Best Pixar films, according to critics

In its comparatively short history, animation giant Pixar has churned out an astounding number of smash hits. In the process, it’s also changed the entire landscape of family entertainment by redefining the possibilities of computer animation and storytelling in general. To date, even the studio’s worst efforts achieve the kind of box office numbers and reviews that other films only dream of. Nevertheless, not all of Pixar’s movies are created equal.

It seems that for every “Toy Story” and “Finding Nemo,” there’s a movie like “The Good Dinosaur” or “Cars 2.” The December 2020 release of “Soul” (co-created by Pixar veteran Pete Docter) catapulted the movie to the status of an instant classic, while the June 2021 release of “Luca” left many cold.

Still, Pixar has had more wins than losses. The studio has put out several truly iconic releases, which opened to universal acclaim and are now considered modern masterpieces by critics and audiences alike. The “Toy Story” franchise alone remains a masterclass in computer-animated filmmaking. And that’s just one of the studio’s many successful properties.

To celebrate the studio and its epoch-making oeuvre, Stacker ranked every Pixar film according to its critical reception as of July 2021, as represented by its Metascore. Ties were broken by IMDb user ratings. There’s a surprise or two in terms of rankings, and #1 isn’t necessarily what the average moviegoer might expect. From worst to first, here are the best Pixar films according to critics.

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#24. Cars 2 (2011)

– Directors: John Lasseter, Bradford Lewis

– Metascore: 57

– IMDb user rating: 6.1

– Runtime: 106 minutes

– Domestic gross: $191.5 million

Despite a devoted fan base, this spy-inspired sequel wasn’t Pixar’s finest hour. Lambasting the paper-thin premise, Slant critic Jaime N. Christley called the film “a crass and uncharacteristically threadbare cash-grab.” Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern was similarly harsh, citing “a lack of variety, originality, subtlety, clarity and plain old charm.”

#23. Cars 3 (2017)

– Director: Brian Fee

– Metascore: 59

– IMDb user rating: 6.7

– Runtime: 102 minutes

– Domestic gross: $152.9 million

Anthropomorphic race car Lightning McQueen is back for a third adventure in one of Pixar’s biggest underperformers. Critics were marginally kinder to this installment than they were to the one before it, though don’t take that to mean there weren’t plenty of harsh reviews. Writing for Movie Nation, Roger Moore called it the “dullest, dimmest Pixar movie ever.”

#22. Onward (2020)

– Director: Dan Scanlon

– Metascore: 61

– IMDb user rating: 7.4

– Runtime: 102 minutes

– Domestic gross: $141.5 million

“Onward” finds a home in the bottom rung of the animation studio’s output. But it’s still Pixar, and even its lesser films offer entertaining stories with gleaming animation—this time featuring two elvish brothers discovering magic ability in a quest to bring their dead father back to life for a day. The A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd noted that Pixar “made a movie about looking for misplaced magic in the modern world that, well, kind of misplaces the magic.” Still, the film sinks a landing worthy of the studio’s name, with Dowd writing that it “acquits itself quite nicely when it counts, with a finale that offers an unlikely, unintuitive vantage on the cathartic moment of truth.”

#21. Monsters University (2013)

– Director: Dan Scanlon

– Metascore: 65

– IMDb user rating: 7.3

– Runtime: 104 minutes

– Domestic gross: $268.5 million

This long-delayed prequel received a Metascore of 65, indicating “generally favorable” reviews. The studio itself had come a long way in the time between “Monsters University” and “Monsters, Inc.,” with a sharper computer animation style to show for it. Still, those advances weren’t enough to please everybody. “What hasn’t advanced is the plotting,” panned critic Bob Mondello in his review for NPR.

