Last year a first occurred in American cinema going. The animated film, Toy Story 3 came number 1 at the box office. But that wasn’t a first – animated films have been number one quite a few times – going all the way back to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, and more recently Shrek 2 was number 1 in 2004. No, the first was that not only was Toy Story 3 in the top 10 box office, but so too were Despicable Me, Shrek Forever After, How to Train Your Dragon and Tangled.
Half of the top 10 most watched films in North America were animated. It was much the same story worldwide – four in the top ten (and Tangled came 11th).
If you think there have been a few more animated films around of late, you’d be right. Here’s a look at how many animated films have made it in the American top 25 since 1980 (I could do Australia but the US data is freely available so I’ll stick with that, and plus we broadly have the same tastes – though I’ll do a post on that one day perhaps))
As you can see, back in the 1980s there was a bit of a dearth of animated films. Disney had all but shut up shop after 1981’s The Fox and the Hound, and the one film in 1983 and 1987 were re-issues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
In 1989 there was The Little Mermaid, and this was followed in 1991 and 1992 by Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin (Aladdin was the number film in ‘92). But even despite the money and the awards that came with those films, animation still didn’t kick off.
In 1995 an animated film again came number 1 at the box office, but this time it was not a traditional Disney film with a score by Broadway composers or Elton John (like The Lion King which came second in 1994). The film of course was the Pixar computer animated film, Toy Story.
It changed an industry.
Yes it took a while (the development time of such films is pretty lengthy), but by the time its follow up A Bug’s Life came out in 1998, Dreamworks had joined the party with Antz. Then in 2001 came Shrek- and became the first animated film to beat a Pixar film at the box office – Shrek came 3rd, Monsters Inc, 4th), and there was no turning back for Hollywood.
By now the studios had really caught on to the money pit that can be good animated films. Audiences had come to see them as perfect family fare – films kids will love, and films parents not only don’t mind seeing, but also love as well. And then came the flood. From 2003 the rolling 5 year average has gone from two animated films in the top 25 to now over five. Twenty per cent of the most watched films each year are now animated. Since 2001 there has also been a Best Animated Feature category – something that would have been thought absurd only 10 years earlier.
The reason for all this of course is Pixar. Sure Dreamworks have come along to be the Rolling Stones to Pixar’s Beatles, but had not the computer animation and story telling of Toy Story worked, movie studios would still be wondering how they could replicate the popularity of TV shows like The Simpsons on the big screen. The Simpsons of course is also the grandfather of all of this. The smart humour of The Simpsons taught adults to not be embarrassed about watching animation – it was seen as not just Disney schmaltz. And while Aladdin had some of that attitude, it wasn't until Toy Story (and yes, Shrek) that it really caught hold in cinema.
Since 1995 anyone who has dismissed animated films as ‘just for kids’, has missed out on some of the best films of the past 15 years. The number of critics who put Toy Story 3 as their best film of the year – ahead of The Social Network or The King’s Speech – is testimony to this fact. You don’t need to be a kid or even have kids to enjoy Pixar films – in fact given the sophistication involved in their scripts and storytelling, being an adult is an advantage.
All this is a long way round to introduce my ranking of the Pixar films. I could have done a top ten of animated films, but I’ll just stick with Pixar – it’s a tough enough task. So here we go from bottom to top:
Number 11: A Bug’s Life
The film about an ant who saves his colony is nice, but far too kid targeted. The same year, the less popular Dreamworks Antz came out – I prefer that – if only because Dreamworks realised that ants have six legs and not four. The ants in A Bug’s Life were just far too “Disney” for me.
Kevin Spacey as the evil leader of the grasshoppers, “Hopper” and Richard Kind as his brother “Molt” are fun. The work of David Hyde Pierce (of Frasier fame) as the stick insect is also good. But Julia Louise Dreyfus and Dave Foley as the lead voices are pretty bland – much like the film.
Verdict: Ants have six legs not four!!!! Given the attention to detail of later Pixar films this is a travesty really.
Perhaps the most disliked of the Pixar oeuvre. This was the first Pixar film I didn’t bother to see in the cinema – it just sounded stupid. I saw it when visiting some relatives, and my 4 year old daughter at the time just loved it. I mean LOVED IT. Suddenly we had Lighting McQueen merchandise everywhere. And I have to admit the film is not horrible.
It has some nice parts and I do get involved in the story (and the movie-tie in computer game is excellent!). But you can’t get away from the fact that they are talking cars! This is the only Pixar film that exists in a made up reality. Hang on, I hear you say – what about.. well every single other one? Well all the other films are set in the human world – even Monsters Inc is linked to the human world. In Cars there are no humans, never have been, and never will be. This fact for me loses something important. I can imagine the world of Monsters Inc, or even Toy Story, but a world where cars have jobs, go to the toilet and need lawyers? Nup. A sequel out this year. I do not have great expectations.
