Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Ranking the Pixar films - Part 2.

Welcome back, everyone. If you're reading this, chances are you've already read part 1 of my Pixar movie rankings, so without further ado, let's get into the top 8, starting with...

Number 8 
The Incredibles

Originally planed to be produced by his team at Warner Bros., after the unfortunate box office fizzle of The Iron Giant, Brad Bird became the first outside director to tackle one of Pixar's films, shifting his idea of a family of superheroes going on an adventure from hand-drawn to computer. Perhaps the closest the studio has come to a satire, The Incredibles is a loving ode and simultaneous deconstruction of the entire superhero subgenre, mixing the thrills and the adventure of comics ranging from X-Men to the Fantastic Four, while taking jabs at tired tropes such as excessive villain monologues, and the pure impracticality of capes. But what helps set The Incredibles apart from the countless superhero epics currently out is the family unit at the core of the film, which turns out to be more compelling than the set-pieces and superhero elements. Take all of those away, and these characters would still be engaging, largely due to their very believable and layered development, especially the children characters struggling to adjust to a normal every day life like their parents, the latter still grappling with boredom and nostalgia for their glory days (I'm realizing this was Uncharted 4 before Uncharted 4). While I think it might be very, very *slightly* overrated, I still fully understand as to why some would rank it at the top of their favorite Pixar films. In fact, out of all the Pixar movies getting a sequel, why did it take so long for this one to get a follow-up off the ground? 

Number 7 
Toy Story 2
The fact that Toy Story 2 as we know it even exists is a miracle all its own. Initially intended for Disney's subpar direct to video market, the content soon impressed Disney so much, that it was shifted to a theatrical release. However, when seeing that the film was not up to their standards, they decided on throwing out the last two years of their work, giving them a timeframe of only nine months to rebuild the entire film from the ground up. Obviously it made for a stressful production cycle, but it also came to define Pixar's strengths as a storytelling force. Improving on their animation, and broadening the scope and the cast of characters, Toy Story 2 featured all of the excellent trademarks that made the original the classic it was, while continuing to explore all of its older issues of fear of abandonment and neglect, all the while gaining more laughs through its cleverly placed sight and verbal gags. But more importantly, while few expected anything sad to come from Joan Cusack's eccentric and clingy Jessie, the character's tragic past life set to Sarah McLachlan's "When She Loved Me" instituted another future trademark of Pixar's, that of reducing grown men in the theater to tears. At that point, these toys stopped being simple characters in a movie, instead feeling alive and real. The internal whiplash may have been a damaging one, but never for a moment is all of the hard work not on the screen. And hey, any movie willing to include a Jurassic Park parody can't be bad in my book.

Number 6
Toy Story 3
That's right. Toy Story has proven to be the rare franchise that actually gets better with every new installment. It's rare enough to get a sequel that will be able to surpass the original, but for the third entry to be the best, and not wear out the novelty of the originals or rehash anything is even rarer. In fact, it's actually enough to make me excited about the possibilities for Toy Story 4. For one thing, the animation was at the peak of its abilities, once again giving the plastic and fuzzy playthings a terrific level of expression, and the writing continued to be as top notch as ever. With the many lovable characters having been properly established up to this point, the film was wise in deciding to advance their development collectively and give them more focus as a group. All at the same time, it tied up the fears of abandonment and neglect of the originals while continually exploring them more, while also introducing brand new welcome additions, including Ned Beatty's standout tragic antagonist Lotso, and Michael Keaton's riotously funny Ken. The film also contained thorough entertainment value once it morphed into a clever prison break movie in the second half, leading into a surprisingly intense climax, before capping off the entire series with one of the most emotionally satisfying tearjerkers of an ending since E.T., returning all of its viewers to the days when we grew up with our own special toys and friends, and giving us a perfect, mature, bittersweet goodbye to all our favorite characters. Things might have gone downhill for a few years after this movie, but I could think of no better way to cap off Pixar's enviable four year reign atop the animation pedestal.

