Total Recall: Pixar's Winning Streak
We rank the animation studio's films by Tomatometer.
Once upon a time, animation could be neatly divided into two eras: BD and AD, or before and after Disney. That all changed, however, with the release of 1995's Toy Story, a movie that -- although it bore the Disney logo -- marked the feature-length debut of an upstart studio named Pixar, one which signaled the imminent discovery of brand new, computer-generated vistas for kids of all ages. Pixar has released eight films since then, all of them remarkably Certified Fresh -- and with the studio's tenth outing, Up, landing in theaters this weekend, we thought now would be an opportune time to take a fond look back at its full-length filmography.
Obviously, there won't be any surprises in this week's list -- but with Tomatometers ranging from 100 to 75 percent, who needs the added suspense of finding out what made the list? Whether you're an avowed animation buff or simply a fan of innovative, entertaining movies, you've probably got your own list of favorite Pixar moments, so let's relive them now, shall we? From Toy Story to WALL-E, to infinity and beyond, here's this week's Total Recall!
Even the most successful family can have a black sheep, and at a relatively paltry 75 percent on the Tomatometer, 2006's Cars is Pixar's. While not poor enough to break the studio's chain of Fresh certifications, the reviews that greeted this John Lasseter-directed tale of a young racecar (Owen Wilson) and his quest to wrest the Piston Cup from a pair of challengers (Michael Keaton and Richard Petty) weren't up to the usual Pixar standard; whether dismissing it as unoriginal (Christy Lemire of the Associated Press accused it of "[ripping] off Doc Hollywood, almost note for note) or overlong (the Chicago Reader's J.R. Jones called it "not a test of speed but endurance), the critics concluded that Cars ran a little too rough to stand alongside earlier classics. Audiences didn't mind, though -- it grossed over $460 million -- and even if it didn't measure up to Pixar's previous, it was still good enough to earn praise from scribes like Chris Vognar of the Dallas Morning News, who wrote, "no other outfit can match Pixar's knack for plucking heartstrings without tearing them off the frets."
8. A Bug's Life
Inspired by Aesop's fable of the ant and the grasshopper -- memorably animated in the Silly Symphonies short titled, suitably, The Grasshopper and the Ants -- Pixar's John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton spearheaded the development of Pixar's second feature, A Bug's Life, the story of a nonconformist ant named Flik (voiced by Dave Foley) who ventures beyond his colony's island shores to recruit an army of bugs that can defend them from a gang of mean-spirited grasshoppers (led by Kevin Spacey). When the naïve Flik mistakes a group of circus performers (including Denis Leary as a sass-mouthed ladybug) for fighters, the stage is set for another round of CGI-fueled family fun. Though A Bug's Life was overshadowed somewhat by DreamWorks Animation's superficially similar Antz, and critics weren't quite as unanimous in their praise as they'd been for Toy Story, neither a $363 million worldwide gross nor a 91 percent Tomatometer are anything to sneer at -- and in the end, as CNN's Paul Tatara observed, "if this movie doesn't make you smile you may not know how.
It starred Billy Crystal as a fast-talking schemer who was physically dwarfed by his sidekick, but despite that surface similarity to the misbegotten My Giant, Pixar hit another home run with its fourth feature, 2001's Monsters, Inc. The tale of Mike (Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman), two employees of the titular kiddie-scaring company, Monsters imagines a world in which children's screams are the energy source that powers the secret city of Monstropolis -- and one in which the monsters themselves are just 9-to-5 clock punchers with problems of their own, such as mistakenly letting a child follow them back to the office. Mike and Sulley are worried about more than just getting written up -- the monsters believe the children are toxic -- but they soon discover that not only is inter-species harmony possible, but it may hold the key to their civilization's looming energy crisis. It's admittedly rather heady stuff for a family-friendly CGI comedy, but Pixar has always been good at slipping subtext into a candy-colored shell, and Monsters, Inc. is no different. "The analogy to our dependence on, say, oil is soon abandoned, the better to blur the distinction between abstract and concrete, wrote Lisa Alspector of the Chicago Reader, pointing out "something older viewers of this 2001 animated adventure may appreciate more than younger ones.
For anyone who'd been counting down the days until Pixar's inevitable downfall, the period between the lukewarm critical reception afforded Cars and the debut of 2007's Ratatouille seemed like it might be the beginning of the end: not only was the studio working on a movie with a rather unappetizing protagonist -- a rat who wanted to be a gourmet chef -- but the movie itself had something of a troubled journey to the screen, including a Pixar-mandated director swap that ousted the film's creator, Jan Pinkava, and replaced him with Brad Bird. All's well that ends well, though, and by the time Ratatouille reached theaters in June of '07, it was abundantly clear that all the creative turmoil had paid off -- not only did it provide Pixar with another box office bonanza, gathering up more than $621 million in worldwide receipts, but it quickly established itself as yet another critical winner for the studio, ending up with a 96 percent Tomatometer rating and a bunch of glowing reviews from critics like Newsweek's David Ansen, who called it "a film as rich as a sauce béarnaise, as refreshing as a raspberry sorbet, and a lot less predictable than the damn food metaphors and adjectives all us critics will churn out to describe it. OK, one more and then I'll be done: it's yummy.