Paul Newman is perfectly cast as the old racing car “Doc”, and the two Italian cars, Luigi and Guido are good comedic fun.
Verdict: Look nothing is really all that bad, but it’s just a bit… you know... why?
OK, this is obviously a travesty on my part. This film won an Oscar and has some wonderful animation – the character Wall. E was compared to Charlie Chaplin! The thing is, I just find the story boring. So humans have left earth and live on space ships not moving any muscles, and they have machines do everything for them. Well wonderful, but it was a tad laboured. Also none of the humans really connect with me. Wall.E and Eve’s romance is great – their dance scene is beautiful. But I am a dialogue man, and this just doesn’t have it for me.
Verdict: Love the robots, but the people are lifeless.
The story of a rat in Paris who is also a brilliant chef. Yes the story is slight, but the animation in this film is just heaven.
I also must admit that this is the Pixar film I have seen the least (because we only recently bought the DVD).
Directed by Brad Bird the scenes in the restaurant kitchen are just gorgeous to watch, and the story does have an emotional kick. My daughter didn’t want to get this one on DVD because the scene where the food critic, Anton Ego, tastes the ratatouille and is taken back to his childhood was too sad for her. This is a scene that lasts about a minute, has no dialogue, and yet it affected her deeply. It does me as well. Pixar films do that better than anyone.
Verdict: Beautiful beyond words, but the human characters lag behind that of the rats – we don’t really care too much about Alfredo and Collette’s romance.
A great idea – monsters coming out from the cupboards – from another dimension (the monster world) – in order to collect the screams of kids to use as energy. The “scream shortage” aspect of the story was again a bit laboured (Pixar do best when they stay away from political messages), but the voice cast is brilliant. John Goodman and Billy Crystal perfectly match their characters Sully and Mike – Crystal is a basically an eye, how can an eye look like a person? And yet amazingly it seems like it is Billy Crystal. And Steve Buscemi is a great bad monster, Randall.
Some of the animation, such as when Sully and Mike are chasing Randall on the doors is breathtaking. But the story? Again – getting a scare quota? Meh, who cares really. We mostly care about Sully and the human girl, Boo – the monsters’ world is great, but only in the way it is connected to our world.
Is it too scary for young kids? Well yeah – it took my daughter till she was seven before she felt she could cope with it. But she loves it now.
Verdict: It’s excellent, it just lacks that bit of real care for the monsters that we have for the toys in Toy Story
An old man, Carl, lifts his house up with a multitude of balloons and goes in search of his childhood dream place – Paradise Falls. Along the way comes Russell – a boy scout caught on the house when it took off. They find the falls and also find that Carl’s childhood hero, Charles Muntz, is a bit of a bastard.
Again, more gorgeous to look at than any film deserves to be, but I always find the story gets a bit dull once Carl and Russell meet Muntz. Dogs piloting planes? Yes, Pixar, you can imagine us things that never were, but you still need to keep within the realms of the world in which you have created – and this is the real world, not a made up place like that of “Cars”.
But for all of that, I love it if only for the opening scenes with young Carl and his best friend Ellie. And even better is the depiction of Carl and Ellie’s marriage. If you are not crying at the end of it, go out and see a doctor, because you will likely find you no longer have a pulse.
Verdict: The real emotional oomph is at the start – it’s so good, that everything after struggles to match it.
The first. Thank God it was good. I write about it here – in which I suggest that it should have won Best Picture in 1995.
Verdict: Oh the dialogue!:
Woody: All right, that's enough! Look, we're all - *very* impressed with Andy's new toy.
Woody: T-O-Y, t-oy.
Buzz: Excuse me, I think the word you're searching for is "space ranger".
Woody: The word I'm searching for, I can't say, because there's preschool toys present.
Buzz: You are a sad strange little man. I pity you. Farewell.
They did the impossible – they improved on the original. Sending the toys on an adventure to save Woody was a brilliant way to break the confines of the the bedroom. Even better though was the story that Woody actually doesn't want to be saved. Some great laughs, excellent jokes, wonderful imagination, and amazing heart.
Pixar films aren’t known for their songs as are the old Disney films, but “When She Loved Me” sung by Sarah McLachlan is an absolute gem. How in the hell it lost to Phil Collins “You’ll Be in My Heart” (from Tarzan) I’ll never know – and no, you’re not alone, I couldn't hum a bar of it either, but “When She Loved Me”? – I’m tearing up just thinking of it.
Verdict: best sequel since The Godfather II.
Number 3: The Incredibles
Brad Bird’s first Pixar film is a brilliant adult delight. It may be loved by kids, but this one really is about adults. Bob Parr (otherwise known as Mr Incredible) longs for the past when he was a somebody. From there the film goes where really no other Pixar film does – not surprising given it was first developed to be made by Warner Bros. Bob Parr’s wife for example thinks he is having an affair; we also see Bob working in an insurance firm – where the life of the cubicle worker is as brilliantly rendered as in the film Office Space. It even has Samuel L Jackson invoking some of his character from Pulp Fiction when he calmly asks to have a drink of water.
