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'Up' gives Pixar a milestone: 10 computer-generated films

No matter what audiences and critics think of Up, it will make history when it hits theaters Friday as Pixar's 10th full-length, completely computer-generated film. (It has been Disney/Pixar since 2006.) Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the gang would be so proud. It all started with 1995's Toy Story, the milestone movie that changed the face of animated films forever. How do they all stack up now? We asked Times film critic Steve Persall to rank them according to how well their entertainment value has held up over the years.

1. Toy Story

Original grade (1995): A+

It may seem old-school now, but audiences gaped in stunned awe at the complete computer animation, the first full-length film of its kind. But the real grabber was the clever story with heart. It's the adventures of old-fashioned cowboy doll Woody (Tom Hanks), who gets jealous when a blinged-out Buzz Lightyear doll (Tim Allen) replaces him as tops in the toy box. What kid — or adult for that matter — can't relate to that? Persall's pick for best movie of the year.

Wow, really? Early scripts had Barbie as a prominent love interest for Woody, but Mattel, sensing a flop, said no. Funny how the company changed its tune for Toy Story 2.

2. Finding Nemo

Original grade (2003): A

It turned tough-guy Persall into a jellyfish: "The third time I saw Finding Nemo was as marvelous as the first. Not many films pull me into theaters that many times. Even fewer could make me laugh, jump and weep at the same material each viewing." The father-son tale follows Marlin (Albert Brooks) — a clownfish and helicopter parent — who goes on a Homer-style odyssey to find his son, Nemo (Alexander Gould). Along the way, our favorite workplace mantra is spawned: "Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming" (a marvelous performance by Ellen DeGeneres as Dory).

Wow, really? The Pixar team ended up making the surface water look more fake so people wouldn't think it was real footage.

3. Monsters, Inc.

Original grade (2001): A

Yes, there really are monsters in the closet. But the movie explains with cheeky humor how and why they do it. It gives lovable faces to a child's fears, making them not so scary anymore. How refreshing, especially since this film came out a couple of months after 9/11. Plus, it's much funnier than Shrek. Grand performances by John Goodman (Sulley) and Billy Crystal (Mike).

Wow, really? It took 11 to 12 hours to render a single frame of Sulley because of his 2.3 million individually animated hair strands.

4. Toy Story 2

Original grade (1999): A

Some of the wow factor had worn off the technology by now, but that's the only setback. We're charmed all over again as beloved Woody is stolen by a toy collector (who knew he was so valuable?), and Buzz and the other playthings take off on a daring rescue. Remember the classic toys crossing the busy intersection using plain red traffic cones? Brilliant!

Wow, really? Barbie's dance moves were based on Ann-Margret's in Viva Las Vegas (1964).

5. WALL-E

Original grade (2008): B

This has to be one of the most beautiful 'toons ever. But the story of a cute little robot that collects and compacts trash on an abandoned Earth is a bit too scattered, into outer space and back. And we need more than bleeps and blats to drive home the lessons about fat, polluting humans. It did make us remember to take our canvas bags — no plastic! — to the grocery store, though.

Wow, really? Among the junk on the planet is the Pizza Planet delivery truck from Toy Story. In fact, that truck turns up in nearly every Pixar film. Will it show up in Up, too?

6. The Incredibles

Original grade (2004): B-

It accomplishes what no animated film ever did before but live-action movies have done forever: drives a good idea into the ground. Thin material about a family of undercover superheroes is stretched into an incredibly long movie that you need superpowers to sit through.

Wow, really? The sound of the flying saucers on the island is made by a muffled Indy car.

7. Cars

Original grade (2006): B+

There's not really anything wrong with Cars, it just needs a bit more gas in places to keep rolling. It's easy to like and laugh at race car Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) as he discovers the errors of his hotshot ways, but the characters seldom engage our feelings. Best character goes to Tow Mater, the voice of Larry the Cable Guy.

