's forced to learn humility thanks to his friendship with a junky tow truck (Larry the Cable Guy) and a wizened former racecar turned doctor (real life racing enthusiast Paul Newman, in one of his final performances). Pixar godhead Lasseter said that he wanted to capture some of the soulfulness of his idol Hayao Miyazaki in the more laidback approach to "Cars" and in that aspect he does at least partially succeed. There are a handful of quiet, unrushed moments that rank amongst the very best in the Pixar oeuvre, but oftentimes the two halves of the movie feel diametrically opposed, and when they come together clash violently instead of seamlessly. The racing sequences, though, are truly thrilling and there are a handful of wonderful vocal performances (among them: George Carlin as a hippie VW bus and Michael Keaton as a villainous racecar). While not a blockbuster in its initial release, it did sell an obscene amount of merchandise, which explains the sequel and ongoing spin-offs (ironic since it was the final independently produced Pixar movie before it was swallowed up by Disney). If "Cars" was as smart as it was heartfelt, it'd be one of the classics, instead, it's a cute near miss.
12. "Brave" (2012)
It was supposed to be the one that set things right: after repeated criticisms were (rightfully) leveled against the studio for what many perceived as outright sexism in its feature films, Pixar hired a wonderful female director (Brenda Chapman) and started development on what was known as "The Bear and the Bow." Later, the title was changed to "Brave" and, a little later than that, Chapman was unceremoniously removed from both the film and the studio. (When the movie later won a Best Animated Feature Oscar, she would accept the award with her replacement, Mark Andrews. The amount of pride that must have been swallowed that night...) With Chapman gone, a lot of the movie's moodiness (including its wintertime setting) was swapped for more traditional, what some would claim were more overtly "Disney" moments of sunny cheeriness. The sentiment, that a Princess (played by Kelly Macdonald) can choose her own fate instead of being auctioned off to some loser prince, is a powerful message and the closest any Pixar movie has come to being considered a "feminist" work (there is a feminist angle to another Pixar movie, but, in the words of Mr. Incredible, we'll get there when we get there). The problem is that the movie is clunky, with a narrative that, instead of allowing the princess to really become her own person, saddles her with a burdensome buddy movie scenario wherein her mother (Emma Thompson) is accidentally turned into a bear. She's never actually allowed to be the woman she should become since she's babysitting her bear-mom. It's a drag.
A movie that already feels instantly underrated, this college-set prequel to the beloved "Monsters, Inc." (more on that in a minute) shows us what it was like when Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) weren't the best of pals but were, in fact, mortal enemies. The movie uses "Animal House" and "Midnight Madness" as its template, with the two monsters forced into a loser fraternity (Oozma Kappa) so that they can compete in a series of Greek games. Thematically there's a lot going on, with the movie's principle concern being the fact that, even though you may wish and dream and hope against hope, you might not accomplish what you want to in life. It's kind of an abrasive message for a kids movie, especially one filled with candy-colored monsters that look like fuzzy fanged Muppets. Crystal and Goodman slip back into their roles with ease, and the movie investigates the dynamics of heterosexual male friendship with surprisingly subtlety. Oh, and it's also incredibly funny. Critics have already begun dismissing "Monsters University" as an unequal follow-up, but for bizarre comic inventiveness, it stands comfortably alongside the original. (Where it pales in comparison is in the first film's raw emotionality; although there are a few heart-tugging moments in this one too.) It might not be a sequel that anybody was asking for, but we're sure glad it's here.