Cowboy or spaceman—which is Andy’s favorite plaything? And how do these secretly alive toys feel about that?
Director: John Lasseter
Best quote: “To infinity…and beyond!”
Defining moment: The elaborate escape from evil Sid’s room, a breathtaking action sequence that put Hollywood’s A-list to shame.
Nothing less than the first shot in what would become a revolution, John Lasseter’s simple tale turned adults into happy children, naysayers into believers, and computer animation into the dominant expression of an entire industry. Pixar’s debut feature is its most beautiful thing, emphasis on thing: The genius idea here was to embrace the stuff of toys—to imbue plastic and cloth with solidity and tactility. Suddenly there was a real weight to billions of bits and bytes, and audiences were enraptured. Naturally, none of this would have worked had there not been a killer script, labored upon for years by a creative team that included Lasseter and future directors Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and The Avengers’ Joss Whedon. The humanity imparted by Tom Hanks as the passed-over Woody can’t be understated: This was a role rich enough to lure the hottest actor in the game. Toy Story speaks to our love of play, and the way we invest our dolls and action figures with the souls of whom we want to become. It makes sense that these toys would keep dreaming even when put away for the night. But the film’s lasting impact is simpler than that: Swinging, bouncing or skidding, toys are alive in our minds. Lasseter’s team bent gravity itself to make that a reality.—Joshua Rothkopf
A superheroic family tries to blend into their quiet suburban lifestyle, but realizes that their skills are nothing to be ashamed of.
Director: Brad Bird
Best quote: “When everyone’s super…no one will be.”
Defining moment: “No capes!” declares Edna Mode, the film’s snooty fashionista, and we see the fates that befell some unlucky caped crusaders.
Firing on all cylinders, Pixar’s first film to earn a PG rating signaled a grabbing of the brass ring: Yes, the studio’s computer animation was peerless, but could it also do marital malaise, middle-aged belly spread and sneakily ambitious philosophy—all of it tucked into spandex? Writer-director Brad Bird commanded a degree of control unprecedented since the days of old Walt himself. Everything was riding on his long-germinating vision of an exceptional family rediscovering its purpose. The plot’s spirit proved infectious, the reviews rapturous. Thematically, the movie’s deepest fear concerns the creeping slump of mediocrity: If greatness lies within us, why can’t we let it out? Maybe it’s because we’re told—in subtle ways—not to shine too brightly and make others feel inadequate. Some pegged the notion as straight out of Ayn Rand (this would have been her favorite movie ever), but the idea was somehow made to feel inclusive via Bird’s humor, panache and narrative clarity. The Incredibles makes us believe in heroes, but more importantly, it reclaims the virtue of heroism itself: a blessing, an ideal, an ambition. And it’s not easy.—Joshua Rothkopf
Pixar was at the height of its powers when it made this Paris-set tale of a rat with immense cooking talent.
Directors: Brad Bird and Jan Pinkava
Best quote: “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy.”
Defining moment: Food critic Anton Ego tastes Remy’s dish and is plunged into memories of his childhood.
Sandwiched in time between Cars and Wall-E, Pixar’s Ratatouille was the third animated feature from codirector Brad Bird, after The Iron Giant and The Incredibles. Perhaps there’s no better example of the boldness of Pixar’s approach to story and character. Ratatouille tells of Remy, a food-obsessed French rat washed down a sewer only to emerge in Paris, where he begins to help an awkward young kitchen worker cook incredible food in a top restaurant. The story is as mature and original as the animation (which, as ever, is groundbreaking without showing off—just look at how they show water and hair). And the Peter O’Toole–voiced character—Anton Ego, the icy food critic thawed by Remy’s cooking—is a total delight. Pixar also proved that originality can sell: The film stormed the box office.—Dave Calhoun
Pixar’s saddest, sweetest, strangest film.
Directors: Pete Docter and Bob Peterson
Best quote: “Adventure is out there!”
Defining moment: An obvious one—the heartbreaking opening sequence tracking Carl and Ellie through their life together.
Even after Ratatouille, even after The Incredibles, even after Wall-E, we weren’t expecting this. Up is Pixar at its most profound and risk-taking, opening with a devastating eight-minute montage of love and loss before proceeding with the tale of a grouchy elderly man who makes the decision to fly his entire house to South America using helium balloons. It was, of course, a massive hit. That three-hankie opening is the sequence most viewers remember, and it is astonishing. But the rest of the movie is just as magnificent, flitting from stoner humor (“I do not like the cone of shame,” a dog woefully says) and soaring 3-D action to genuinely affecting age-gap bonding. The result falls somewhere between Werner Herzog and Winnie the Pooh: a tale of adventure, determination, grief, friendship and talking canines. Squirrel!—Tom Huddleston
It’s an emotional reunion as Pixar gets the old gang back together.
Directors: John Lasseter, with Ash Brannon and Lee Unkrich
Best quote: “You never forget kids like Emily or Andy, but they forget you.”
Defining moment: Jessie’s song, in which the cast-off cowgirl tells of the day her beloved owner left her behind.
