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
The Ted Hughes novel came to Hollywood in a studio movie that broke technical and storytelling boundaries—if not box-office records.
Director: Brad Bird
Best quote: “I am not a gun.”
Defining moment: The giant carries Hogarth in his hand, high above the treetops below.
Before directing The Incredibles and Rataouille, animator Brad Bird made his feature debut with this charming, intelligent adaptation of the late 1960s Ted Hughes children’s story The Iron Man. Best known at the time for his work on The Simpsons, Bird moved the tale from Britain to 1950s Maine, lending it distinct Cold War flavor. A young boy, Hogarth (given the surname Hughes in honor of the poet, who died in 1998, a year before the film’s release), discovers a metallic giant in his hometown and fights to protect it from being pulverized by the military—while simultaneously teaching it how to live in peace on earth. The widescreen film has a streak of smart humor as well as a winning, harmonious worldview, and mixes computer animation and more traditional techniques: The CGI was mostly invested in rendering the giant as convincingly as possible, while traditional hand-drawn techniques were reserved for the humans. Visually, the film offers stunning moments without sacrificing a pleasingly old-fashioned air. It wasn’t a success at the box office, although it was hailed as a rare example of a family movie with heart and brains. Thankfully, Pixar gave Bird a chance to fly again.—Dave Calhoun
An idiosyncratic auteur gets animated with this stop-motion take on Roald Dahl’s children’s novel.
Director: Wes Anderson
Best quote: “Redemption? Sure. But in the end, he’s just another dead rat in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant.”
Defining moment: Fox and friends come face-to-face with a mysterious black wolf.
It’s tough being a wild animal. Not that the witty, snappily dressed Mr. Fox (George Clooney) likes to complain about his days making life hell for his human nemeses, farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean (one fat, one short, one lean). It’s in his nature, after all. But when Fox’s wife, Felicity (Meryl Streep), informs him that they have a pup on the way, our vulpine protagonist realizes he has to tame the beast within. Good luck.
There’s nothing docile about Wes Anderson’s first foray into animation. Anderson’s dioramic visuals and pithy plotting translate perfectly to a cartoon world. You’re captivated right from the first gorgeously autumnal shot of Mr. Fox leaning against a tree, an image accompanied, in a very Andersonian touch, by the Wellingtons’ 1954 tune “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.”
As with all of the director’s films, potent emotions underlie the comic-strip surface: Both Fox and his sullen son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), must come to terms with their instinctual ambitions, which tend to clash with their everyday responsibilities. (The heart breaks when Felicity claws her husband’s furry face in frustration at his blithely destructive impulses.) As the foxes find their way of life increasingly threatened, the question arises: How do you use your nature to your advantage? The answers aren’t easy, but it should be clear that Anderson isn’t out to cater to anyone except the audience he knows so well.—Keith Uhlich
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
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
Aardman’s first feature applied their signature style to a tale of farmed chickens trying to break free.
Directors: Peter Lord and Nick Park
Best quote: “All my life flashed before my eyes.… It was really boring.”
Defining moment: When our feathered friends finally fly a homemade mechanical bird over the fence.
Britain’s Aardman Animations had been going since the early 1970s, and had won three Oscars for its short films “Creature Comforts,” “The Wrong Trousers” and “A Close Shave” (the latter two featuring Wallace and Gromit), by the time that the company’s founder, Peter Lord, and his collaborator Nick Park codirected their first feature, Chicken Run, in 2000. A feathery spin on The Great Escape, the film showcased the same clay animation Aardman had employed to bring the much-loved Morph character to life on British TV in the 1970s and ’80s. Only now their budget was bigger, they were working with DreamWorks and Pathé, and the voices included Mel Gibson as an arrogant American chicken among an ensemble of winged prisoners in Yorkshire desperate to escape a vicious farm and its chicken-pie machine. The Aardman style—amusing, down-to-earth, homey dialogue coupled with simple, oversize features—survived the company’s first brush with Hollywood.—Dave Calhoun
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