5. "Toy Story 3" (2010)
Pixar is utterly fearless. Still. Consider "Toy Story 3": it was the second sequel to the beloved original and (at the time) considered by many to be the conclusion of the "Toy Story" saga as a whole. They could have lathered on the fan service, kicked back with a predictable plot that saw all the old characters falling back into their familiar roles, and watched the hundreds-of-millions come pouring in. But instead, director Lee Unkrich and screenwriter Michael Arndt, decided to flip the formula on its head. Instead of having Andy suspended in perpetual childhood, they had him age in the years in between the films, so that now he was going away to college and putting his playthings behind him. This caused the toys to show a different side of themselves – petty, jealous, self-pitying (basically all the things Woody was in the first movie) as they dealt with the inevitable. Instead of having them remain at the house to ponder their fate, the creative team had them imprisoned at a ghoulish daycare center ruled by a ruthless teddy bear named Lotso (Ned Beatty). The previous films had been defined by a kind of unerring cheeriness, no matter the danger, while "Toy Story 3" developed an almost film noir-y sense of lighting and color and took on the tone and structure of a prison escape film, laced with elements of old horror movies. Thematically, it was concerned only with death, as the characters faced an eternity decomposing in some landfill (or incinerated, as a powerful last act sequence dramatizes, complete with Holocaust imagery) or, as Lotso proposes, being stuck in the day care where new kids can play with you every year, which can either be read as an allegory for purgatory or an elaborate investigation of reincarnation. Pretty heady shit for a movie where one of the main characters is a Slinky dog. The final moments of the film, which saw Andy pass off his beloved toys (and our beloved characters) to a new family, is some of the most deeply touching and profoundly moving. Walking out of the first screening, everyone sheepishly kept on their 3D glasses, all the better to hide the tears.
4. "WALL-E" (2008)
Beloved by critics (A.O. Scott called it his favorite film of the decade) and derided by right wing pundits (who claimed that its touchy-feely environmentalist message was harmful to kids), "WALL-E" is a boldly experimental movie that doesn't quite stick the landing but none the less feels like an out-there art house joint more than a hugely budgeted Hollywood kids' movie. Consider the movie's almost completely wordless first half, where a junky little droid named WALL-E (those of you playing at home might remember that WALL-E stands for Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class) still cleans a completely deserted, garbage-covered planet earth hundreds of years after the last human lived there and at least that long since the last robot stopped working. The reason WALL-E has survived is that he has developed a personality: he forages through the wreckage for knickknacks that he brings back to his home and he has a pet cockroach that he cares for. When a spaceship lands in the wasteland and a sleek new robot named EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), WALL-E becomes smitten. When she discovers that he has a living plant amongst his souvenirs, she's recalled back to a floating cruise ship called the Axiom, which is bursting with robotic life but where humans have devolved into gelatinous blobs. While on the Axiom, WALL-E uncovers a conspiracy and "reboots" humanity. He also falls in love. There are moments of pure transcendence in "WALL-E," like the space dance that he and EVE go on outside of the Axiom, and the movie is probably the hardest, in terms of satire, of all the Pixar movies (co-writer Jim Reardon was a "Simpsons" bigwig for many years and in a lot of ways the movie feels like a really expensive episode of "Futurama"). It's also incredibly strange: from the wordless first half to the fact that this is a movie in which real life actors appear alongside their CGI counterparts (mostly by Fred Willard as the head of the Buy-N-Large corporation) to all the "Hello Dolly" references and the general bleakness in terms of tone, this is a ballsy, gonzo movie. The story, however, could have still used some tightening (if this super old robotic conspiracy to keep people from earth was in effect why send EVE down there at all?), the fact that they were so hell bent on assigning binary gender characteristics to sexless robots seems foolhardy and it goes without saying that the wordless first half makes the chaotic second half less powerful.
3. "Up" (2009)
In many ways "Up" is just as weird (if not weirder) than "WALL-E," but with a more controlled story and covered in a layer of sweet surrealism. In "Up" an old man named Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner) is still reeling from the death of the love of his life, Ellie. They had both been drawn together by a longing for adventure, but life often got in the way of their plans – specifically to visit a waterfall in the South American jungle. After Carl assaults a construction worker, he's forced to evacuate the home he made with Ellie and move into an old folks home. Instead, he ties a gazillion balloons to his home and charts a course for South America. He'll still get to that waterfall if it's the last thing he does. Of course, to complicate matters, there's a stowaway on this adventure – a Wilderness Explorer named Russell (Jordan Nagai) who was trying to score his "assisting the elderly" badge and got much, much more than he bargained for. While in the jungle, Carl and Russell meet up with a talking dog named Dug (co-director Bob Peterson) and an exotic bird named Kevin. Carl also meets his long lost idol, a disgraced adventurer named Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). The entire plot is gleefully bizarre but somehow all of the different strands make sense both independently and when they're threaded together. "Up" will probably be best remembered for the wordless, four-minute "married life" prologue that gracefully tells the story of Carl and Ellie's life together, down to its bittersweet ending. It's not only the movie's greatest triumph but it's one of the defining moments in animation from the last couple of decades (it is also scored, beautifully, by Michael Giacchino). Early prognosticators said that the film's chances for commercial success were dim (toy makers wouldn't even license the property), but it ended up being a smash both critically and financially, and became only the second animated movie in the history of the Academy Awards to be nominated for Best Picture (the first was "Beauty & the Beast"). Instead of a liability, its strangeness ended up being an asset. Like Kevin, there's an elusive wonder to "Up" that is hard to pinpoint or put into words. Adventure is out there. It's in here too.
