If you love films like we do, you'll know that Pixar Studios’ hit rate is astonishing. In almost half a century of feature films, the studio haven't just made some of the finest animated films ever, they've created some of the most complete and satisfying films in cinematic history.
What's the formula they follow to turn these amazing animations into peerless examples of cinema?
Here's what we think are the four principles that guide Pixar’s animators and storytellers; the ingredients that all Pixar films strive to balance perfectly, and that the best do without equal.
From Finding Nemo to WALL-E to Coco, Pixar movies have taken us on adventures across oceans, into the cosmos and beyond the land of the living into the Land of the Dead. But, the reason we care about the spectacular physical journeys Pixar’s characters take is that each is mirrored by a journey of self-discovery.
Woody learning to share Andy’s affection in Toy Story; Marlin learning to let go of his anxiety in Finding Nemo; Cars hero Lightning McQueen discovering that he needs others – in Pixar’s best movies, as in life, the most important life lessons don’t come easy, but the tears shed along away are always so very worth it.
Toy Story 2: Jessie sings ‘When She Loved Me’
We’re tearing up just remembering this moment from Toy Story 2.
When Woody attempts to explain why he needs to return to Andy, Jessie floors him (and us) with a song and montage that shows her heartbreaking experience as a beloved toy, discarded as her owner’s teenage years set in.
Coco: Coco sings ‘Remember Me’
In this Oscar-winning musical moment from Coco, Miguel’s rendition of his great-great-grandfather Héctor’s song, ‘Remember Me’ to his ancient grandmother (and Héctor’s daughter), is an open invitation to weep.
As Miguel sings, wrinkled Mama Coco’s face gradually lights up and she remembers her papa fondly, saving his memory and existence in the afterlife.
Up: Carl and Ellie’s marriage montage
Early in 2009’s sublime Up (directed by Pete Docter) we’re put through the emotional ringer with a silent montage showing Carl and Ellie’s marriage and life together.
It’s four minutes and 29 seconds of pure emotion that simultaneously establishes the curmudgeonly elder Carl’s journey, and reduces everyone watching to a puddle of feels.
The top Pixar movies take viewers to places that are as excitingly different as they are richly detailed and fully realised.
Take Onward’s surprisingly suburban, post-magic fantasy land, Cars’ automobile-inhabited spin on the classic dusty American town, and A Bug’s Life’s mini-metropolis, bug town, to name just three.
Being transported to magical places is all part of the Pixar experience.
WALL-E: the Earth we left behind
The Earth isn’t exactly an unknown location, is it? In Pixar’s hands and in 2008's WALL-E, it absolutely is.
From the moment we hurtle from galactic beauty through a smear of satellites orbiting our home to the brown, post-apocalyptic surface piled high with junk, it’s clear that this is not the world we know (or want to make).
Inside Out: Riley’s islands of personality
How exactly do you create the inside of somebody’s head in a way that’s appealing and immediately understandable?
If you’re Pixar you create an inspired inner world where emotions bicker and work together in a control tower overlooking islands of personality – core memories that make the centre of Inside Out, Riley, who she is.
Monsters, Inc: morning in Monstropolis
Pixar’s worldbuilding is done so well it’s easy to overlook how quickly it can make us feel comfortable in creative and alien settings.
Take Monstropolis. As Mike and Sully walk to work in Monsters, Inc., we’re immersed in a monster-filled city morning that’s as wild as it is charmingly familiar.
The best Pixar films don’t just create incredible settings and elicit all the feels, they’re also wonderfully entertaining from start to finish.
What does that mean?
It means edge-of-the-seat action sequences peppered with laugh-out-loud jokes (The Incredibles, take a bow). It means gobsmacking misdirection that keeps you on your toes (remember Buzz getting killed by Emperor Zurg in Toy Story 2?).
But, above all, it means never leaving the audience without a reason to laugh, cry, whoop or gasp.
Finding Nemo: Crush and the Eastern Australian Current
Only Pixar could create a sequence that flows effortlessly between calm wonder and white-knuckle exhilaration with surfer-dude comedy and parental life lessons thrown in for good measure.
In Finding Nemo, Marlin and Dory’s interlude being carried along by the powerful ocean current with Crush the turtle and friends is both a straight-up delight and an important moment for Marlin as he learns to let go and enjoy the unpredictable (a bit).
Ratatouille: remote-control Linguini
As high-concept as they come, this memorable sequence from 2007’s Ratatouille sees Remy the gourmet rat bonding with hapless kitchen hand Linguini when the pair realise that the rodent can ‘drive’ the young man towards kitchen competence by tugging at his hair.
It’s bonkers but the learning process and growing trust between them are depicted with such warmth and conviction that, by the end of the montage, you don’t question the unlikely double act at all.
Incredibles 2: Elastigirl and the runaway train
As fast-paced as the runaway train Elastigirl races after on her jet-powered Elasticycle, this Incredibles 2 sequence hurtles through and over Metroville without ever leaving the viewer behind literally or figuratively.
That, in the middle of this physics-defying chase Elastigirl hilariously fields a call from Dash asking where his high-tops are, is just the icing on the cake and a nod to multitasking superhero mums everywhere.
There’s one more element that all Pixar films share, and it’s crucial to the studio’s consistently high standards: if a story can be told as easily in live-action as it can using animation then it’s not really a Pixar project.
This belief in using animation’s full potential or not at all is evident in everything from Riley’s rich inner world in Inside Out to WALL-E’s space ark and Cars’ anthropomorphic automobiles. It’s what enables the studio to tell stories nobody else can in inventive ways most can’t even imagine.
Monsters, Inc: the bedroom door chase
Imagine the world’s best roller coaster. Now imagine three monsters playing Capture the Flag with a tiny human on top of that roller coaster as it hurtles around.
Oh, and why not add in a bunch of brilliant teleportation detours around the globe for good measure.
Try filming that on location.
Finding Dory: Hank the septopus drives the truck
It all looks pretty straightforward on paper: using a forgetful Regal Blue Tang in a water bottle as his lookout, a seven-legged octopus called Hank hijacks an aquarium truck and drives to the ocean.
Wait, no, that’s anything but straightforward. It is, however, a perfect example of Pixar pushing the animation envelope and making it look easy.
Inside Out: Abstract thought
Inside Out is brimming with exceptionally inventive moments. However, the sequence in which Joy, Sadness and Riley’s old imaginary friend, Bing Bong, take a shortcut through the Abstract Thought centre of Riley’s mind is something else.
It’s all going well until Abstract Thought is activated and the trio start to morph into increasingly abstract versions of themselves. That Joy, Sadness and Bing Bong retain their visual personalities throughout this trippy scene is nothing short of remarkable.
So there you have it, the four elements you’ll find in all the best Pixar movies and some of our favourite examples.
Did we miss your favourite film or moment?
We’d love to hear from you.
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