#20. The Good Dinosaur (2015)

– Director: Peter Sohn

– Metascore: 66

– IMDb user rating: 6.7

– Runtime: 93 minutes

– Domestic gross: $123.1 million

Pixar’s biggest flop to date (not including “Onward,” which came out during the COVID-19 pandemic with a subsequent low but outlier box office) was also something of a critical disappointment, at least when compared to the studio’s other creations. Imagining a world in which dinosaurs never went extinct, “The Good Dinosaur” pairs an overly familiar buddy premise with stunning set pieces. Taking note of the film’s fully realized backdrop, Empire’s Olly Richards wrote, “It’s a pity that the story happening in front of it is so familiar and safe.”

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#19. Brave (2012)

– Directors: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman, Steve Purcell

– Metascore: 69

– IMDb user rating: 7.1

– Runtime: 93 minutes

– Domestic gross: $237.3 million

Chronicling the adventures of a headstrong princess and her well-meaning but traditional family, this Scottish-based fantasy remains something of a contested artifact. It was released on the heels of “Cars 2,” prompting critic Mike Scott to claim “the magic is back at Pixar.” Taking a far less favorable approach, Time Out’s Keith Uhlich called it “Pixar on preachy autopilot.” Despite mixed reviews, “Brave” remains favorable in the eyes of the powers that be at Disney. In 2018, the film’s heroine Princess Merida had a cameo in Disney Animation Studios’ “Ralph Breaks the Internet.”

#18. Luca (2021)

– Director: Enrico Casarosa

– Metascore: 71

– IMDb user rating: 7.5

– Runtime: 95 minutes

– Domestic gross: data not available (International gross: $23.7 million)

Pixar’s latest effort, a low-key coming-of-age story set in the Italian Riviera, hit all the right notes between beautiful animation and valuable moral messaging about friendship and success. The film’s biggest criticism was that writers played it too safe, relying on what amounted to familiar tropes from “The Little Mermaid” and “Finding Nemo” as two sea creatures make their way on land as human boys.

#17. Cars (2006)

– Directors: John Lasseter, Joe Ranft

– Metascore: 73

– IMDb user rating: 7.1

– Runtime: 117 minutes

– Domestic gross: $244.1 million

The “Cars” franchise got off to a promising start, even if this film doesn’t pack the same emotional wallop as other Pixar efforts. William Arnold of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was head-over-heels, calling it a “knockout.” Other critics were likewise impressed, though most agreed that the film was a discernible notch below its predecessors.

#16. A Bug’s Life (1998)

– Directors: John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton

– Metascore: 77

– IMDb user rating: 7.2

– Runtime: 95 minutes

– Domestic gross: $162.8 million

Pixar’s second outing wasn’t a total dud, but it didn’t reach nearly the same critical or commercial heights as “Toy Story.” It was released the same year as “Antz” from Dreamworks, meaning comparisons were inevitable. Drawing upon both films in his pun-laden review, Time’s Richard Corliss wrote that “Pixar’s dream works” and “when ‘A Bug’s Life’ hits its stride, it’s fantastic.”

#15. Finding Dory (2016)

– Directors: Andrew Stanton, Angus MacLane

– Metascore: 77

– IMDb user rating: 7.3

– Runtime: 97 minutes

– Domestic gross: $486.3 million

A forgetful fish named Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) takes center-stage in this blockbuster sequel to 2003’s “Finding Nemo.” “Finding Dory” raked in more than $1 billion dollars at the worldwide box office. But while reviews were generally favorable, the film never quite lived up to the status of the original. “Finding Dory” boasted an impressive voice cast including Albert Brooks, Idris Elba, Ty Burrell, and many more. Critic Lou Lumenick was particularly wowed by DeGeneres’ voice performance, claiming that it “even surpasses Robin Williams in ‘Aladdin.’”

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#14. Monsters, Inc. (2001)

– Directors: Pete Docter, David Silverman, Lee Unkrich

– Metascore: 79

– IMDb user rating: 8.0

– Runtime: 92 minutes

– Domestic gross: $289.9 million

Anchored by its fully realized world and two lovable lead characters, this classic Pixar flick pulls back the curtain on the monster in the closet trope and brings the fun for adults and kids alike. While not a critical smash on the same level as “Toy Story,” it still managed to win over plenty of critics. That included David Ansen of Newsweek, who wrote it was “smart, inventive, and executed with state-of-the-art finesse.”