Number 5
Eight years prior, Pete Docter had the inspired idea of creating a world where monsters scared children as a means of business. in 2009, he took on a similarly inspired idea of an old man taking his balloon-powered house to South America. Or maybe it sounded ridiculous? Either way, the result was an unquestionable improvement over his fabulous debut, at the same time standing as one of Pixar's funniest, and also most heartbreaking efforts yet. Of course, enough has been said of the film's bravura opening ten minutes, telling the condensed life story of married couple Carl and Ellie in virtual silence, with only Michael Giacchino's iconic melodies providing audio accompaniment to the extended prologue, and cutting right to the bone of the unsuspecting viewer as tragedy strikes. It's a stretch of the movie so good, it could have been its own isolated short, but it's to Docter's credit that what follows manages to stay at the same level quality as the sequence he started with. The material at hand is very mature to handle, talking to the young audience at a level they can easily follow, but also valuing their intelligence by not downplaying them, and allowing them to absorb the heavy-hitting drama of the film through pure silence. Details like Carl muttering "Oh" as stowaway ranger Russell implies his parents are divorced speak louder than any long monologues could ever do, and Carl's second big tearjerker before the climax is the scene that really messed *me* up. But at the same time, it's also filled with infectiously humorous personality, particularly from the silent comedy from Kevin, and the easily distracted musings from talking dog Dug. It's a film that reinforced Pixar's ability to reach both their adult and child audiences in equal measure, becoming that rare film whose many meaningful touches will resonant more with young viewers as they grow older.

Number 4
Finding Nemo
Remember when I said Monsters, Inc. would make anyone attempting to follow that act up nervous? I can only imagine the insurmountable pressure that director Andrew Stanton felt as he took on Pixar's next project, one terrified father's epic adventure across the ocean to rescue his son. I think we can all say the extra pressure worked, officially becoming the film that defined Pixar's stamp. While the film was geared in equal measure to both children and adults as always of Pixar, it was a very rare move at the time to place most of the movie's focus and perspective from the eyes of a parent, the one here being clownfish Marlin. Flawlessly established and breathed to life by a spectacular Albert Brooks, Pixar covered in unflinching and realistic detail the unfathomable (sorry...) anxiety to be felt as a new parent, understandably driven to great lengths to protect and shield his son from the countless dangers of the ocean, but also hyperactive to the point of obliviousness of how his over-protectiveness can harm his son more than doing him good, feeling less afraid by the end of the film to let his son experience life in full. At his side was the future star of Pixar's next big release, Ellen DeGeneres' easily forgetful Dory, easily one of the best and most endearing characters Pixar has ever created, proving a humorous and unwaveringly loyal companion to Marlin, and effortlessly walking that fine line between funny and sincere, mainly due to the mile a minute improvisation of DeGeneres that highlights how underrated voice acting can be. Beyond that, it's also one of Pixar's most undeniable spectacles, filling its massive world with beautiful color spectrums and shades of blue, giving weight to the background noise of the ocean, and features not only Pixar's best score, but one of the greatest movie scores I have ever heard, courtesy of Thomas Newman. For a long time, I often considered this my favorite Pixar film, so you can probably guess how eager I am to finally watch its long awaited sequel.

Number 3
Inside Out
Yeah, you all saw this coming, and to be honest, I almost feel like a broken record talking about this movie at this point. With Pixar deep into its creative slump by this time, the almost thankless responsibilities of restoring the company's good will, as well as reminding audiences why they'd fallen in love with them in the first place fell on the shoulders of Pete Docter. One year, near universal acclaim, and one Academy Award later, it's good to know that Pixar's return to form didn't fall upon deaf ears. Once again a director refusing to leave any stone unturned in his imagination, Pete Docter showed no shortage of creativity when it came to creating the world of pre-teen Riley, used as both a setting and a fully fleshed out character. With most of the film taking place in her subconscious, the simple but inspired set-up of her emotions guiding her through her daily life lent itself to great comedy, and perfect psychological study. Docter himself comes to be represented in Amy Poehler's Joy, Pixar's best creation yet in my opinion, taking on the form of a parent consistently going out of her way to ensure nothing but happiness for their little girl, but quickly lamenting the loss of her innocence as she begins to age, and eventually forced to accept that a life of all smiles is just as unhealthy as a life of tears. With the misguided norm of suppressing emotions having come into light in recent years, Docter looks at these children like Riley, speaking understandably and compassionately at their level, encouraging them to embrace both their most pleasant and unpleasant emotions equally, and providing their parents a gateway to experience once more those issues they know all too well what their children are going through. Life will be full of tough decisions and changes, and you won't always be able to control your feelings about them, but only by embracing them can you truly begin to live your life to the fullest. Featuring a perfect voice cast, a beautiful score by Michael Giacchino, and a gut punch of an ending, as cliched as it sounds, Inside Out defines the phrase "emotional experience", and I can only imagine how Docter intends to follow it up.