2. "Ratatouille" (2007)
For a while it looked like "Ratatouille" was doomed: its original director, Jan Pinkava, was fired from production a little more than a year before the movie was scheduled to hit theaters and it was carrying with it extra importance, since it was going to be the first film released outside of its distribution pact with Disney (which explains its international setting). Then the movie was assigned to Brad Bird, who radically overhauled the story, recast the characters, and made it into something of a new classic. The story of Remy (Patton Oswalt), a rat who longs to be a chef, is poignant and odd. When Remy befriends a hapless cook Linguini (Lou Romano), he figures out that, by hiding underneath his hat and tugging on his hair, he can control the human and turn him into the culinary sensation he only dreams of becoming, it echoes old Disney movies of yore. But there's so much else going on in "Ratatouille." On one hand it's a sharp critique of the way the Disney company was being run at the time, with an evil elder cook (Ian Holm) disgracing the restaurants name by churning out a series of frozen dinners (stand-ins for Disney's direct-to-video sequels of classics like "Cinderella"), on another it's a deeply felt examination of what it's like to follow your own destiny, even if that destiny is very different than the one your family or countrymen think is right for you. There's an odd couple element of the mismatched buddy movie in the friendship between Remy and Linguini. And maybe most profoundly it's an exploration of the importance of criticism and art, lovingly summed up in a monologue by Aton Ego (Peter O'Toole), a villainous critic who has his heart melted by the confections of Remy and Linguini. There is so much going on, thematically, that you think the story itself might get lost, but under the tight control of Bird it steamrolls along, heading to an unforgettable climax involving a whole squadron of rats in the kitchen, something both revolting and hopelessly cute. You can't help but be in awe of "Ratatouille."
1. "The Incredibles" (2004)
When "The Incredibles" was released, it felt like a revelation, like a genuinely groundbreaking moment from a studio that had literally reinvented the animated feature at least once before. It was a first in a lot of ways: the first movie of theirs to have humans be the central characters (instead of bugs or monsters or toys); the first movie to be rated PG (because of its action and implied sexuality – that's right, implied sexuality); the first movie to be scored by Michael Giacchino (who would go on to become a Pixar power player); the first movie to flirt with the 2-hour mark (115 minutes); along with a number of esoteric technical innovations (skin, clothing, and physics engines that scatter light realistically). But all could have all been for naught if the story of "The Incredibles" wasn't so compelling. Ingeniously devised by Brad Bird, who had recently suffered terribly at the hands of Warner Bros Animation, "The Incredibles" is about an over-the-hill superhero Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) forced to relocate to the suburbs and assume a new identity, along with his equally super-powered wife Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) and children, after superheroes have been outlawed. It's while Mr. Incredible is working at a soul-deadening insurance company that he's approached by a mysterious woman to carry out a series of tasks that only he can accomplish, on a secret jungle island. Suddenly, he's back in the game. He feels better about himself, walks with a spring in his step, and romances the wife again, which of course leads her to suspect that an affair is a part of this midlife crisis he seems to be going through. Instead, it's much more dangerous than that, and soon the entire family is in jeopardy. Metaphorically, "The Incredibles" is brilliant, with each family member getting the over-sized abilities of what is demanded of them at home (the dad has to be strong, so Mr. Incredible can lift train cars, the mother has to be in a million places at once so she can stretch, the awkward teenage daughter comes invisible, etc.) and stylistically it's still Pixar's strongest effort, with a design aesthetic that combines sixties sleekness with James Bond-ian gadgetry; it's both futuristic and timeless. Countless comic books and characters are referenced in "The Incredibles" – everything from Will Eisner's "The Spirit" and Alan Moore's "Watchmen" (both of which had yet to be adapted for the big screen at the time), and Bird builds action sequences the way that Robert Zemeckis does, with a series of escalating obstacles that never once decreases on the throttle. Bird doesn't shy away from violence (a little kid seemingly murders countless goons) or sex (the affair analogy, and some well-placed double entendres) and adds at least one amazing addition to the mythology of superheroes: Edna Mode (played by Bird himself), the costume designer to superheroes. "The Incredibles" is often so full of exuberant life that it threatens to burst at the seams. Thankfully, like one of Edna Mode's suits, it all stays together. The result is an unparalleled masterpiece and the very best Pixar movie.
Of course, we would be remiss if we didn't mention the amazing short films that almost always accompany the features (many of which are now completed by Pixar's brilliant Canadian campus), the latest of which, "The Blue Umbrella," features a nifty score by Jon Brion and is attached to "Monsters University." That would require a whole separate list. Also, if we had more time we would have included "John Carter" somewhere in here. The movie was developed, designed, and edited at Pixar by "Finding Nemo" and "WALL-E" director Andrew Stanton and "Brave" co-director Mark Andrews. And for a while at least "John Carter" was being branded as "Pixar's first live action movie" (until John Lasseter got squeamish). There's also "Buzz Lightyear of Star Command: The Adventure Begins," a kind of feature-length pilot for a traditionally animated Buzz Lightyear TV show that Pixar co-produced and did the opening animation for.