It was meant to be a straight-to-DVD project, a way for Disney to squeeze a few more bucks out of an unexpected hit. Then Pixar head honcho John Lasseter got involved, and Toy Story 2 was transformed into that Holy Grail for all franchise seekers, a sequel that enriches—and some would say improves upon—the original. While the first film addressed kid-friendly ideas of friendship and trust, this time the themes are far more grown-up: It’s all about self-worth, beautifully and simply expressed through the concept of “collectability” and what that word means both for the owner and his possessions. The fact that Toy Story 2 is also filled with memorable characters, witty asides, geeky spoofs (the whole “Buzz Lightyear, I am your father” riff is hilarious) and zippy action sequences doesn’t hurt a bit either.—Tom Huddleston
Pixar’s beloved shaggy-fish story hooked the box office.
Director: Andrew Stanton
Best quote: “Just keep swimming.”
Defining moment: Those toothy, Aussie “vegetarian” sharks really are terrifying.
Nowadays we take it as a given that half of the year’s biggest moneymakers are going to be cartoons: Even inferior animated sequels draw the kind of audiences once reserved for Schwarzenegger and Spielberg. Finding Nemo may not have managed to crack the top slot at the box office—it was up against The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King—but its success both at the multiplex and on home video (it’s the biggest seller of all time, apparently) heralded a new age of animated blockbusters. And it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving film, the warmest, most universal of all the Pixar home-run hitters. Particularly notable: Finding Nemo eschews a big-name voice cast in favor of talented character actors like Albert Brooks and Allison Janney, a lesson that too many recent animated films have failed to learn.—Tom Huddleston
Pixar scored a hat trick—in 3-D—with the third film of its signature franchise.
Director: Lee Unkrich
Best quote: “What are you going to do with these old toys?”
Defining moment: When the toys are threatened with a horrific end at the garbage dump.
It took 11 years for Pixar to make a third visit to the playroom. Getting there was a bumpy ride: Development for the final Toy Story film became caught up in the intricacies of the animation studio’s production deal with Disney, and at one point the Mouse House was planning to make the second sequel without Pixar’s involvement. That all changed when Disney bought the studio in 2006, and Pixar took charge of Disney Animation. Much of the original team—including John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich, the latter of whom would now direct Toy Story 3 solo—went back to the drawing board and came up with a narrative that saw Andy, the toys’ owner, about to go to college and the toys escaping the terrible fate of the attic and heading instead to a day-care center—which turns out to not be the paradise they’d hoped for. The mix of energy and emotion was as winning as ever.—Dave Calhoun
Pixar pushes the boundaries (again) with a near-wordless tale of robot romance in a dystopian future.
Director: Andrew Stanton
Best quote: “Computer, define dancing.”
Defining moment: Wall-E’s increasingly frenzied, love-struck attempts to revive his comatose flame are heartbreaking.
Fourteen years in development and costing a reported $180 million, Wall-E was Pixar’s biggest risk since Toy Story. It plays on the traditions of silent cinema to present the politically charged story of a lonely robot cleaning up a devastated, trash-covered Earth and falling in love with the first sentient being he meets. Despite its futuristic setting, nothing feels modern: There are no recognizable characters, no sweeping ballads, no crafty in-jokes. In fact, for the first 45 minutes, there’s no dialogue at all. The result is a delirious dream in film: romantic but technological, funny but sad, smart but goofy, slushy but sharp, familiar but entirely unique. The second half does veer off into more standard fare (cue pratfalls and wisecracks), but for many, that opening act remains perhaps the peak of Pixar’s art.—Tom Huddleston
How the Vikings learned to stop warring and love dragons.
Directors: Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders
Best quote: “It’s only fun if you get a scar out of it.”
Defining moment: Pint-size Viking Hiccup meets Toothless, the not-so-scary Night Fury dragon.
Odin almighty! Here’s a kids’ animated film with wit, charm and one-liners. The story is as old as a Nordic longboat: a coming-of-age yarn about a boy with daddy issues. Our hero is Viking pipsqueak Hiccup, raised in a proud nation of dragon slayers. All Hiccup wants is to please his warrior father, Stoick the Vast (who sums up the macho Viking philosophy nicely: “When I was a kid, my dad told me to bang my head against a rock—and I did it”). Hiccup’s trouble is that he is the geekiest, weediest Viking in the tribe. But (pay attention, kids) since the brain is mightier than brawn, he learns the ways of the dragons. The film climaxes with a spectacular aerial battle sequence. Meanwhile, Hiccup’s little dragon buddy Toothless is the cutest kitten-bat-lizard crossbreed you’re likely ever to see onscreen.—Cath Clarke
Pixar’s purple patch spawns another monster smash.
Director: Pete Docter
Best quote: “There’s nothing more toxic or deadly than a human child.”
Defining moment: The closing credits, as our heroes perform their hastily improvised stage musical “Put That Thing Back Where It Came from or So Help Me.”
For a while, it seemed so simple: Pixar was on such a spectacular roll that even something as wildly inventive and eye-slappingly beautiful as Monsters, Inc. could be regarded as just another link in the chain. Only now, following a string of disappointments (including 2013’s forgettable prequel, Monsters University), do we realize how good we had it. Perhaps more than any other Pixar flick, Monsters, Inc.—particularly in its 3-D version—plays havoc with the possibilities of animation, harking back to the golden age of Looney Tunes for its wild, dimension hopping action sequences and wealth of background gags, cramming the screen with color, life and wit. The characterization is equally noteworthy: Director Pete Docter milks every ounce of humor and pathos from his voiceover frontmen Billy Crystal and John Goodman, and the script is packed with memorable one-liners and fuzzy warmth.—Tom Huddleston