Where to begin with Pixar

Movies inspire a lot of passion, but the back catalogue of film history can be daunting. For every fan who’s obsessed with an actor, director or sub-genre, there’s another struggling to know where to start. Sometimes all it takes is the right recommendation to set you on your path from newbie to know-it-all…

Your next obsession: the perfectedly created worlds of Pixar animation.

Nikki Baughan
Updated:

Up (2009)

Up (2009)

Why this might not seem so easy

While animated films have been delighting audiences for decades, Walt Disney having turned them into popular (and lucrative) family favourites with the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pixar’s arrival on the big screen in the mid-90s completely rewrote the rules. The company had been making animated shorts for some time, including The Adventures of Andre and Wally B (1984), Luxo Jr. (1986) and Knick Knack (1989), but their feature debut Toy Story (1995) immediately set a stratospheric benchmark against which others – and themselves – would always be measured.

Toy Story (1995)

Toy Story (1995)

Not only is Toy Story a visually impressive animation, the first to be made entirely with computers, but it boasts an intelligent, multi-layered narrative (by Joss Whedon, Andrew Stanton, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow) that wraps up big ideas of childhood, love and loss in a colourful tale of a young boy and his favourite toys. This method of using a simple story to explore big ideas has, in tandem with that envelope-pushing animation style, become Pixar’s crowd-pleasing MO, continued through the Toy Story series and throughout the rest of its films. Indeed, delving into Pixar’s world for the first time can seem a daunting task because, with just a few exceptions, their creative wellspring runs so deep.

The best place to start – Monsters, Inc.

While starting at the beginning, with Toy Story, would be a solid introduction to the Pixar universe, later work Monsters, Inc. (2001) is also the perfect film to open the door to their genius. It’s another deceptively simple story, in which two affable monsters, Sulley (voiced by John Goodman) and Mike (Billy Crystal), work to collect screams – the energy cells of their world – by scaring human children as they sleep. It’s a neat idea, beautifully rendered by intricate animation in which everything, from the dazzling array of monsters to the individual strands of hair on Sulley’s back, is realised with pinpoint attention to detail.

Monsters, Inc. (2001)

Monsters, Inc. (2001)

Intricately woven throughout is a universally resonant tale of the fleeting nature of childhood innocence, the importance of friendship and the value of accepting those who are different to yourself. It’s a Disney-esque morality tale delivered with a lightness of touch, not to mention swathes of humour thanks largely to the perfect voice cast. Indeed, Pixar films have always attracted stellar line-ups, and that they know just how to shape their characters in line with the strengths of their stars is one of the reasons their films are always on the nose.

What to watch next

Pixar’s mastery of their craft means that working your way through their back catalogue is – with a few exceptions that we’ll come to – an unadulterated pleasure, and it’s almost impossible to make a misstep.

Inside Out (2015)

Inside Out (2015)

Both Brave (2012) and Inside Out (2015) should be high on your watch list, as examples of the too-few instances where Pixar has female characters front and centre. Brave is noteworthy not simply for the fact that it features a flame-haired, outspoken Scottish princess more likely to be found hunting than courting, but that the relationship at its heart is not a romance but one between a mother and daughter. Their story may be the focus of a magical curse, and the narrative entirely fantastical, but their cross-generational dynamic is entirely real, and wonderful to watch.

Similarly, Inside Out’s protagonist is a young girl who finds her emotions – brought to vivid life inside her head – getting the better of her after she is forced to move homes and schools. While there’s much played for laughs, at its heart it is a tremendously moving and admirably frank look at the trials of growing up, the crippling nature of doubt and the importance of staying true to oneself. It never shies away from the fact that life can often be cruel.

Pathos is also the driving force behind Oscar-winning Up (2009), whose opening, dialogue-free flashback sequence documenting the love between elderly protagonist Carl Fredricksen and his late wife is utterly moving. Her death prompts Carl to pursue his dreams in the most wonderful way imaginable; by tying thousands of balloons to his tiny home and floating to distant lands. As an allegory for making the most of one’s life, and facing death without fear, it’s both poignant and powerful, and the addition of comedy sidekick boy scout Russell and his floppy-eared dog Dug lend the whole thing plenty of life-affirming humour.

Finding Dory (2016)

Finding Dory (2016)

When it comes to love and companionship, Pixar have created many memorable pairings: cowboy toys Woody and Jessie (Toy Story), superhero spouses Mr and Mrs Incredible (The Incredibles); line cook and chef rat Linguini and Remy (Ratatouille) and, of course, fishy pals Nemo and Dory (Finding Nemo, Finding Dory).

Their purest love story, however, comes in the form of the almost-dialogue free masterpiece Wall-E (2008). It’s set in a future in which Earth has become a desolate wasteland populated only by a single garbage droid, the titular Wall-E, who falls head over heels for futuristic droid Eve (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). While the two may only communicate via mechanical burrs and clicks – part of an incredible aural landscape created by sound designer Ben Burtt, augmented by Thomas Newman’s evocative score – their affection is palpable and utterly endearing.

Aside from their friendship, however, Wall-E plays like the best kind of apocalyptic science fiction, posing big questions about the fate of humanity and pointing the finger at our own selfish behaviours. It’s entirely adult in its themes and its message packs a powerful emotional punch because of its animated form, rather than in spite of it.

Wall-E (2008)

Wall-E (2008)

Where not to start

The recent The Good Dinosaur (2015) is a rare example of a decidedly lacklustre Pixar project, the charming animation failing to overcome the wild historical inaccuracies and slight, twee narrative about a dino who befriends a young human boy who teaches him the meaning of life.

Similarly, Cars (2006) and sequel Cars 2 (2011) are blunt-edged, and somewhat cliched in their tale of two dude-bro motorcar friends hooning about in an almost exclusively male world for no other reason than to celebrate the power of friendship. Despite the fact that they boast none of the nuance or style we’ve come to expect from the animation masters, a third Cars film is due in 2017. Hold out for Toy Story 4 in 2018, instead.

Watch a Q&A with Finding Dory’s creators

Watch a Q&A with Finding Dory co-directors Andrew Stanton and Angus MacLane and producer Lindsey Collins, hosted by Justin Johnson

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