Number 2
Despite Cars becoming the first true underperformer in Pixar's history at the time, it hardly seemed to phase or even slow down the company in any way. Whatever shortcomings it may have had, however, the studio had much bigger things on their mind, with Brad Bird set to make his grand return with their next feature that would kick off their four year reign of perfection. To my everlasting shame, I once thought the film would be a terrible idea after watching its first teaser trailer. Not only was I happy to be wrong, but from that point on, it taught me to trust Pixar no matter what they did.

Extracting full potential out of the film's cuisine-heavy setting, and with Pixar itself populated by some of the most talented artists in all of animation, it only seemed fit for Ratatouille to be one of the most thoughtful meditations of (what else) artistry in moviemaking history, all the while complemented by the same flawless storytelling that we've come to know and love them for. The film is always at its most infectious when making extensive use out of lead character Remy's talents, a refreshingly optimistic and inventive character that any up and coming artist of any medium or nature would be able to relate to, always addictingly driven to discovery by the potential for new and flavorful combinations, and the incomparable and enthusiastic Patton Oswalt further makes the character sound as genius as he looks. And just like any artist, so much of his giddy and untapped personality can only be fully expressed when seeing him hard at work, with each new ingredient to his culinary masterpieces possessing as many characteristic layers as he has. It's when he's also paired with the palatably inept Linguini that the film becomes even funnier, making for a great symbiosis pairing that also gives way to thoughtful character study.

But even for the most gifted of artists, it is unavoidable that their work will be placed under the harshest scrutiny by critics, here represented by Peter O'Toole's eloquent and vindictively passionate Anton Ego. Few films have ever been able to seamlessly capture the full nature of criticism as well as this film, at once satirizing these individuals while also celebrating the knowledgeable position they yield above others. In a lengthy and unforgettable final monologue at the end of the film, it delicately lays all of its superb thematic ambitions in beautiful detail, and leaves both the artist and the critic that little bit more respectful of each other's positions, noting that while the two may not always see eye to eye in how well or how poorly the vision translated to the product, the one thing these two will always share is their passion and love for their craft. In addition to all that, the film is absolutely beautiful, evoking a classic feel of old-fashioned cinema in every painting-like frame of the film, and once again seeing Michael Giacchino at the peak of his musical abilities. It's a timeless, unabashedly good-natured work of art that continued pushing boundaries in the field of animation, and it's only by the slimmest of hairs that I didn't crown it as my favorite Pixar film...

Number 1
After making us feel for animate toys, talking fish, and rats who only wished to become a cook, the studio decided to take their next big journey across the cosmos and back, with Andrew Stanton prepping Pixar for its most thematically rich and well-rounded story yet, mixing the silent comedy and romance of a Charlie Chaplin film with the scale of Star Wars. The idea was simple, that of a lonely, worn down janitor droid who falls in love with a sleek probe visiting Earth, leading the two on an epic adventure through the vast reaches of space. It ended up pushing Stanton and his massive team to their absolute limits, delivering on all of their fully-realized ambitions, and to this day, it remains the apex of their entire filmography.

And oh boy, was it ever a thematically rich movie, but much like Monsters, Inc. before it, such themes and ambitions never felt forced, with the filmmakers once again choosing to simply tell a good story first, and then lace in the weightier issues. At its very core, WALL•E is first and foremost a romantic-comedy, and in fact is easily the best one to come out so far this century. With the very silent nature of the film, and the tribute to silent cinema, it's no surprise that WALL•E himself shares more than a few similarities with Chaplin's signature onscreen persona, with most of the charms of the film coming from the most seemingly insignificant curiosities and eccentric quirks, from growing fascinated by the numerous collectibles he brings back to his truck and makeshift home, to wiggling his eyes around in the most adorable fashion. At the same time, the animation team has also made him easily empathetic and sympathetic without appearing cloying, his bright and peppy presence always tinged with a sad sense of loneliness and lack of purpose, with nothing to keep him company but his pet cockroach and his incredibly resilient Hello, Dolly! VHS.

