(Pocket-lint) – Pixar has mastered computer animation and, possibly, hidden storytelling.
Nearly 25 years ago, the studio released its first film, Toy Story, and, since then, it’s become a movie-making powerhouse that appears to be discretely weaving a grand narrative between all its films. All these brilliant “kid” movies, which appear to be unconnected, may actually be part of the same universe. There’s even a theory for this, called The Pixar Theory, popularised by Jon Negroni.
It’s not as official or even as clear to understand as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the PCU, or Pixar Cinematic Universe, is still connected. It’s just way more subtle, with clues scattered across two dozen films and set against this wild story of an alternate Earth history. It begins with The Good Dinosaur, when an asteroid misses Earth and dinosaurs survive.
From then on, Earth becomes controlled by dinosaurs, then humans, followed by machines, and finally, intelligent animals – all over the course of millions of years in the PCU. Each Pixar film adds to this timeline. If you’d like to experience it yourself, we’ve outlined the correct order to watch all the Pixar films and why. We also included an at-a-glance list version at the bottom that’s free of spoilers.
What order should you watch the Pixar movies and why?
The PCU is a tangled mess of stories, puzzles, and hints that traverse time, from the dinosaur age to the year 5000 on Earth. There are so many existing theories that try to make several connections and squeeze every film into one universe. But The Pixar Theory is the most popular version, and it’s the one we’ve chosen to feature, though you may notice some differences, which we explain.
NOTE: THERE ARE SPOILERS BELOW.
The Good Dinosaur (2015)
The theory behind the PCU timeline, or The Pixar Theory, puts The Good Dinosaur up first. Unfortunately, this film is considered a box office bomb, a rarity for Pixar. If you really want to see how the PCU begins, you must start here and learn the story of a timid Apatosaurus, named Arlo, who is stranded far from his home. But he meets a cave boy, Spot, and they work to return home.
This film sets the stage for the Pixar Cinematic Universe, by showing us an alternate Earth history – one where dinosaurs are never killed off by an asteroid impact. This allowed dinosaurs to advance to a close-to-human level, foreshadowing the capabilities of animals in the future. However, we also see the dinosaurs struggle, especially in the new world, where humans are succeeding.
Brave is set in medieval Scotland – millions of years after the events in The Good Dinosaur. This film follows an unconventional princess, named Merida, who doesn’t want to be betrothed to one of her father’s allies’ sons. After running away from home, she is led by past lives, in the form of floating blue light Will O’ the Wisps, to The Witch’s cabin, where she has the chance to change her fate by feeding her mother a cursed cake.
The Witch is a central figure in The Pixar Theory – and we’ll get to why in a bit. For now, notice she is able to walk through a door to seemingly transport to different places. Eagle-eyed watchers also spotted in her cabin a carving of what looks like Sully from Pixar’s Monsters Inc, as well as several wooden bears. The cabin is also full of sentient objects, including knives, which appear to turn on The Witch for a moment.
It’s almost as if all these objects were capable of having thoughts or their own willpower, just like the toys in Pixar’s Toy Story.
The Incredibles (2004)
With The Incredibles, we jump to the 1950s and get to learn about the first superheroes. It starts as the US government forces them into hiding to appease a worried public. We see Mr Incredible marry Elastigirl, have three children, get a desk job, and long to fight crime as his masked alter ego. Then, suddenly, he gets a career-resurrecting chance from a man named Syndrome, a former fan, to stop superhero-killing AI robots.
The Pixar Theory takes many liberties. For instance, it believes the US government created the first superheroes, all by harnessing emotions, a powerful energy that humans create. While superheroes eventually die out, the collection of human emotions continues, largely thanks to a super-corporation, called Buy N Large, which also makes use of the AI technology that Syndrome created to defeat superheroes.
Luca is set in 1959 and tells the story of a young sea monster who’s been told his whole life about the terrible world above water, but thanks to his friend Alberto, he still can’t resist the allure of checking out what’s up there. In fact, the two begin visiting the surface daily, and they change to humans when they’re above water.
When his parents find out he’s been disobeying them by visiting the surface, Luca runs away from home to live above water, rather than heading to the deep sea.
Luca and Alberto enter a human town for the first time – with the goal of completing their dream of getting a Vespa. The two befriend a young girl, Giulia, and they form a team with her to defeat other children in a Triathalon of eating pasta, swimming, and biking. Soon Luca’s parents venture to the surface for the first time in hopes of finding their son.
The Incredibles 2 (2018)
Incredibles 2 picks up immediately where the first film ended. We see the Incredibles family battle the Underminer and cause extensive damage to their city, which leads to the family being cut off from witness protection-like assistance they had been receiving from the US government. This causes the family to go work for a wealthy family, which has a grand plan of restoring superheroes to their past glory by regaining public trust.
