Best Pixar Movies from ‘Toy Story’ to ‘Cars’

When individuals are asked about their preferred Pixar film, their response often reveals more about themselves than the movie. This renowned animation studio has consistently excelled by utilizing grand, high-concept ideas to explore fundamental truths. A tale about talking toys transcends into a narrative about friendship and personal growth, while a children’s movie about fish evolves into an emotional journey of fatherhood. Even a seemingly simple story about a cooking enthusiast rat becomes a subtly profound exploration of art and inspiration. Pixar films hold a deeply personal significance for each viewer, particularly for those who have grown up with these releases, considering them as milestones in their lives.

However, it is fair to acknowledge that even the most devoted Pixar enthusiast would concede that the studio has experienced a somewhat challenging phase in recent years. While the team is still more than capable of producing timeless classics like “Turning Red,” which debuted last year, they also delivered their all-time lowest-rated film with the widely mocked “Lightyear” in 2022.

Since 2011, starting with “Cars 2,” Pixar has somewhat overindulged in sequels to their beloved originals (evident in “The Incredibles 2” and “Finding Dory”), yielding diminishing returns overall. Although original Pixar films continue to emerge, they occasionally lack the innovative spark found in the company’s earlier works. Regrettably, it appears that the rough patch hasn’t entirely concluded, as their most recent release, the high-concept romantic comedy “Elemental,” has received mixed reviews from critics and failed to make a significant impact at the box office. Siddhant Adlakha, writing for IndieWire, awarded it a “B” rating.

Nevertheless, today we gather to celebrate Pixar rather than mourn its setbacks. Despite their occasional missteps, there remains ample hope for the studio’s future endeavors. In 2024, audiences can anticipate the release of the original film “Elio,” which follows the journey of a young boy who becomes Earth’s ambassador for the galaxy. Additionally, “Inside Out 2,” the sequel to one of Pixar’s finest creations, is set to arrive. Whether these upcoming movies prove disappointing or triumphant, we will always cherish the timeless classics produced by the company. Most of their earlier works continue to captivate viewers with their humor, beauty, and emotional resonance, just as they did upon their initial release. Presented below is a ranking of every Pixar film, from the groundbreaking “Toy Story” to the latest offering, “Elemental,” from least to best.

27. “Lightyear” (2022)

What it is: “Toy Story” without its soul. Packaged as the film that the toy Buzz Lightyear from Pixar’s most famous franchise tied-in to, “Lightyear” takes the beloved character and refashions him as a badass space pilot. The result is a character flattened of all that once made him fun, placed in a charmless action adventure movie that does nothing to justify its existence.

The breakout character: Not a character, but the quote from voice actor Chris Evans about how this is “the origin story of the human Buzz Lightyear that the toy is based on,” which is this film’s single lasting contribution to the wider culture.

Will it make you cry? Possibly from sadness that Pixar is seriously sinking this low.

26. “Cars 2” (2011)

What it is: An awkward grafting of a spy action movie on the “Cars” franchise, “Cars 2” shifts focus away from Lightning McQueen and onto his best friend Mater, as he’s mistaken for a secret agent and roped into solving a (very silly, uninteresting) global conspiracy. Every character aside from Mater gets sidelined, resulting in an unbalanced film that rests on the charms of Larry the Cable Guy to stay afloat.

The breakout character: Mater, but in a bad way.

Will it make you cry? No.

25. “The Good Dinosaur” (2015)

What it is: The astonishingly dull and forgettable story of dinosaur/farmer Arlo, who attempts to make his way back home with a wild human child in tow.

The breakout character: The titular good dinosaur, we guess.

Will it make you cry? No.

24. “Onward” (2020)

What it is: In a fantasy world version of the modern day, elf brothers Ian and Barley Lightfoot attempt to revive their deceased father, bringing the two closer than ever before in the process.

The breakout character: The legs only version of their dad that Ian and Barley summon, who serves as perfect physical comedic relief in the film.

Will it make you cry? “Onward” has more than its fair share of fraught family dynamics on display, but ultimately it’s not the tear-jerker Pixar usually conjures up.

23. “Finding Dory” (2016)

What it is: An amusing but slight sequel to “Finding Nemo,” 2016’s “Finding Dory” refocuses on the breakout star of the first movie, telling the story of how the forgetful fish tracks down her long lost family.

The breakout character: Ed O’Neil as Hank, the octopus with seven limbs that ends up aiding Dory on her adventure. In a featherweight film, his cranky, dour energy provides some much needed friction when put next to Dory’s perpetual optimism.