Then in the midst of his isolation, EVE steps in and captivates his, and the viewer's heart. Easily agitated and every bit as fragile as WALL•E with deeply rooted sadness and need for connection, the character balances on an effortless line between playful and sincere, as well as short-tempered and aggressive, whipping out a powerful laser cannon at the slightest hint of danger. Stanton successfully manages to make her look and feel just as amazing as WALL•E finds her, and makes for a suitably matched co-lead to our titular hero. With both of them driven by repetitive routines, hesitant to walk away from their own personal directives, Stanton expertly and efficiently picks all of the right moments to progressively move the two out of their comfort zones, learning to soulfully live in the moment rather than to grind through the days mechanically. It's amazing how much sincere human emotion everyone is able to imbue in these robotic leads, especially while managing to build up those very feelings from the ground up in virtual silence and effective minimalism, with their chemistry leading to such adorably engaging sequences such as their extended "dance" outside the AXIOM starship.

Like I said before, it is also a very ambitious movie, with its messages of the inappropriate storage of waste and the growing reliance on consumerism effectively delivered to us within the movie's first ten minutes, showing an obvious debt to Stanley Kubrick and 2001 in regards to its heavy atmopshere. Even when becoming an epic space adventure aboard a mysterious starship at the far end of the galaxy, the film becomes no less thought-provoking, showing humans in an infancy state condition, unable to walk and lacking in bone density, with WALL•E and EVE portrayed very much like parental ancestors to them, opening their eyes to the emptiness that their overly content nature can create, showing that their inaction can be just as harmful as bad actions. In spite of how bleak the opening stretches of the film may appear, the film doesn't intend to demonize or preach against consumerism or reliance on technology, but does call out what can happen should those things be stretched too far, that these things should aid mankind and not go so far as to replace them, and only by balancing out the mechanical with more practical and direct action (as beautifully encapsulated by the end credits sequence) will things truly be able to get better.

And as far as Pixar's own technological skill goes, while The Good Dinosaur may be the most photo-realistic film in Pixar's history, WALL•E is without doubt the studio's most technically accomplished film yet. Pushing their capabilities of visual storytelling even further than before, the film largely avoids heavy dialogue and exposition, with Stanton embracing the power of his characters' simple expressions, and taking full advantage of anything and everything that animation should be doing, relying on body language and adorable ticks to drive his themes and emotions across, all with a great sense of creativity and romanticism. Even Thomas Newman's synthetic laced compositions are more in line with a ballet than they are with an epic space adventure. Speaking of which, with sound proving just as vital to the movie as visuals, Ben Burtt creates a similarly minimalist audio language for all the robots, tinkering with the many voices to create limitless and easily defined identities for each robot, and giving the vast reaches of space a superb soundscape and ambiance that almost rivals his work on Star Wars.

When it comes to the full package of great storytelling and endearing characters, effective thematic touches, technical skill and general craft, WALL•E simply feels unmatched despite the fantastic quality of Pixar's previous ventures, at least to my tastes it is. Not only do I consider it my favorite Pixar movie, my favorite Disney movie, and my favorite animated movie in general, but it ranks among my top five favorite movies of all time. It's a film that can still surprise me and keep me enraptured no matter how many times I've watched it, with its unique and loving personality continuing to pop and reveal new touches, and as far as I'm concerned, makes for one of the funniest and most memorable cinematic romances. It's a masterful work of art and genius, with a powerful impact that few within the medium have matched quite as well.

And there you have it. Those were my thoughts on every Pixar movie to date. I'm sure everyone else will have their own personal favorites, and I'll no doubt have disagreements over my placements, but I think that only speaks volumes to just how good Pixar is as a storytelling force. They continue to captivate audiences with their new and interesting ideas, gaining brand new followers and inspiring future potential filmmakers every day, earning their position as one of the great animation powerhouses. Tomorrow night, I'll see if Finding Dory manages to meet the same high standards, but in the meantime, thank you all for reading, and just keep swimming...

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