This film primarily focuses on the public’s distrust of super-powered human beings, which ultimately lead to their extinction, according to The Pixar Theory. The government, sick of being held responsible for the aftermath of superheroes and their actions, cuts off support for all the so-called “supers”. Incredibles 2 also shows the rise of super corporations, including a telecommunications company owned by Winston Deavor.
Toy Story (1995)
The first Pixar film is actually set in the 1990s – decades after the events in Incredibles 2. Toy Story confirms every child’s suspicion that their action figures and other playthings are alive. It follows the story of Woody, who loses his title of “Andy’s favourite toy” to the new Buzz Lightyear.
The Pixar Theory somehow figured out that Buy N Large created toys in order to harvest the power of human emotions, though that same energy the toys are collecting also makes them come to life. Buy N Large is everywhere in the PCU.
Turning Red (2022 – Not yet available)
Turning Red tells the story of 13-year old Mei Lee, a Chinese-Canadian girl who lives in Toronto around 2002 or 2003. She lives a normal life until she awakes one morning having turned into a gigantic red panda. She soon learns her family has an ancient connection to the animal, and she will turn into a red panda whenever she’s stressed, upset, or just emotional.
Turning Red releases on Disney+ on 11 March 2022.
Toy Story 2 (1999)
When Woody is damaged, he begins to confront his own mortality and a future when he will no longer be played with by Andy. Then, while saving a broken toy from a yard sale, Woody is abducted by a nefarious toy collector, which causes his friends to launch a mission to save him.
This sequel is set the year it came out, and it shows the start of the toys resenting their humans. We especially see this with the toys that Woody meets while being held captive. They’ve all been abandoned by their owners. This bubbling resentment toward humans, according to The Pixar Theory, also extends to the animal world.
Finding Nemo (2003)
Finding Nemo is set just after the events in the first two Toy Story films – so, the early aughts. The film tells the story of Nemo, a young clownfish that lives with his overbearing, overprotective father – that is, until he’s captured by a scuba diver. His father, Marlin, then immediately enlists the help of a fish named Dory, and the two of them go on a long, yet adorable cross-world adventure together to find his missing son.
This film shows sea creatures with similar levels of intellectual advancement as the toys in Toy Story. They communicate, have schools and shops, and they have a working society. We also see that fish held in captivity have the same resentment of humans as neglected toys do.
Finding Dory (2016)
The sequel to Finding Nemo takes place right after the first film. We see Dory, Marlin, and Nemo set out across the Pacific ocean, all with the hope of finding Dory’s parents. However, when Dory is kidnapped and taken to the Marine Life Institute, those plans are put on hold.
Finding Dory reveals that Dory was raised in captivity in close proximity to humans. The Pixar Theory thinks that is the cause of her memory issues, but notes she is highly intelligent and capable of learning other languages like whale and can even read. So, while animals and toys might grow to resent humans, Dory’s intellect suggests that, the closer in proximity to humans fish are, the smarter they can become.
Ratatouille occurs a few years after Finding Dory in the PCU timeline – likely in 2007, the year it was made. It shows the happier side of human emotions and their impact on animals in this universe. The film follows a rat, named Remy, who dreams of becoming a chef like his hero, Auguste Gusteau. Remy soon finds himself working in secret with a chef in the restaurant of his now-deceased hero.
The obvious connection between Ratatouille and the other Pixar films is the intellectual ability of Remy and the strife between humans and everything else. His clan of fellow rats is angry at humans, especially because people aren’t exactly excited to eat in a restaurant staffed by rodents. Still, we see that a rat who lives in very close contact with humans can become a top chef in the world.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
The third entry in the Toy Story series takes place 11 years after first the sequel. At this point in the universe, only a small collection of the original toys remain, and Andy hasn’t played with them in many years. In the process of Andy leaving for college, all the toys, except for Woody, are accidentally donated to a daycare, where toys are mistreated and easily broken by children.
Toy Story 3 features tons of hints at the larger universe in the form of easter eggs that include: Darla from Finding Nemo; a hint that Andy knows Carl and Ellie from Up; and, potentially, even a glimpse at a slightly older Boo (from Monsters Inc) who attends the daycare. The film even shows us Buzz is powered by Buy N Large batteries, another connection between the toys and the corporation.
Toy Story 4 (2019)
Toy Story 4 takes place soon after the end of Toy Story 3, when we see Andy leave Woody, Buzz, and the rest of his toys to Bonnie. Bonnie has now entered kindergarten and brings home a new toy she made, the aptly named Forky, a spork with googly eyes. As Bonnie and her toys go on a road trip, Forky leaves and begins to question the meaning of his own existence, but Woody goes after him, and the two go on an adventure.
