10. "A Bug's Life" (1998)
Borrowing its template from "The Seven Samurai," this adventurous follow-up to the paradigm-shifting "Toy Story" is a widescreen retelling of the grasshopper and the ant fable. Except this time the ant is a neurotic inventor (Dave Foley) and the grasshopper is the leader of a ruthless biker game (Kevin Spacey). When the ant goes away to the big city to recruit warriors to combat the villainous grasshoppers, he ends up hiring a bunch of circus performers (including David Hyde Pierce, Madeline Kahn, Jonathan Harris and Denis Leary). The Pixar team was still relatively small when "A Bug's Life" was completed, and much of the creative team (including director John Lasseter) went straight from "Toy Story" into "A Bug's Life." Not that this kind of fatigue shows. If anything, it makes the movie, with dozens of principle characters and expansive crowd sequences, even more impressive. (Famously, Pixar re-framed the complex crowd sequences for the full frame home video, something that now seems like an incredible waste of time.) "A Bug's Life" is colorful and often quite funny (it introduced the credit sequence "bloopers" that would become a mainstay of Pixar movies for a little while), but lacks emotional resonance. More a dazzling technical achievement than a storytelling tour de force, it none-the-less proved that the computer-animated feature, more adept at crafting geometrically perfect structures, could capture the outdoors in a naturalistic way.
9. "Toy Story 2" (1999)
One of the rare sequels that is just as good as the original, "Toy Story 2" started life as a direct-to-video sequel that the studio was producing on the down low. When John Lasseter and Disney executives saw the quality of the story, they decided it could be a theatrical release, and Lasseter stepped in to massively overhaul the movie in a little over a year, which is unheard of for an animated film, especially a computer animated film (this was still during the technology's infancy). "Toy Story 3" deepened the original film's "mythology" by exploring Woody's origins – as a highly valuable tie-in for a long lost "Howdy Doody"-type television show, and introduced a second Buzz Lightyear (still Tim Allen), who was just as delusional as Buzz was in the first film. The sequel hedged pretty closely to the original from a structural standpoint (with an obsessive toy collector standing in for the abusive kid next door, and an elaborate runway chase replacing the moving van chase from the first film) but offered some nice new flourishes, the best of which being the introduction of the cowgirl Jesse (Joan Cusack) character, whose tragic backstory makes for a moving, Sarah McLachlan-sung musical interlude. Many elements of the sequel, including the fantastical videogame-world opening and the more adult themes of loss and memory, would be expanded upon and perfected in the following film. But at the time, "Toy Story 2" was as close to a peerless follow-up as you could have asked for – visually, thematically, and emotionally rich.
8. "Toy Story" (1995)
The one that started it all, "Toy Story" was the rare combination of technological breakthrough and storytelling prowess. The movie, which we can't forget was not only the first feature-length Pixar movie but also the first entirely computer-generated feature (ever), was based in part on a short film Lasseter had directed called "Tin Toy" that imagined what rich interior lives toys must have when their owners are not around. From that came the creation of Woody (Hanks), a cowboy doll and the favorite toy of Andy… That is until Andy gets a brand new, high tech toy in the form of Buzz Lightyear (Allen) for his birthday. Suddenly Woody feels inadequate and outdated. In a fit of jealousy he tries to shove Buzz out of the picture (quite literally), which leads to him also getting abandoned. The movie, at its heart, is a classic buddy movie in the vein of "48 Hrs" or "Midnight Run," which was quite shocking given that it was released by Disney during the height of their Disney Renaissance period, one that was largely defined by big, Broadway-style musicals (there are songs in "Toy Story" but they're warbled by Randy Newman and played in the background, not the foreground). In a way, "Toy Story" is a metaphor for animation – with Woody representing the traditional, hand-drawn animation that the makers of "Toy Story" grew up on (and still love) and Buzz standing in for the computer animated features that would come to dominate the marketplace. While some of the imagery is overtly simplistic by today's standards, the movie still moves – and from a storytelling standpoint the movie is even more impressive when you think that the filmmakers behind the movie (besides from a few key outside collaborators like Joss Whedon) weren't traditionally trained in film. They were guys who wrote code and developed software. And yet they made one of the most exhilarating animated features of all time, full of characters that will literally live forever.
7. "Finding Nemo" (2003)
At the time of its release, "Finding Nemo" soon became the biggest animated feature of all time (surpassed later by one of the "Shrek" sequels) and it's easy to see why – the tale of a father clown fish named Marlin (Albert Brooks) who loses his son after years of being overtly cautious and super protective – is something that everyone can relate to (even cowboys have daddy issues). And the characters are well drawn, from Marlin's forgetful partner-in-crime Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) to the motley crew of fish that surround Nemo in the dentist's waiting room aquarium (most notably Willem Defoe). There's a reason that there are 'Nemo'-themed attractions at Disney's Animal Kingdom, EPCOT Center, Disney California Adventure, and Disneyland theme parks and a sequel in the works – people love this movie. But upon re-watching it during its recent theatrical 3D conversion, revealed that not all of "Finding Nemo" works. The bisected storyline, split between Marlin's journey and Nemo's imprisonment, often slows down the movie's pace (at times it nearly crawls); the Marlin/Dory dynamic was too familiar at the time, when it seemed like every Pixar movie was going to be a variation of a buddy movie; and the movie's extra climax, wherein Nemo gets caught in a net (again) and has to convince the similarly captured fish to swim to the bottom of the ocean so that they could all escape, is both tedious and thematically redundant. We get it. Let's move on. Still, "Finding Nemo" has an undeniable powerful, one that can speak to anyone, really. It's also a singularly beautiful Pixar movie too, with the naturalistic style that they pioneered for "A Bug's Life" plunged under the ocean, with relatively few stylistic flourishes (comparatively, "Finding Nemo" was a low-budget movie because they blew so much R&D money on "Monsters Inc."). It's just that, like Dory, it's easy to forget some of the film's problems because it's so easy to praise the work as a whole.
6. "Monsters, Inc." (2001)
Pixar had some experience in world building by the time "Monsters, Inc." rolled around in 2001, but the worlds they had constructed where microcosmic and very much a part of our own reality. With "Monsters, Inc." they crafted an entirely separate universe, one in which monsters cultivate the screams of children to power their own modern cities, using a system of magical doors. It's an ingenious concept and one that relates to our own childhood fears of the monster in the closet (who turns out is just an employee at what amounts to a large energy corporation). There's a kind of frazzled inventiveness to every frame of "Monsters, Inc.," from the design of the characters (like the one-eyed Mike and the blue, furry Sulley) to the system of doors, which really pays off in a jaw-dropping climax where our heroes and villains ride the doors through the labyrinthine back channels of the corporation. It's also a sly take on our ongoing energy crisis and a loving homage to the monster movies of yore (a popular restaurant in the monster-y universe is Harryhausen's, named after the great, recently departed effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen). But the real reason "Monsters, Inc." works so well is the emotional connection forged between the tiny human who is unleashed in the monster world (who they nickname Boo) and Sulley, a giant, fearsome monster whose job it is to scare little kids just like Boo. The way their relationship develops, mostly wordlessly, is a testament to the confident storytelling prowess of the studio. The way the movie ends is probably one of the most powerful moments the studio has ever crafted, one that is delicate and unforced. The simplicity and emotional power of "Monsters, Inc." is what made a sequel seem (for a while at least) inconceivable. But with a world as large and immersive as the one created for "Monsters, Inc.," there are undoubtedly many, many different stories to tell.