Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
Over time, doing duplicate lists will be a challenge, especially how frequently Pixar and Disney films release, but since we haven’t covered this before, I thought I would take a look at the best Pixar films in honor of this weekend’s release of Onward. In a fantasy world where lives have become rather mundane, two kids go on an epic quest to find a way to bring back their father who was taken from them at an early age. A traditional narrative with fantastical elements should be right up Pixar’s sleeve, though their output in the last several years, with one notable selection below, has been rather unimpressive. Gone are the days of inventive energy that made many of these films possible. While I would love to have included Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, far superior films to the original, the one film I’m most disappointed not to be able to include is A Bug’s Life.
When it came out in the late 1990s, it was like nothing we’d ever seen and like the two films that released around it, Toy Story and its first sequel, it was the beginning of great things for Pixar. A Bug’s Life was a hilarious and child-like film that was more in line with the kinds of films Disney used to make than the films Pixar would make. That said, it was a terrific film and will always have a fond place in my heart as the first Pixar film I loved.
The Incredibles (2004)
Four years before Disney/Marvel’s ambitious cinematic universe launched, Pixar was breaking new ground with its superhero animated film The Incredibles about a 1960s superhero duo who have raised a family of potential new superheroes in the midst of a government crackdown on masked heroes.
As the family thwarts a dangerous supervillain with the aid of an old family friend, the audience is treated to an exciting adventure that felt like it was ripped right from the pages of comic books of that period and with plenty of progressive outlooks to keep it feeling incredibly modern. It marked a unique new direction for Pixar, which had previously focused primarily on kid-friendly fare. This was the first film that felt like it was trying to tap into the adult demographic that had already helped set Pixar on the path towards greatness.
When Toy Story was originally in production, four members of the Pixar development team founded a Brain Trust that would help fuel the creative future of the company. Featuring former disgraced company president John Lasseter, directors Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter, and writer Joe Ranft, the quartet created some of the most indelible films in the company’s repertoire. Among the original ideas proposed by the Brain Trust, and Ranft in particular, was a film about a rat who wants to be a chef. Ratatuille was born from that idea. It was the last one Ranft ever proposed and he wouldn’t even live to see it, dying in a car accident long before the film was released.
The inventive premise features Remy the rat (voiced by Patton Oswalt) who befriends the hapless garbage boy (Lou Romano). While Remy’s family urges him to abandon his wild dreams, he teams up with Alfredo to become the toast of the town. This wonderful film showcased the imaginative superiority of Pixar films and turned an idea that didn’t seem likely to succeed into a real winner.
Exploring the concepts of rampant consumerism, environmental neglect, and the American obesity epidemic, WALL-E follows the life of a robotic trash compactor as he spends his lonely existence working and exploring. When a probe arrives carrying a new robot named EVE, WALL-E falls in love and embarks on a quest to bring news that life has returned to the planet Earth, and, as a result, so too can human civilization. WALL-E doesn’t want this and works hard to prevent the resettlement for fear that everything he’s worked to resuscitate will be destroyed again.
The film’s forward-thinking concept represented Pixar’s first and still only science-fiction film, giving audiences a look at the horrendous future that awaits us if we continue down our current path of waste and neglect. The film’s failure to secure an Oscar nomination for Best Picture was one of the reasons that eventually led to the Academy’s adoption of a ten-film slate in the category. Regardless, the film is one of the gems of Pixar’s storied history.
Mixing fantasy and reality was a common strategy in the films of Pixar and before Up, only two films had featured human characters in prominent roles. The Incredibles featured a human family with super powers and Ratatouille took place largely in a realm of humans. Up would be the studio’s first film with non-superpowered human characters. Ed Asner plays the grumpy old man Carl Frederickson who, upon the death of his wife, decides to leave civilization behind by attaching a raft of balloons to his house and flying away. While the primary characters may have been non-special humans, the surrounding elements were far and away fantastical, allowing the studio to maintain its historical interest in fantasy while telling a story of human interaction.
Featuring one of the saddest sequences in film history, the film starts with look back at Carl’s life with his late wife. It then follows into the main narrative where Carl must learn to accept and support a Wilderness Explorer who became trapped on his front porch during his homely launch. The film has a lot of fun and adventure baked into its creative vision.
Inside Out (2015)
With sequels dominating the Pixar slate since 2009 and only a handful of originals in that time period, Inside Out was a breath of fresh air in a slate where the four originals (Brave before and The Good Dinosaur and Coco after) felt a bit derivative while the seven sequels and prequels were almost entirely derivative. For Inside Out, we are taken inside the mind of a young girl whose emotions have been put into a state of upheaval after she’s forced to move to a new city and a new school. As Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith) embark on a quest to save their world as Sadness begins to taint every joyful memory she touches, the film takes us into imaginative and creative spaces that we have long missed from the studio that brought us films like Toy Story, Ratatouille, and WALL-E.
The film’s creative premise is supported by the superb voice work of Poehler and especially Smith. They are given terrific support by Richard Kind as the childhood best friend Bing Bong, and Lewis Black, Bill Hader, and Mindy Kaling as her mind’s other three emotions, anger, fear, and disgust. Inside Out proved that Disney’s Pixar brand could still create something new and original in a space that has become highly monetized and where guaranteed success in sequels is more important than marginal success with originals. This is a film that they should view as a rule rather than an exception.