[by Joe Gross] It’s been 21 years since Pixar burst into the public consciousness with “Toy Story,” the 3-D-looking, computer animated tale of some toys and the boy who loves them. In the years that followed, Pixar became the most respected name in animation, the company that more or less brought Disney out of a creative slump. Pixar started in 1979 as part of Lucasfilm before becoming an Apple-funded corporation in 1986. After distributing all its feature films, Disney purchased Pixar in 2006 for $7.4 billion. Today, Disney — what with its ownership of Marvel (“Avengers,” “Captain America,” “Thor”) and the Star Wars franchise — is having one of the most successful periods in its history, and Pixar is responsible for a massive part of that.
16. “Cars 2” (2011) aka The Only True Stinker. It took 16 years for Pixar to put up a brick, but what a brick it was. If the mediocre “Cars” seemed thin, “Cars 2” was downright transparent, perhaps the only time a Pixar movie felt genuinely cynical. Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) moves from supporting role to goofball centerpiece, there’s an espionage plot that even adults had trouble following, and the whole thing is so frenetic it feels like everyone just wants it to be over with. One cannot blame them. “Cars 3” is due out June 16, 2017. Will you sob?: Not for the right reasons.
15. “The Good Dinosaur” (2015) aka The One Where Everyone Was Like, “Wait, That’s Pixar?” Besides a) being released seemingly as quietly as possible, b) appearing mere months after “Inside Out” blew people’s minds, and c) being filled with violent images that proved upsetting for many kids younger than 10, “The Good Dinosaur” was greeted with mixed reviews from critics and waves of opprobrium from hacked-off parents who brought their kids to a movie with a cute dinosaur and were greeted with one of the more emotionally wrenching Disney parent-deaths, nasty dinosaur attacks and a pervasive feeling of melancholy. A misfire of plotting and marketing in equal measure. Will you sob?: Small children might, sure.
14. “Monsters University” (2013) aka The One Where They Didn’t Learn Their Lesson. If anything, “Monsters, Inc” has always been slightly underrated. The central conceit is strong, the allegories sharp, the plotting solid, the comedy impressive. I have always enjoyed defending it — until this thing came along. Forget the fact that it was unnecessary — you can level that charge at most movies with a number of their title. Sully and Mike’s status as adults, as professionals, was a key to the original film’s charm — they were good at their jobs. Seeing them as a nerd and an irritating frat guy was far less charming that it was supposed to be. A completely mediocre movie from a company that is capable of greatness.Will you sob?: Absolutely not.
13. “Cars” (2006) aka The One That Might As Well Be From Sony Or DreamWorks Or Something. You know that old marketing saw about “Disney magic,” about how there is something ineffable about Disney products that just makes them of inherently higher quality? For awhile there, it was entirely possible to believe that about Pixar as well, until this movie. “Cars” is neither particularly good nor particularly bad. It is just kind of there, a completely pleasant kids movie about talking cars that stars Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy and a frail-sounding Paul Newman in his final role in a major feature. All sorts of vehicle-oriented kids still adore it, but it feels like it could be from any studio, ever. Will you sob?: Are you horrified by the very existence of Larry the Cable Guy? No? Then you’re fine.
12. “A Bug’s Life” (1998) aka The One That Nobody Remembers. When it is regarded at all, “A Bug’s Life” is probably most often recalled as the movie that emphasized the rivalry between DreamWorks (who had the very similar “Antz,” which was not nearly as good) and Pixar, which started working on this second feature right after “Toy Story.” Reasonably original and well-acted, “Bug’s Life” was a financial success and is a solid movie but has become a victim of Pixar’s subsequent success. It’s not bad, but the studio has made a whole lot of movies that are better. Will you sob?: Unlikely.
11. “Ratatouille” (2007) aka The One That Is Kind Of Gutsy And Cool. “Ratatouille” is about a rat voiced by Patton Oswalt, who becomes obsessed with becoming a chef. Take a look at that premise again — this movie should not have worked. And yet it is one of Pixar’s more interesting features, full of odd visuals (the rat hiding in the young chef’s hat, manipulating him by pulling his hair, is pretty great). It’s a film that held perhaps a bit more appeal to adults than kids and is absolutely worth a rewatch. Will you sob?: No, but culture journalists around the world high-fived each other at one of their better depictions in movies, especially the scene near the end in which the food critic, inspired by the artistry of his meal, finds his passion again.