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#13. Incredibles 2 (2018)

– Director: Brad Bird

– Metascore: 80

– IMDb user rating: 7.6

– Runtime: 118 minutes

– Domestic gross: $608.6 million

After 14 long years, America’s favorite family of superheroes finally returned to the big screen. Helmed by Brad Bird, this smash hit sequel delivers just enough adventure and heart to rise above the label of a rehash. Los Angeles Times critic Kenneth Turan agreed when he wrote: “It is as good as it can be without that shock of the new—delivering comedy, adventure and all too human moments with a generous hand.”

#12. Coco (2017)

– Directors: Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina

– Metascore: 81

– IMDb user rating: 8.4

– Runtime: 105 minutes

– Domestic gross: $209.7 million

A young boy’s journey into the land of the dead provides no shortage of eye-popping visuals, clever characters, and infectious music. Writing for Empire, critic Helen O’Hara claimed that “Pixar has raised the animation bar again, with its most musical—and arguably most magical—film yet.” Offering a different take was New York Times critic A.O. Scott, who wrote that the film “doesn’t quite reach the highest level of Pixar masterpieces.” Ultimately, the film was a commercial and critical success, even going on to win Best Animated Film at the 2017 Academy Awards.

#11. Soul (2020)

– Directors: Pete Docter, Kemp Powers

– Metascore: 83

– IMDb user rating: 8.1

– Runtime: 100 minutes

– Domestic gross: data not available (International gross: $107.6 million)

Pixar’s first Black hero was a long time in the making, with extra efforts by the creators Pete Docter and Mike Jones to authentically represent Black culture and individuality. Among this work was a 12-week consultancy with playwright and screenwriter (Kemp Powers) who was then hired on as Pixar’s first Black director; a team of consultants that included Terri Lyne Carrington, Herbie Hancock, and Bradford Young; and a “Cultural Trust” of Black Pixar employees. The movie was a massive critical success, nabbing Golden Globes for Best Animated Feature Film and Original Score. Despite these efforts, a number of critics called the movie out for racial insensitivities; writer Namwali Serpell further drew a comparison between “Soul” and 1986’s troubled “Soul Man,” when a non-Black person dons blackface and ultimately receives an important life lesson.

#10. Toy Story 4 (2019)

– Director: Josh Cooley

– Metascore: 84

– IMDb user rating: 7.8

– Runtime: 100 minutes

– Domestic gross: $433 million

A beloved franchise lost a little momentum with its fourth outing, which nevertheless became the highest-grossing of the series. The talented cast was there and so too were the heartfelt themes and stunning visuals, though some viewers wondered if there was still an original story left to tell. Critic Matt Zoller Seitz definitely thought there was, citing the franchise’s “impressive ability to beat the odds and reinvent itself” with each new installment.

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#9. Toy Story 2 (1999)

– Directors: John Lasseter, Ash Brannon, Lee Unkrich

– Metascore: 88

– IMDb user rating: 7.9

– Runtime: 92 minutes

– Domestic gross: $245.9 million

Praise was swift and nearly universal for this 1999 sequel, with more than a few critics preferring it to the original. Playing the proverbial contrarian was critic Marc Savlov of The Austin Chronicle, who warned potential viewers not to “expect any big surprises.” For the most part, those same viewers were pleasantly surprised anyway.

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#8. Up (2009)

– Directors: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson

– Metascore: 88

– IMDb user rating: 8.2

– Runtime: 96 minutes

– Domestic gross: $293 million

Anyone who’s seen this iconic adventure drama will gush (and gush) about its opening sequence, but what about the remaining 86 minutes? Critics and audiences agreed that the entire film was one of Pixar’s finest efforts and “arguably the funniest,” according to Michael Rechtshaffen of The Hollywood Reporter. Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek felt otherwise, claiming that the movie “left [her] cold.”

