The only one I didn't have to rewatch for this retrospective - because I've seen it so many times already, it's still fresh in my head. This one is, for my money, the absolute best Pixar movie, and one of the best superhero movies of all time, period. (And I certainly wouldn't mind watching it again anyway, but writing these reviews is taking long enough as it is.)
The Incredibles was a big departure for Pixar in many ways. No more anthropomorphic critters, for one - the characters are all human. The first to garner a PG rating, for another, due to the action scenes in which people actually die. But this is as befits a bona fide costumed superhero movie with a touch of James Bond. The action scenes are far and away the best of any superhero film to date; the endlessly imaginative ways in which its varied superpowers are employed puts many a live-action comicbook adaptation to shame. (Yeah, go ahead and look sheepish, X-Men Origins: Wolverine.) But it also has plenty of heart to go with the action. The Parr family is terrifically well-developed - the love between husband and wife, the bickering between brother and sister, the pride of the father in his son, and the mother's faith in her daughter. It's amazing how the film handles all these relationships and does justice to each one.
Another huge departure for Pixar is bringing in outsider Brad Bird to helm his own film. Bird was largely known for making The Iron Giant, a critically-acclaimed but financially unsuccessful animated film. (I saw it, I love it, if you haven't seen it, see it.) This was their most daring leap of faith in their commitment towards keeping themselves from getting complacent, and it paid off magnificently. There's not a single thing in here that doesn't work, and many that are simply brilliant. Edna Mode. Samuel Jackson as Frozone. Dash's chase scene. Elastigirl's desperate attempts to evade the missile. The villain, Syndrome. The final battle scene against the robot. This movie absolutely deserves its four stars - and like all of my four-star films, if you don't like it, you are no friend of mine.
The closest thing to a disappointment from Pixar (A Bug's Life gets a pass because it was only their second), although most people who say so are quick to disclaim that it's still better than most movies, animated or live-action. I'll say the same, but it's easy to see how this one's a step down from their usual standard - it's slow. It's not their first to come close to 2 hours - that would be The Incredibles - but it's the first to feel too long. Way too much time is spent on Lightning McQueen's stay in Radiator Springs, and there's a definite sense that director (and Pixar Chief Creative Officer) John Lasseter got too indulgent on this one.
Still, it's hard to fault it for the things it indulges in. The story of an arrogant and superficial young punk who finds humility, friendship, and something to believe in besides himself, is still genuinely affecting. The long, sweeping shots across landscapes are beautiful, especially McQueen's and Sally's drive; they highlight the fact that there really is nothing that Pixar can't animate and make it look gorgeous. The racing scenes are influenced by NASCAR, which was probably a lot of fun to fans of NASCAR. The entire film is a loving tribute to Route 66, a slice of Americana that means nothing to me, perhaps because I'm not American. Car freaks and gearheads would find a lot to enjoy - oh by the way, I drive a piece of junk that I treat solely as a means of getting from A to B. Just thought I'd share.
It's still a Pixar movie, so it's still funny, clever, heartwarming, and great entertainment. Owen Wilson's performance neatly walks the fine line between likable and annoying, the way the final race ends is brilliant, and the bit with the Kenny G song is the funniest joke in the whole movie. And the way they turn motor vehicles into characters, with relatable personalities and recognizable emotions, is pretty amazing. There's as much to admire here as any other Pixar film - there just isn't as much to enjoy.
It's getting seriously hard to decide between three-star and three-and-a-half-star ratings for Pixar films. After much thought, I'm giving Ratatouille three, but it's probably the best of the three-star lot. It's not as emotionally engaging as Toy Story 2 or Finding Nemo or Up, but it's more sophisticated than Monsters, Inc. and more consistently fun than Cars. In fact, Anton Ego's speech at the end almost earned it another half-star. As a critic myself, I may be somewhat biased.