10. “Brave” (2012) aka The One I Feel Guilty About Not Liking More. Ultimately more important than it was good, “Brave” was a groundbreaker in a couple of ways. It was the first Pixar movie directed by a woman: Brenda Chapman conceived of the story and co-wrote it; she was ultimately replaced as director by Mark Andrews but received a co-director credit. It was the first Pixar feature without one of the big names (John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter) at the helm. It was a Disney movie with a female protagonist who wasn’t a princess. It’s a movie about mothers and daughters and the complexities in their relationships. It features a tough, red-headed Scottish girl shooting arrows. On paper, I am all in. In the theater, “Brave” suffers from a plot hinge that is so jarring that it yanks you clean out of the story, then tries to resolve it in a way that nearly derails the movie entirely. Ultimately, “Brave” is just a tiny bit more important than it is good, but it’s still light years better than, say, “Cars.” Will you sob?: I know many, many people with daughters who certainly have.
9. “Toy Story 2” (1999) aka The One That Worked Far Better Than it Should Have. Reportedly replotted over a weekend by John Lasseter and his crew after being bumped from straight-to-video to theatrical release and produced in nine months rather than a few years, “Toy Story 2” should have been a mess. Instead, it’s the “Empire Strikes Back” of Pixar movies, a darker picture that expands the movie’s universe without betraying any of the original’s strengths. And the commentary on adults co-opting that which is for kids (via the toy collector voiced by Wayne Knight) is much welcome. Will you sob?: Possibly during the song “When She Loved Me,” when Jessie the cowgirl meditates upon being abandoned by her owner, Emily.
8. “The Incredibles” (2004) aka The One That Was Basically “Fantastic Four” With A Really Easy To Misinterpret Moral. So here is the thing about “The Incredibles.” The voice work is strong, the characters are good. But, brilliant Edith Head tribute or not, I will never be completely comfortable with the movie’s confused themes. I’m sure director Brad Bird didn’t intend for Mr. Incredible’s complaints about the “celebration of mediocrity” at the expense (I think?) of the truly extraordinary to sound quite as creepy as they do. But as anyone who has ever read “Watchmen” can tell you, the minute superheroes start talking about the little people in anything other than the most altruistic way, the little people have a right to get nervous. And the villain Syndrome’s motivations are as muddled in the other direction. As he puts it, “If everyone is super, then nobody will be.” Wait, wouldn’t it be cool if we all had powers? The mid-life crisis stuff, the frustrations of confronting one’s own possible irrelevance are all excellent. With a tiny bit of fine-tuning, “The Incredibles” could have been the best superhero movie ever made instead of simply one of them. Will you sob?: Nope.
7. “Monsters, Inc.” (2001) aka The One That Somehow Made Billy Crystal Not Annoying. A killer Muhammad Ali impression aside, “what to do with Billy Crystal” is one of those intractable showbiz questions. Turns out his true calling was to play a one-eyed, animated monster opposite John Goodman. In contrast to “The Incredibles,” the high-concept here is note-perfect (the screams of children generate energy for the monsters’ world, except it turns out that laughter is more efficient), and the plotting, though a bit Rube Goldberg at times, is top-drawer. Don’t let the mediocre sequel fool you; this one holds up. Will you sob?: Nah …Well, there are a few scenes with the toddler Boo that will make you misty.
6. “Up” (2009) aka The One For Which I Will Get Angry Notes About Underrating. Remember how Don DeLillo’s “Underworld” had that extraordinary first section about Bobby Thompson and the atomic bomb and the rest was … excellent, but just not quite as amazing? “Up” is Pixar’s “Underworld,” blessed with an opening sequence about Carl and Ellie that is so powerful the audience is stunned into missing that the movie’s plot is both over-complicated and rambling (that stupid bird!). Obviously, there is really strong stuff here, and the relationship between the old man and the boy works well. It just can’t quite match the opening’s thoughtful heartbreak. Will you sob?: The sheer volume of weeping, sobbing and full-on ugly crying generated by this thing has reached legendary status.