This film does a lot to answer questions of how the toys come to life, as we see the creation of a toy from some scraps of trash just through the love of a child. It also shows that there are different levels of sentience for each toy, as Woody acknowledges that he has some sort of conscious inner voice, which his longtime friend Buzz Lightyear can’t wrap his head around.
The Pixar Theory points toward Andy’s relationship to Woody as being so powerful that Andy’s memories have allowed Woody to achieve a level of sentience that few, if any, other toys have ever reached this point in the timeline.
Up is set around 2009 – the year the film debuted. When Carl’s wife Ellie passes away, he decides to finally act on his wife’s dream of moving their house to a South American jungle oasis known as Paradise Falls. He does so by attaching about a billion balloons to his house, but he accidentally takes a boy scout – who was on his porch – with him. Once they reach their destination, the two of them find talking dogs and a prehistoric bird.
Up shows the beginning of pollution, which drives animals to turn against humans (and eventually leads to machines being in control of Earth, but more on that later). The rapidly changing world is shown in the form of large-scale industrialization and, of course, the forced relocation of Carl. The construction equipment that arrives to destroy Carl’s home even features the Buy N Large logo.
We also see the intelligence of dogs (once given the ability to talk by special collars) and, potentially, one of Arlo’s last relatives – the bird, Kevin.
Inside Out (2015)
Like the last few films, Inside Out is set in the modern day. It follows a young girl, Riley, and her family that is moving – through five personified emotions living inside her body. Initially, the emotion Joy is in control of Riley, because all of Riley’s memories are joyful. Her family moving changes that – and hints at why monsters in Monsters Inc prefer to harvest happiness, the most powerful emotion.
We also see the power of memory in the Pixar Cinematic Universe, in the form of Riley’s childhood imaginary friend, Bing Bong, a forgotten soul that ceases to exist inside Riley’s memory. There’s a strong case to be made that Bing Bong is actually Riley’s long-lost memory of a monster that was sent to harvest her happiness following the events of Monsters Inc.
Coco, again – set in the modern-day, reveals more about the power of memory in the PCU. As we see in Inside Out, when Bing Bong disappears after he is forgotten, memory has the power to keep things alive on some level. Coco focuses on that concept by showing us the world of the dead, who gets to continue on as ghostly skeletons as long as their family members remember them. Once they are forgotten, they disappear, just like Bing Bong.
This story is told through Miguel, who wants to be a musician, even though his family strictly forbids it. When he steals a guitar from the grave of a dead relative, he is cursed and taken to the Land of the Dead and has one day to receive a blessing and return to the world of the living.
The latest Pixar film is Soul. It’s set in the modern day and revolves around a middle school music teacher named Joe (Jamie Foxx), who dies after falling down an exposed manhole. His soul then goes on a journey through the afterlife as he tries to avoid death and make it back to his life on Earth. The biggest connection to the Pixar Universe comes in the form of the souls we see that are being prepared to enter Earth, like 22 (Tina Fey).
Prelife souls, like 22, are shapeless blobs that are being prepared for life. These souls don’t have to necessarily have to enter the body of a human, as we see a soul in the form of a cat on the escalator scene after Joe first enters the afterlife. This would explain how certain animals are capable of human-like thinking, like Remy in Rataoulie and Doug in Up. The same could be said about the toys in Toy Story and the Cars in the Cars series.
Cars is set in the future – a century from now – and is about Earth populated by talking cars. Naturally, racing is the preferred past time at this point in the timeline, which is why we’re introduced to Lightning McQueen, a race car that’s trying to become the first rookie to win the Piston Cup.
While you might think this is just an alternate Pixar universe, with talking cars instead of people, mind you objects talk in the PCU. Cars just takes place after humans leave a polluted Earth. The cars are either powered by Buy N Large (and Syndrome’s) AI technology, or they’ve come to life through the power of their owners’ memories. (There are several Pixar theories out there, and each one has an opinion about this.)
Cars 2 (2011)
In the direct sequel to Cars, four-time Piston Cup champion Lightning McQueen is challenged to the World Grand Prix, which is a series of races held all over the world. But the races are attacked by the evil car Zundapp, which leads to Lightning and his friend Mater having to battle the threat.
Cars 2 notably reveals vehicles are now facing a fuel shortage and that they can die. It also confirms this is all happening on Earth, which has been cleaned by robots. Remember, the robot in Wall-E had to clean one of the last dirty locations on Earth after Buy N Large abandoned the planet.