Will it make you cry? From cuteness overload upon seeing baby Dory at the beginning of the movie, potentially; otherwise, the film is a bit too saccharine to hit the desired Pixar impact, and mostly serves to remind you of how good the original “Finding Nemo” was.

22. “Elemental” (2023)

What it is: Pixar’s first rom-com and biggest stab at a love story, directed by Peter Sohn.

The breakout character: Ember, the fire character, and Wade, the water character, are the two breakouts, which required innovative tech to pull off their animation. The technique Pixar used, fluid simulation, is usually handled by the VFX team, but this was the first time they took the lead in fully simulating the characters in a unique collaboration with character animation.

Will it make you cry? Yes, it is a tearjerker with the film culminating in an emotional expression of love between the star-crossed Elementals.

21. “Monster’s University” (2013)

What it is: A prequel that answers a question nobody had, “Monster’s University” recounts how Mike and Sulley from the first “Monster’s, Inc.” became best friends, in the form of a very kid-friendly and only entertaining enough college comedy.

The breakout character: Dean Hardscrabble, the imposing but reasonable authority figure at the school with a memorable design and the regal voice of Helen Mirren.

Will it make you cry? Not really the reaction that it’s going for!

20. “Cars” (2006)

What it is: Although dinged at the time of its release as Pixar’s worst, the original “Cars” holds up well, especially as the company put out significantly weaker films in the years to come. Lightning McQueen’s forced stay at Radiator Springs is a low-key but sneakily well-written tale about friendship and community, and packs an emotional punch the “Cars” sequels mostly abandon.

The breakout character: Doc Hudson, the spiky mentor to the brash Lightning, played brilliantly by Paul Newman in one of his very last performances.

Will it make you cry? Newman’s big “they quit on me speech” is definitely primed to get audience members misty eyed.

Read IndieWire’s guide to The Best Car Movies.

19. “Luca” (2021)

What it is: The totally-not-gay (wink) story of Luca and Alberto: two preteen boys with an intense bond thanks to a secret they must hide in order to avoid being ostracized by their insular community. In these boys’ case, the secret is that they’re sea monsters, but the subtext is obviously there, even if the film’s shallow writing doesn’t quite resonate as authentically queer.

The breakout character: Massimo, the intimidating but kindly father of Luca’s friend Giuliana, and the main source of genuine heart for “Luca.”

Will it make you cry? It certainly aims to get some nostalgic tears out of the audience with its sunny portrait of a youthful summer, but “Luca” never goes deep enough to really bring the waterworks.

18. “The Incredibles 2” (2018)

What it is: The decade-later sequel to “The Incredibles” is a fun affair, with Brad Bird and the original voice cast reuniting for a story about the super-powered family facing a brand new threat. But weaker villains and retreaded elements from the original result in a movie that never quite lives up to the perfection of the original, even with Bob Odenkirk joining the cast.

The breakout character: Voyd (voiced by Sophia Bush), the dorky superhero fangirl of Helen who makes the biggest impression out of any of the new supes introduced.

Will it make you cry? The intense flashing sequences may screw with your eyes, but otherwise, no.

17. “Cars 3” (2017)

What it is: In a decent enough conclusion to the “Cars” franchise, an accident puts Lightning McQueen’s career in jeopardy, and forces him under the care of Cruz Ramirez: a personal trainer with racing ambitions of her own.

The breakout character: Cruz is a fun, spunky foil to Lightning, giving the franchise the shot of energy it needed to lap towards a dignified ending after “Cars 2.”

Will it make you cry? If you’re heavily invested in the character arc of Lightning McQueen, then sure.

16. “A Bug’s Life” (1998)

What it is: Pixar was still finding its identity when it released “A Bug’s Life”: the company’s second feature about an ant attempting to save his colony from a terrorizing group of grasshoppers. It’s a bit basic compared to what was in Pixar’s future. Still, it’s a fun kids movie, even if it doesn’t have the inter-generational appeal of the studio’s best.

The breakout character: Packed with memorable characters, but the funniest is probably Heimlich: the dopey green caterpillar desperate to blossom into a butterfly.

Will it make you cry? No, nor is trying to make you.

15. “Toy Story 4” (2019)

What it is: The fourth “Toy Story” movie never quite justifies its existence, but it spins a decently enjoyable story for main character Woody, as his struggles to adjust to his new owner send him on a quest to find his place in the world — reuniting with old flame Bo Peep in the process.

The breakout character: Forky, whose existential dread is an amusing new angle for the franchise’s central conceit.

Will it make you cry? If you’ve been watching the films from the very beginning, Woody and Buzz’s big goodbye will undoubtedly bring tears to your eyes; otherwise, probably not.

