Although sequels have dominated the Pixar slate for the past decade — seven of the studio’s 11 most recent movies have been franchise follow-ups — its filmmakers do not take each return to existing properties lightly.
In the case of “Toy Story 4,” for instance, director Josh Cooley knew he had a large legacy to live up to. “We knew what came before us,” he says, “and we wanted to acknowledge that and make sure [our film] felt worthy.” So from the standpoint of storytelling, the Oscar-nominated filmmaker says he needed to ensure there were enough creative “bullets in the gun” to again call on Woody and the gang.
Across more than two decades, Pixar has had an uncommon ability to reload creatively with its sequels, but naturally, some feel more ambitious and fully realized than others.
Fans forever debate which Pixar films top their personal rankings. But as “Toy Story 4” officially opens Friday — a year before the studio plans to release two original stories, “Onward” and “Soul” — we rank only its eight sequels, to assess which ones indeed feel “worthy”:
8. “Cars 2” (2011)
Pixar alumnus Wayne Knight once sagely said that his Newman character on “Seinfeld,” as a comic sidekick, was better served up as a spice and not the main course. Unfortunately for this movie, the sidekick tow-truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) from the charming “Cars” becomes part of the entree here for an off-kilter, James Bond-esque international adventure that careens about, trying to avert potholes and plot holes. It was said that the filmmakers’ mantra became, “What would Mater do?” If only Mater could have replied: “Shucks — keep me in the spice rack.”
7. “Cars 3” (2017)
As much of the Pixar brain trust moved into middle age, a recurring theme became about what happens when life’s wear and tear takes its toll on a former star, hero or champion. “Cars 3” gets plenty of narrative mileage from how Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) finds his new place in a young car’s sport, and the movie is boosted by its sometimes dazzling high-speed effects.
6. “Monsters University” (2013)
Pixar ventures into prequel territory as we get to see Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sully (John Goodman) in college, before they became the scaremongering pals we enjoyed in Pete Docter’s winning “Monsters, Inc.” Friendship that transcends obstacles is a consistently winning idea for Pixar, and in this prequel, that provides the emotional core beneath plenty of buddy shtick.
5. “Finding Dory” (2016)
Pixar has an impeccable record with matching character and voice actor, and one of its master strokes was hiring Ellen DeGeneres to play Dory the blue tang in the brilliant “Finding Nemo.” DeGeneres is able to deliver that same endearing magic in this title turn, as the franchise’s exploration of “lost family” continues to provide the psychological drive — while a slippery “septopus” and marine life with challenged abilities enter the new “road trip” adventure.
4. “Toy Story 4” (2019)
Cooley and his colleagues tackle perhaps the toughest task any Pixar creative team has yet faced: Justify a new movie’s merit following a deeply inspired coda to a trilogy. Fortunately, the return of Bo Peep (Annie Potts) is an inspired narrative decision, as she demonstrates how Woody can adapt to change — perhaps even completing his four-film arc.
3. “Incredibles 2” (2018)
Brad Bird’s “The Incredibles” tops many fan lists as the best Pixar film, so it’s a tall order to follow up such greatness. The excellence of the sequel centers largely on the stunning action sequences — the high-speed effects rival those of some top live-action franchises — and on the center spotlight focused on Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), who becomes arguably the most fully realized Pixar heroine yet.
2. “Toy Story 2” (1999)
How do you follow up a pioneering classic that in 1995 launched a studio into feature filmmaking? John Lasseter and his team decided to center a story on what happens when relationships, much like doll parts, need repair. “Toy Story 2” offers an abundance of brilliance, from Buzz Lightyear’s self-discovery in Al’s Toy Barn to the evocative nostalgia of “Woody’s Roundup.” Plus, the mournful “When She Loved Me” montage for Jessie the cowgirl (Joan Cusack) creates a template for all future Pixar scenes that pluck the heartstrings of memory and loss — an ongoing staple that helps distinguish Pixar from most all other animation studios.
1. “Toy Story 3” (2010)
“Toy Story 2” was this close to topping our rankings, but the key here is context. How we judge director Lee Unkrich’s entry factors in the high expectations that the franchise’s first two masterful films set. Revisiting beloved characters so many years later was a high-stakes play. Yet Pixar — amid an amazing creative run (“Up,” “Ratatouille,” “WALL-E”) — came up flush, somehow creating the most frighteningly lifelike climax in studio history (we’re sure those toys clasping hands at the incinerator have souls), and then completing grown Andy’s arc with a last masterstroke.
But now that young Bonnie has the dolls and action figures, will there be a “Toy Story 5”?