Cars 3 (2017)
Cars 3 follows an aging Lightning McQueen as he is usurped by faster, younger cars. After a terrible accident leaves him badly damaged, McQueen is helped trained back to health by Cruz, a “girl” car who always wanted to be a racer. Eventually, McQueen makes a bet with the racing company’s owner that he’ll quit racing if he doesn’t defeat the young champion Jackson Storm and win the first race of the season.
The last entry in the Cars series shows us that the cars have a shelf life. They can’t continue forever, even if they find fuel. It also shows us that some organic life exists – when Cruz mentions steering around a crab on the beach. That’s the first sign of such life in all three Cars films.
Wall-E takes place in 2800 and follows the last robot cleaning a polluted Earth. Wall-E is fascinated by human culture, which could help explain why he remained much longer than the other robots. He seems particularly interested in love, which manifests when he meets the Eve bot that is searching for signs of life. Wall-E and Eve must also work together to defeat an AI that’s been preventing humans from returning to Earth.
Wall-E actually takes place over 700 years, from when Buy N Large assumes control of the world in the latter half of the 21st century, and essentially pollutes it with trash, to humans evacuating, with the plan of having Wall-E robots gather the trash and incinerate it just five years. However, burning the trash just further contaminates Earth, so Buy N Large abandons the planet entirely.
A Bug’s Life (1998)
A Bug’s Life moved forward another century and tells the story of a would-be inventor ant, named Flik, who lives on Aunt Island. His ant colony is expected to provide an offering to a group of grasshoppers every year, but when Flik accidentally destroys what the ants have gathered for the grasshoppers, he goes on an adventure to find other bugs that can help him and the colony.
According to The Pixar Theory, A Bug’s Life occurs after humans return to Earth at the end of Wall-E. Some animal and insect species survived the pollution, as shown by the roach in Wall-E and the crabs in Cars 3. This also explains why the bugs don’t seem to fear humans as much as you might expect. There are just not that many of them around at this point in the PCU timeline.
Ian (Tom Holland) and Barley Lightfoot (Chris Pratt) are two teenage elves in a world filled with other mystical creatures like fairies and unicorns. The two must go on a journey to complete a spell started by their late father in order to spend one more day with him.
While this might sound unrelated to most of the other events in the Pixar universe, Onward and the creatures that populate the film, serve as a missing link between the sparsely populated Earth we saw at the end of A Bug’s Life, and the monster-ruled future of Monsters Inc.
Monsters University (2013)
Monsters University is a prequel to Monsters Inc. It primarily shows us how the main monsters – Mike and Sully – became close friends and even began working at Monsters Inc. The film kicks off as they are both entering college. While they don’t like each other at first, they begin working together once they are faced with expulsion if they can’t win the Scare Games.
Monsters Inc. (2001)
Monsters Inc shows us Earth around 5000, when they’re really are monsters who live in our closets. Each night, apparently, they emerge from behind the closet door to scare our children in order to gather their fear as energy. Sully is the best scarer, but he inadvertently takes a young girl, named Boo, back into his world of monsters, and she spends most of the film trying to get back.
The big twist in The Pixar Theory is that Boo is The Witch from Brave. After Sully leaves her, she spends her life trying to discover the magic behind doors. Eventually, she learns that doors allow beings to travel through time. So, monsters in Monsters Inc are traveling back in time to harvest human emotions. And it’s why The Witch uses a door to travel, has a carving of Sully, and is obsessed with Sully-like bears.
The final piece of The Pixar Theory involves the animals that remain on Earth. The ants in A Bug’s Life, the roach in Wall-E, the crabs from Cars 3, and anything else that survived the pollution have evolved into monsters – eventually replacing humans, very similar to how humans replaced dinosaurs in The Good Dinosaur. However, human emotions are the main power source in the PCU.
This solves the mystery of why monsters are leveraging time travel to harvest the emotions of children from the past.
Spoiler-free version: The Pixar Theory at a glance
This is the same list as above, just condensed and free of spoilers.
- The Good Dinosaur (2015)
- Brave (2012)
- The Incredibles (2004)
- Luca (2021)
- The Incredibles 2 (2018)
- Toy Story (1995)
- Toy Story 2 (1999)
- Turning Red (2022 – Not yet available)
- Finding Nemo (2003)
- Finding Dory (2016)
- Ratatouille (2007)
- Toy Story 3 (2010)
- Toy Story 4 (2019)
- Up (2009)
- Inside Out (2015)
- Coco (2017)
- Soul (2020)
- Cars (2006)
- Cars 2 (2011)
- Cars 3 (2017)
- Wall-E (2008)
- A Bug’s Life (1998)
- Onward (2020)
- Monsters University (2013)
- Monsters Inc. (2003)
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Writing by Maggie Tillman.