It's remarkable how many themes this movie takes on, and for the most part it does them justice. One is how two species - humans and rats, no less - can learn to overcome their prejudices and respect each other. Another is of finding balance between where you come from and what you're yearning for, as depicted by how Remy is torn between his rat nature and his passion for cooking. And the third is how talent is often repressed and must be given the opportunity to shine - which is a theme also present in The Incredibles. (One wonders if Brad Bird has an axe to grind.)
This film went through a somewhat troubled production. Bird was brought in to replace its previous director Jan Pinkava, who was all but fired from the job. It's probably a miracle that the final product is as seamless as it is. The romance between Linguini and Colette is somewhat underdeveloped, as is the character of Linguini himself. And it seems a little contrived when Remy starts to resent Linguini getting all the credit. But these are easy to overlook. It makes cooking, running a gourmet kitchen, and facing the judgement of a food critic into a grand adventure, and if anyone thought Cars signalled the beginning of Pixar's decline, this film shut them up and made them eat ratatouille.
I had expected to give WALL-E three-and-a-half-stars, based on what I remember from seeing it last year. But after watching it again, I'm glad to concede that this film is pretty damn close to flawless. There's nothing in here that doesn't work, nothing that doesn't hold up to a second viewing, and no way that it could fail not only to entertain but to enchant. It doesn't unseat The Incredibles as my favourite Pixar movie, but it's definitely another four-starrer.
I've made no secret of my preference for the Pixar films that explore a particular human insight, and succeeds at engaging both the heart and mind while doing so. WALL-E doesn't; the romance between the titular protagonist and EVE is no more complex or mature than the Sulley-Boo relationship in Monsters, Inc. But these are robots, who barely speak and don't even have faces. Yet they can display - and evoke - the full range of human emotion, including falling in love. The outer space "dance" scene is magical; the kind of magic that made me love film in the first place. There's more genuine romance between these two CGI robots than in most live-action flesh-and-blood screen couples. (That's right, The Proposal, hang your head in shame.)
Aside from being a terrific love story, it's also a sci-fi film that's aware of the satirical side of the genre. There are pointed jabs at consumerism, commercialism, environmental neglect, and how luxury encourages decadence; the intelligence with which it makes these points makes it solid science fiction. And then there's the theme of overriding one's own "programming". When EVE falls for WALL-E, she sets aside her directives for him; but he reminds her of them out of his love for her. And when he seems to revert to his own mindless trash-compactor programming, it is their love that once again restores him to his true self. It's the perfect metaphor for how passion can overcome conditioning, especially love - the greatest of human passions. This is a film that inspires it.
One thing I've noticed in every Pixar movie to date is that they all reward multiple viewings - there's always something you didn't see or realise the first time, something that affects you more the second (or third, or fourth) time. Which is why I will be watching Up again, and I'm looking forward to it. One of my original titles for this retrospective was "The movie studio that can do no wrong" - they really are, and they really can't. Excellence is ingrained into them; great storytelling is SOP for them; making some of the best films of all time is simply de rigueur for them. What's truly amazing isn't that they've made ten great movies and no lousy ones - it's that they will most likely always make great movies. We are lucky - nay, blessed - to have them.
Update: I've had my second viewing of Up and updated my review. And since this retrospective has been pretty much leading up to it anyway, I can now rank all ten Pixar films by my preference.
1. The Incredibles
4. Toy Story 2
5. Finding Nemo
6. Toy Story
8. Monsters, Inc.
10. A Bug's Life
Bear in mind, the distinctions between most of these rankings are very fine. I wasn't sure where to put Toy Story 2 and Finding Nemo, I suspect I like Up more than WALL-E simply because I watched it more recently on the big screen, and both even made me reconsider The Incredibles. So allow me to disclaim once again - even Pixar's weakest movies are better movies than most. This is not a list of best to worst. It's a list of ten truly amazing films - and the fact that they all come from the same studio is what's most amazing of all.
Update: Ratings revised to reflect my new five-star rating scale.