#7. The Incredibles (2004)

– Director: Brad Bird

– Metascore: 90

– IMDb user rating: 8.0

– Runtime: 115 minutes

– Domestic gross: $261.4 million

Culling inspiration from various sources, this instant classic marked a relative departure from the standard Pixar fare. Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern dubbed it “a work of huge, if unobtrusive, ambition.” The A.V. Club’s Scott Tobias homed in on the film’s “funniest and most affecting moments,” which “exploit the tension between a special family and a world that insists on dulling them down.”

#6. Finding Nemo (2003)

– Directors: Andrew Stanton, Lee Unkrich

– Metascore: 90

– IMDb user rating: 8.1

– Runtime: 100 minutes

– Domestic gross: $380.8 million

This underwater adventure came to life by way of its expert voice casting and timeless themes, which isn’t to mention the vivid computer animation. “Summer hasn’t even started, but you won’t likely find a better catch this season,” argued critic Lou Lumenick. He wasn’t wrong.

#5. Toy Story 3 (2010)

– Director: Lee Unkrich

– Metascore: 92

– IMDb user rating: 8.3

– Runtime: 103 minutes

– Domestic gross: $415 million

Pulling off a near-impossible feat, the third “Toy Story” film managed to improve upon its predecessor from a critical perspective. Computer animated, perhaps, but that didn’t stop A.O. Scott from declaring it “as humane a movie as you are likely to see this summer.” Variety’s Peter Debruge was slightly less engaged, claiming it “delivers welcome yet nonessential fun.”

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#4. Inside Out (2015)

– Directors: Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen

– Metascore: 94

– IMDb user rating: 8.2

– Runtime: 95 minutes

– Domestic gross: $356.5 million

Like a number of viewers, critic Moira Macdonald was left “changed, entertained, nostalgic, dazzled” by this inventive adventure comedy. Doubting the power of Pixar, Salon writer Andrew O’Hehir wondered if the film was too “low-impact to thrive amid a summer of grotesquely over-engineered sequels.” Spoiler alert: it thrived.

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#3. Toy Story (1995)

– Director: John Lasseter

– Metascore: 95

– IMDb user rating: 8.3

– Runtime: 81 minutes

– Domestic gross: $191.8 million

The movie that started it all was an instant smash right out of the gate amongst critics and audiences. Setting an early template, Woody and the gang struck a humane and frequently hilarious chord in the midst of their various adventures. Famous critic Gene Siskel put it succinctly when he dubbed the film “a complete joy.”

#2. WALL·E (2008)

– Director: Andrew Stanton

– Metascore: 95

– IMDb user rating: 8.4

– Runtime: 98 minutes

– Domestic gross: $223.8 million

Drawing upon a host of prescient themes, this futuristic Pixar flick depicts a planet in ruin and a human race too idle to even care. Critics were particularly floored by the movie’s first half-hour, during which almost no dialogue is spoken. Salon critic Stephanie Zacharek felt that the film went downhill from there, writing that it “starts out as poetry and ends as product.” Audiences disagreed, and the film maintains its spot as one of Pixar’s all-time best.

#1. Ratatouille (2007)

– Directors: Brad Bird, Jan Pinkava

– Metascore: 96

– IMDb user rating: 8.0

– Runtime: 111 minutes

– Domestic gross: $206.5 million

Even Pixar’s biggest fans might be surprised to discover that this culinary comedy earned the highest Metascore. Audiences were slightly less enthusiastic than critics, which is why the film has a lower IMDb user rating and lower user Metascore than some other Pixar efforts. Perceiving the film as a metaphor for the artistic process, critic A.O. Scott wrote that it “provides the kind of deep, transporting pleasure, at once simple and sophisticated, that movies at their best have always promised.”

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