Wow, really? The character of Mack (John Ratzenberger) was originally going to be a Peterbilt but was changed because Ratzenberger's dad drove a Mack in Chicago.

8. Ratatouille

Original grade (2007): C+

The fitful story of Remy (Patton Oswalt) — a Paris rat who is one heck of a chef — is lovely but leaden. It's not the type of rollicking fun that keeps children's interest from wandering to the concession stand.

Wow, really? Remember the scene where Remy is wandering the apartment and he gets barked at by a dog whose shadow appears on the wall? You'll see that same dog as Dug in Up.

9. A Bug's Life

Original grade (1998): B+

This was Pixar's next film after Toy Story, but it just wasn't the same. Sure, the adventures of misfit ant Flik (Dave Foley) and his mission to save the food supply dazzle the eyes, but the film is missing the most important part: heart. "You wind up admiring A Bug's Life, then shrugging it off," Persall wrote.

Wow, really? When Dim scares Thumper away, his roar is the same as the T-rex in Jurassic Park.

Compiled by Times staff writer Kelly Smith from reviews by Times film critic Steve Persall and imdb.com. Rankings by Persall

Going up?

Up (PG) is an ironic title for a Disney/Pixar animated flick since the studios' cache with its bread-and-peanut butter audience of families has declined over the past few years. Disney/Pixar is more concerned lately with impressing critics and awards voters who usually don't have to buy tickets anyway.

No matter how hard the studios sold Ratatouille and WALL-E as kid-friendly comedy — a bait-and-switch tactic, to be sure — their box office numbers paled in comparison to Toy Story, Finding Nemo and other previous hits.

Consider the rise in ticket prices over the past decade, and admissions to Ratatouille and WALL-E are closer to A Bug's Life. All three share the same comparative lack of devotion among families plugging in a DVD for a night's entertainment. I'll bet Disney's shareholders would swap those Academy Awards given to Ratatouille and WALL-E for a better return on their investments.

Up appears to continue the maturity trend, featuring a 78-year-old hero named Carl Fredricksen (voiced by Ed Asner, not exactly a youth market drawing card). Carl is a widower who hooks thousands of helium balloons to his house, flying it into remote South American jungles. With any luck, a stiff breeze will blow him closer to the comical critters of Madagascar.

Up recently became the first animated 3D movie to open the Cannes Film Festival, and we know what crowd-pleasers those folks are. Critics likened the film's opening sequence, a black-and-white reverie of Carl and his dead wife's life together, to Orson Welles' overrated and largely unseen epic, The Magnificent Ambersons. Sounds like summertime movie fun, Disney/Pixar neo-style.

Up wasn't screened in time for Weekend. A review will be posted Friday at entertainment.tampabay.com and published Saturday on Etc, Page 2B.

Steve Persall, Times film critic

The Ratzenberger factor

Pixar must consider actor John Ratzenberger (you know, Cliff from Cheers) its good-luck charm — he voices characters in all 10 films:

Toy Story and Toy Story 2:
Hamm the Piggy Bank (below)

A Bug's Life: P.T. Flea

Monsters, Inc.: The Abominable Snowman

Finding Nemo: School of Silver Fish

The Incredibles: The Underminer

Cars: Mack

Ratatouille: Mustafa the Waiter

WALL-E: John

Up: Tom, a construction foreman

And the Oscar goes to . . .

What, how could Toy Story not win an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature? For one thing, the category wasn't added until the 2001 film year, well after Toy Story's time. Otherwise, Pixar has kicked some computer-generated butt. Of the six feature films Pixar has made since 2001, all have been nominated and four have won Best Animated Feature: Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille and WALL-E. Monsters, Inc. lost to Shrek, but won Best Original Song for If I Didn't Have You, by Randy Newman.

'Up' gives Pixar a milestone: 10 computer-generated films 05/27/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 29, 2009 8:45am]

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