Pixar sequels are notoriously hit-or-miss. To be fair though, living up to classics like Toy Story and Finding Nemo isn’t easy — especially when you’re creating flops like Cars 2. That’s why we’re spotlighting the very best of Pixar’s theatrical follow-ups. Here’s our ranking of the five best Pixar sequels to date.
5. Cars 3
After the mess that was Cars 2, which starred Mater in a spy romp, few were looking forward to the next installment of the franchise. Fortunately, Pixar surprised us with an equal dose of heart and visual splendor. In Cars 3, Lightning McQueen looks to prove his worth as a racer as younger and more efficient rookies usurp his spot on the track.
Most people can (or will) relate to Cars 3. Eventually, we all have to retire from our dream profession and let the next generation carry on the legacy. It’s a daunting prospect, and one that McQueen has to contend with. There’s no big bad villain that’s oppressing McQueen, it’s just the reality of life. Grounding the plot in realism makes the movie feel genuine, despite revolving around anthropomorphic vehicles.
4. Finding Dory
When Dory ventures out to reunite with her parents, her short-term memory causes complications at nearly every turn. Finding Dory takes what was a gag from the original movie, and turns it into an allegory for disability. Dory is portrayed as mentally ill; her functionality is limited as she can forget even the most crucial aspects of her life (such as the whereabouts of her family).
And Dory’s not the only one that’s affected. In forming a familial bond with Dory, Marlin develops a sense of responsibility for her and fears for her ability to survive alone. Disability is a subject that rarely appears in family-friendly entertainment, and Pixar does a masterful job at portraying it realistically (though having a character as optimistic as Dory keeps the movie from becoming too somber).
3. Incredibles 2
When we last saw the Parr family, Supers were still illegal. That’s exactly what Elastigirl sets out to change, in a mission that pits her against a mysterious supervillain. Meanwhile, Mr. Incredible takes on a heroic mission of his own: being a stay-at-home dad.
Much like its predecessor, Incredibles 2 shines in its mix of thrilling action and slice-of-life storytelling. In between Elastigirl’s mission are smaller subplots involving the everyday happenings of the Parr family. We see Violet dealing with her first crush, Dash’s struggle with math, and Bob’s attempts to keep everything afloat as a quasi-single parent.
And therein lies the genius of the Incredibles franchise. The Parrs are as likable as they are relatable. As an audience member, you see yourself in these characters, which makes their “normal lives” just as engaging to watch as a battle against the Underminer. Couple that with the return of Frozone and Edna Mode, and Incredibles 2 is one of Pixar’s most purely entertaining films to date.
2. Toy Story 2
While on the verge of becoming part of a greedy collector’s toy museum exhibit, Woody contemplates whether he should embrace the idea of being enjoyed by generations of spectators or stay loyal to an owner that will eventually discard him. Toy Story 2 feels like the perfect continuation — Woody’s dilemma presents higher stakes, while the comedy is upped by giving more screen time to characters like Rex and Mr. Potato Head. We’re also introduced to a plethora of new faces, the most notable being Jessie, a hyperactive cowgirl.
On a deeper level, we’re reminded of the inevitability that Andy will one day grow up and abandon his toys. Understanding that, we can see why Woody would feel torn over which future he should choose. The richness of this internal struggle is what truly elevates Toy Story 2 above the high bar set by its predecessor.
1. Toy Story 3
Andy’s preparing to leave for college, which means it’s time to part with his toys. While anxiously contemplating their next move, Woody and the gang find themselves in a prison-like daycare ruled by an evil teddy bear with a vendetta against toy owners.
Toy Story 3‘s darker tone is something of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we’ve grown so attached to these characters that watching them face trials, like losing Andy, isn’t easy. On the other hand, the movie’s happy ending is all the more satisfying, given the emotional journey it took to get there. There’s also plenty of fun to be had, with clever homages to jailbreak movies peppered throughout the daycare scenes, and the inclusion of the hilarious duo of Barbie and Ken. Toy Story 3 is not only a perfect conclusion to the Toy Story series, it’s also Pixar at its absolute best.