14. “Coco” (2017)

What it is: What could be a generic coming-of-age story gets lifted up by its genuine emotions and cultural specificity. “Coco” focuses on Miguel, a 12 year-old boy whose musical aspirations conflict with his family’s longtime ban of music, as he is transported to the afterlife during the Day of the Dead.

The breakout character: The titular Coco, Miguel’s elderly and wise great-grandmother.

Will it make you cry? Even those who don’t care for the rest of the film will likely get teary-eyed during the big “Remember Me” scene.

13. “Brave” (2012)

What it is: “Brave” basically turned into a completely different movie after original director Brenda Chapman got replaced by Mark Andrews and Steve Purcell, shifting it away from a more intense action film to a homebound family comedy. The result is an inconsistent movie with tonal and pacing issues, but the story of Merida’s struggles to break free from the constraints she deals with as a princess in her Scottish kingdom —  and her complicated relationship with her mother — gives the film enough weight not to completely collapse.

The breakout character: Merida herself; Pixar’s first female main protagonist, she’s fun, feisty, and flawed in a way that makes her a magnetic screen presence, one that elevates the messy film around her.

Will it make you cry? If you have mommy issues, then definitely.

12. “Soul” (2020)

What it is: Featuring a spectacular soundtrack by Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste, “Soul” follows Joe: a jazz pianist who falls into a coma and wakes in the realm of souls. Teaming up with a pre-born soul 22, Joe attempts to escape and journey back home.

The breakout character: Terry, the control freak astral being pursuing Joe and 22 and the closest thing the understated movie has to a villain.

Will it make you cry? Kids won’t cry, but adults who see themselves in Joe’s pursuit of greatness definitely will.

11. “Monsters, Inc.” (2001)

What it is: Pixar’s funniest outright comedy, “Monsters, Inc.” is a full-on tribute to the power of being funny. Set in a world where monsters uses the screams of human children for energy, the film sees workers Sulley and Mike accidentally harbor a human child that escapes into the monsters world, where they soon learn that laughter is far more powerful an energy source than screams.

The breakout character: Mike Wazowski, impeccably voiced by Billy Crystal in the best comedic performance in a Pixar movie.

Will it make you cry? From laughter, maybe!

10. “Toy Story” (1995)

What it is: Where it all began! The original “Toy Story” introduced audiences to the living toys that would become cultural icons. But the characters aren’t quite what they were in the following movies; famous nice guy Woody is a prima donna of the highest order, as he attempts to hog owner Andy’s attention following the purchase of action figure Buzz Lightyear. When the two end up in the home of Andy’s neighbor Sid, though, they’re forced to team up and become friends to survive.

The breakout character: Sid, whose bratty behavior and nightmarish experiments with toys makes him a perfect antagonist.

Will it make you cry? You probably won’t be bawling, although the scene where Buzz is forced to confront his existence as a toy is the first sign of the deeper issues Pixar would grapple with in the future.

9. “Up” (2009)

What it is: The story of Carl, a retiree who turns his home into an airship with balloons in order to visit Paradise Falls: the destination he and his deceased wife Ellie always dreamed of seeing. When Russell, an 8-year-old wilderness explorer, accidentally ends up on the journey as well, Carl is forced to open up to the young boy and let go of the bitterness that he’s protected himself with since losing Ellie.

The breakout character: Dug, the talking golden retriever, who manages to delicatedly toe the line between “adorable” and “annoying” as required of any good animated sidekick.

Will it make you cry? It famously will! The saddest part of “Up” is its opening sequence, which details the life Carl shared with Ellie; it’s a perfect self-contained short designed to destroy you.

8. “Toy Story 3” (2010)

What It Is: The incredibly emotional (not actual) finale to the “Toy Story” saga sees Andy all grown up, and on the verge of heading to college. After his mom accidentally throws away the toys he intended to store at home, the crew winds up in Sunnyside Daycare: a seemingly peaceful place ruled with an iron fist by the psychotic Lots-O’-Huggin’ Bear.

The Breakout Character: Barbie and Ken, whose fun screwball-esque romance leaves big shoes for Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling to fill in the live-action “Barbie” movie in 2023.

Will it make you cry? The last twenty-ish minutes are pretty much designed to make anyone who ever watched a “Toy Story” film have a full-fledged breakdown.

7. “Toy Story 2” (1999)

What it is: Basically the first “Toy Story” but better: funnier, smarter, sweeter, more thrilling, and more emotional. When Woody gets a tear in his arm, he develops anxieties about getting thrown away by Andy, and ends up stolen by toy collector Al, who intends to sell him to a toy museum in Japan. As the other toys race to save him, Woody is forced to consider whether he wants to remain in perfect condition forever, or enjoy the few short years he’ll get with the owner he loves.