4. “WALL-E” (2008) aka The One That Usually Tops These Lists (Along With “Up”). Or maybe this one is the darkest. Essentially a 21st century “Silent Running,” in 2805, a single robot remains on a fatally polluted Earth, humanity long gone. He wanders around a planet on which there is nobody to whom he can relate, does his job, goes back to his “house” and watched a video cassette of “Hello, Dolly!” (that’s all that’s left of civilization, huh? Yikes). He is visited by a feminine-looking probe whose discovery of plant life means it is time to tell humanity (all of whom are obese, floating-chair-bound tubs of consumption) it is time to come back to Earth. Yes, the silent-movie aspect is artful and elegant. But there is an almost scolding vibe to the thing, and if you’re not in the mood for it, the total destruction of Earth is, you know, a bit of downer. Gorgeous and sophisticated and contains moments of pure cinema … but not exactly a fun watch. Will you sob?: Between the melancholic empty Earth, WALL-E’s loneliness and the concluding promise of renewal … yes, probably.
3. “Toy Story” (1995) aka The One That Started It All. One of the most influential moves of the decade, “Toy Story” is ranked this high because without it, we might still be associating late 20th century Disney with “The Fox and the Hound.” Sure, computer animation has improved leaps and bounds in 20 years, but take another look at this, one of the best movies of 1995 in general. (Get at me, “Braveheart”!) The plot is ingeniously simple, the toy Army men are still completely hilarious, Tim Allen and Tom Hanks still make a top-dollar comedy team. If you are tired of Rex and his tiny arms, you are tired of life.Will you sob?: Probably not, if only that it is such a familiar movie in 2016.
2. “Inside Out” (2015) aka The One That Might Very Well Be About Adolescent-Onset Depression. The newest film on the list is also one of the most powerful and sophisticated, an animated movie that blends prog-rock structural complexity and raw emotion, which is no easy feat. Amy Poehler (Joy), Phyllis Smith (Sadness), Lewis Black (Anger), Bill Hader (Fear) and Mindy Kaling (Disgust) embody five key emotions within young Riley Anderson, a child whose mind was once dominated by Joy but who now must contend with moving to a new city. Poehler’s and Smith’s performances are both brilliant, the main character is a young girl who is neither princess nor warrior, and the world-building may be Pixar’s finest, from the emotion islands to subtle touches around every corner. How many times did you need to see it before noticing that Anger was in the center chair for Dad and Sadness was running Mom? Thoughtful and complex, funny and sad, “Inside Out” is that rarest of birds: a genuine family movie. Will you sob?: Lord, I hope so.
1. “Finding Nemo” (2003) aka The One That’s Really Popular And Also Maybe The Best. I know, I know. It is not as complex or adult as “WALL-E.” It is not as daring as “Ratatouille.” It doesn’t have the thrill of discovery of “Toy Story” or the gravity of “Up.” (not pun inten… eh, let’s just go with it). Adjusted for inflation, “Finding Nemo” is the highest-grossing Pixar film, and a spin through it makes it easy to see why. “Finding Nemo,” directed with a beautifully light touch by Andrew Stanton, is by far the studio’s most balanced film — it doesn’t drag or wander, no section seems more important than any other. Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres deliver note-perfect performances (some find Dory to be a little exhausting, but in my house, “sea monkey has my money” gets quoted an awful lot). Even the bit players are well-conceived (the giant tortoise, the stingray teacher, everyone in the fish tank), the one-note gags are terrific (the seagulls that say “MINE MINE MINE”). It also has that most important quality in a children’s film: It holds up under dozens (and dozens) of viewings. “Finding Nemo” is the most purely enjoyable. Will you sob?: Possibly. The opening scene is up there with “Bambi” for classic Disney parent-loss, and the lost child plot is certainly upsetting for both parents and kids. But for much of “Finding Nemo,” you will smile and laugh.