This ain’t kid stuff. But wow, do kids love it – maybe because it features two very fully rendered kids – Violet the shy teenage girl and Dash the boy who is more Bart Simpson than any Pixar character has been.
Verdict: The film takes the super hero genre, kicks it around, turns it upside down, and has a lot of fun with it (“no capes!”).
Prior to Toy Story 3, this was Pixar's most successful film at the box office, and it is not hard to see why. This is a film about a parent trying to save his child (who happens to be a fish), it doesn’t need to milk the emotion, the emotion is already there. But what makes Finding Nemo so magnificent is the main characters: Marlin the clown fish who isn’t funny, voiced by Albert Brooks is brilliantly uptight and Ellen DeGeneres steals the movie as Dory, the fish with short term memory loss. Together they are the perfect odd couple for us to accompany on this long adventure.
The animation is of course, amazing – the water actually looked like water – for fun watch The Little Mermaid after this, and laugh at how unreal the water looks in that 1989 film.
Maybe this film has more of an impact on me because my wife and I went to see it just after our first child was born, and we were both feeling incredibly connected to the story (in that over the top way that recently first time parents are connected to any parent-child stories.) My only quibble is the character of the the pelican voiced by Geoffrey Rush: it is not a pelican the likes ever seen in Australia – having grown up on the River Murray where pelicans are plentiful, I couldn’t believe they got it wrong.
One thing about this movie – my daughter has never seen the start – she always skips it as it is too upsetting for her. I am quite glad she does, as the death of Marlin’s wife Coral and most of their “babies” is pretty tough going – a brave start for a supposedly “kids’ film”, but Pixar are never scared to push boundaries.
Verdict: even the DVD menu dialogue is great:
Marlin: [introduction to the main menu of the first disc of the DVD] Where is it? Where is it?
[the menu appears]
Dory: Oh there's the menu, I knew it was around here somewhere.
Marlin: [beginning of menu loop; Marlin talks to the viewer at home] Okay, you've got a lot of choices here. You can watch just the movie *without* the commentary...
Dory: [interrupting] Ooh! Ooh! Ooh! I'm so excited! I've always wanted to see... "The Little Mermaid"!
Marlin: Good. Well this is "Finding Nemo".
Dory: Oh, well that sounds nice, too. Maybe we should watch *that* one.
Marlin: We're watching that one! This is "Finding Nemo"!
Dory: [sounding flattered] Oh you shouldn't have switched just for me!
Dory: I've always wanted to be in a film.
Marlin: You were in a film. THIS one. "Finding Nemo"!
Dory: No way! I'd remember that.
Marlin: No you wouldn't...
Dory: Yes I would.
[excited inhalation sigh]
Dory: Being in a film would be so glamorous!
Marlin: [nonplussed] Really?
Dory: Oh my. Fabulous! Where's my trailer? I need water!
Dory: Fill my trailer with water!
Marlin: Something's wrong with you.
There probably should be a rule on not allowing me to choose the most recent one, but bugger it. Toy Story 3 is without doubt the great 3rd film in a trilogy ever.
Everything is perfect, everything is true to the spirit of the series, and everything ends the series as it should. I haven’t seen it in 3D, and maybe that improved the emotion and wonder, but I can’t possibly see how, because it already has more emotion and impact than any other film I have seen for many a year.
How good are Pixar? [Spoiler follows] At the near end, when the toys are in the junkyard smelter and look like they are going to all be melted, I was sure that was what was going to happen. My brain was trying to tell me that this was a kid’s movie and there was no way in hell that Pixar would destroy Woody, Buzz and all the rest, and yet there it was – the toys looked at each other, held hands, accepted their fate and waited to die together. Here is a film about toys, and we see them waiting to die – and their deaths seemed inevitable and real. Achingly real – as real as the end of Peter Weir’s Gallipoli.
I could not believe this was going to happen, and yet on one level it also felt like this was a way the film and series should end – toys do end up in the tip, and do end up melted down. It would have been horrible, and I would have ripped out the DVD and thrown it across the room, but Pixar treat their audience with such respect – they in effect treat them as adults – that such an adult ending seemed not only plausible, but also correct.
But thank God the toys don’t end up dying. Pixar may push boundaries, but they aren’t stupid! Woody, Buzz and the gang needed to end happily – they had earned this ending. And when they get their happy ending we get there with them, and rejoice. We know as well that, like Andy, we can leave them behind.
So that is my ranking. It is of course my opinion, and is thus wrong or right depending on your own. For what it’s worth, here is the ranking by a much more discerning and knowledgeable critic than myself, my 7 year old daughter:
1. The Incredibles
2. Toy Story 3
4. Monsters Inc.
6. Wall. E
7. Toy Story 2
9. A Bug’s Life
10. Toy Story
11. Finding Nemo
Have a great weekend.