The breakout character: Jessie, the cowgirl toy Woody meets, whose backstory is among the saddest of any Pixar hero, and who became essentially the third lead of the franchise going forward.

Will it make you cry? That damn Sarah McLachlan song will almost certainly get you sobbing, yes.

6. “Inside Out” (2015)

What it is: Pixar leans into its reputation for emotional stories with “Inside Out,” a film about emotions. In the mind of Riley — an ordinary kid going through a big life change after her family moves to another state — five emotions (Joy, Disgust, Anger, Fear, and Sadness) control her reactions to the world around her. But when Joy and Sadness get knocked out of the control tower and are forced to find their way home, the two end up learning a lot about how complicated emotions really are, and how that complication will help Riley grow into a full human being.

The breakout character: Bing Bong, the forgotten imaginary friend who was designed to make people cry over the loss of their inner child.

Will it make you cry? It will, and considering its message that sadness is as important to life as happiness, it’s pretty much actively encouraging that.

5. “WALL-E” (2008)

What it is: Pixar’s greatest romance focuses on WALL-E, a cleanup robot on a ruined earth who meets EVE: a tracking robot trying to find habitable life on the polluted world. The famously dialogue-less opening half of the film is pitch perfect; the film’s message of environmental protection never feels overly preachy or tacked on; and the connection between the two robots leads to some of the most beautiful moments in animation — and even film — history.

The breakout character: The cockroach WALL-E befriends, who somehow out-cutes the famously cute robot.

Will it make you cry? From beginning to end, baby.

Read Why ‘WALL-E’ Is the Perfect First Movie for Cinephiles to Watch with Their Kids by David Ehrlich.

4. “Turning Red” (2022)

What it is: Pixar’s first great film in a good seven years, “Turning Red” is a lovely coming-of-age for Mei Lee: a hyperactive girl in Toronto whose strained relationship with her mother turns all the more complicated when she discovers her ability to turn into a gigantic red panda. Director Domee Shi heavily based the film on her own childhood growing up, and its specificity and deeply felt emotion makes the movie transcend potential cliché and resonate as one of the studio’s best.

The breakout character: 4*town, the greatest fictional band of all time.

Will it make you cry? The relationship between Mei and her mother is one of Pixar’s most resonant, and their confrontation at the end is guaranteed to hit you hard.

3. “The Incredibles” (2004)

What it is: Arguably the best superhero film of all time (give or take “Into the Spiderverse”) the original “The Incredibles” focuses on the Parr family: a superhero clan living in a world where those with powers are outlawed. The clan takes on the devious Syndrome — Pixar’s funniest and darkest villai —  in an adventure that’s a perfect mix of funny, action-packed, and emotional.

The breakout character: Frozone’s wife, who is responsible for “Where is my supersuit?” It’s easily the funniest moment in any Pixar movie ever.

Will it make you cry? Not one of the studio’s bigger tearjerkers, but its portrait of middle-aged malaise will definitely hit home for adults watching with their kids.

2. “Ratatouille” (2007)

What it is: One of Pixar’s smartest and deepest films, “Ratatouille” follows Remy, a French rat who dreams of becoming a great chef — and finds an ally in Linguini, the busboy at the restaurant of his culinary idol.

The breakout character: Anton Ego, the harsh food critic voiced by Peter O’Toole, who initially comes across as a one-dimensional stereotype before becoming the center of the film’s emotional climax.

Will it make you cry? “Ratatouille” isn’t as famous a tear-jerker as some other Pixar films, but the movie is an understated emotional ride, with its themes of community, art, and the pursuit of greatness striking a deep chord.

1. “Finding Nemo” (2003)

What it it: A comedy flick, a road trip film, a prison break movie: “Finding Nemo” is a lot of things. But the film is Pixar’s best because it grounds it all in the vividly rendered relationship between fish father Marvin and his son Nemo, who he struggles to let grow and inadvertently pushes away. Marvin’s quest to find Nemo after he gets kidnapped is Pixar’s most satisfying emotional journey: a perfectly paced and plotted adventure that still cuts deep on the first or third or 5,000th watch.

The breakout character: As much as it’s gauche to praise Ellen DeGeneres nowadays, the comedian turned in an all-time voice acting performance as Dory, giving the film its heart and soul through the cheerful, sweet, and slightly sad amnesiac.

Will it make you cry? From the traumatic opening to Dory’s climactic speech to Marvin and Nemo’s reconciliation, this film will have you crying enough to fill up the Great Barrier Reef yourself.

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