Pixar movies are widely regarded as some of the best that animation has to offer, and that’s because they’re the perfect combination of world-building, clever plotting, and meaningful storytelling. It’s why they consistently are some of Disney’s most popular and beloved movies, and why they are among the best-reviewed movies each year.
Amid these great stories, though, there is also a roster of great characters who don’t often get the credit they deserve. These characters are the best that Pixar has ever produced, and they span the studio’s history, from 1995 to the present day.
Edna Mode (The Incredibles)
Everything superhero costume designer Edna Mode says is cutting and wonderful, but perhaps the funniest thing about her is that she’s voiced by director Brad Bird, who realized that his voice was all they needed to nail the part. Edna is not the most deeply moving character in a Pixar movie, but she’s wonderful precisely because she cuts through all the crap and gets to the heart of what matters to her.
She also designs truly excellent supersuits, and she knows it. Edna may not have any superpowers herself, but she consistently proves that she’s the coolest person in the universe of The Incredibles.
Carl Frederickson (Up)
From the very first minutes of Up, we know that Carl Frederickson did not get to have the adventures that he wanted to have. The rest of the movie features Carl (voiced by Ed Asner) attempting to live the dream he never got to pursue in his youth, only to discover that his life was full of wonderful memories that sit right along every tragedy.
Up is perhaps Pixar at its most quietly profound, and while some of the plot elements are a little forgettable, Carl is anything but. He’s a curmudgeon with a heart of gold, but he’s also so much more than that. He’s a man who has to learn how to appreciate the wonder of the life he’s led.
By virtue of how this movie is designed, Wall-E doesn’t really say much. In spite of his silence, though, it’s easy to feel like you know Wall-E intimately. He loves watching old musicals, he takes delight in experiencing new things, and he gets scared sometimes.
In a universe filled with lovable characters, Wall-E may sit atop the pile. He’s just a simple cleanup droid who falls in love with a sophisticated scanner droid and winds up in an adventure he never intended to go on. Wall-E remains a high watermark of what Pixar can do, and part of that is because of how much effort is put into the main character.
Woody (Toy Story 1-4)
Before anyone knew anything about Pixar, two-time Oscar-winner Tom Hanks was already on board. Playing Woody the talking toy cowboy, Hanks created a fairly prickly character who is always perfectly understandable, even if you don’t always like him. Woody spends the first movie afraid that he’s being replaced, and every subsequent movie in the franchise is about what it means to have a purpose. The Toy Story franchise keeps finding new ways to innovate, and it’s successful because Woody remains a great character, even if you don’t always like his choices.
Bing Bong (Inside Out)
The imaginary friend Reilly lost ages ago, Bing Bong is the silliest and most profound element of Inside Out. In a story that takes place primarily inside of a girl’s brain, the worst fate you can meet is to be forgotten, and that’s precisely what happens to Bing Bong, as we see him fade away and out of the aging mind of Reilly. In a story about what it means to grow older and embrace complex emotions, Bing Bong’s disappearance is a clear reminder that growing up, for all of its liberating qualities, can also be something of a tragedy.
Stinky Pete (Toy Story 2)
In almost every way, Stinky Pete is Woody’s antithesis. He’s a toy so afraid of being left behind that he becomes determined to get shipped to a museum where he’ll always feel important. Woody’s journey in Toy Story 2 allows him to come to the realization that it’s better to be loved and discarded than never to be loved at all.
Stinky Pete is the best Toy Story villain because his motivations are so easy to understand. He wants to be loved, and while he may still be a toy, that makes him feel deeply human too.
Colette Tatou (Ratatouille)
A young female cook who has more natural skill in her pinkie that Linguini has in his entire spindly frame, Colette Tatou is a standout from the second we meet her in Ratatouille. What earned her a spot on this list, though, is that her passions for Linguini are ultimately secondary to her admiration of the rat who used his body as a meat puppet.
She wants to work with the best chefs in the world, and as hard as it might be for her to admit, Remy the rat is one of those great cooks. She returns to help not for Linguini, but for a rat, and is silly as that sounds, it’s also kind of beautiful.
Dory (Finding Nemo and Finding Dory)
Public opinion on Ellen DeGeneres is decidedly more mixed than it was 20 years ago, but Dory remains one of the sweetest characters Pixar has ever dreamed up. A blue tang fish who suffers from short-term memory loss, Finding Nemo finds the perfect balance between comedy and genuine pathos for the character, and by the end of the film, we see exactly how horrifying it is for Dory to live with her condition. In spite of her struggles, though, Dory is consistently the most open and optimistic character in the film. She’s the one who wants to be trusting, and by the end of the film, she convinces Marlon to open up a little as well.
Ming Lee (Turning Red)
Turning Red is one of Pixar’s most recent films, but Sandra Oh’s maternal Ming Lee has already established herself as an all-time great Pixar character. Ming is a protective mother, unwilling to allow her daughter to be subjected to any danger or even to make her own choices.
The film’s plot, which features a young girl who turns into a giant red panda when she gets too emotional, is a brilliant metaphor for puberty, but it’s Ming Lee who becomes the movie’s emotional core. She’s a wounded woman trying to do right by her daughter and who finds herself incapable of avoiding the mistakes that her own mother made with her.
The titular character in Pixar’s Luca may not be an obvious pick for this list, but part of the movie’s charm is that it spends so much of its time developing its core characters. Luca is just a little fish boy who finds that life on land is worth pursuing, and has to adjust his plans for the rest of his life accordingly.
It’s a remarkably simple story, but it allows Luca to feel truly three-dimensional. He’s a curious kid who makes a couple of new friends, and ultimately decides that he doesn’t want the same things as the boy he’s come to love and care for deeply. It’s what growing up is all about.