Pixar movies aren’t really known for having great plot twists. But there are still a few good ones here and there that we can appreciate.
So which Pixar “plot twist” is the best? This isn’t an easy question to answer, and obviously Pixar fans will spar and disagree over the top 5, let alone the very best. That said, I’ve devised my own rating system for each of Pixar’s most relevant plot twists, and to answer this question for myself, I’m breaking down the Pixar filmography movie by movie to assign these ratings and form my own conclusion accordingly.
But first, let’s define what a plot twist really is as best we can. To keep things simple, I consider a plot twist to be a radical shift in the expected outcome of the plot. Normally, we would only consider these to be plot twists if they happen closer to the end of the story, but I think a great plot twist can be revealed as early as the second act.
(Warning, this post contains spoilers for every single Pixar movie!)
Let’s begin with Pixar’s first feature-length film: Toy Story.
Toy Story – N/A (not applicable)
This one is interesting because it’s the rare Pixar film without any discernible plot twist. The main revelations throughout the story are introspective. Buzz Lightyear learns what the audience and the other characters have known all along, in that he isn’t a toy. Woody learns that he doesn’t have to be the “top toy” to look out for Andy. Sid realizes the toys are alive, but this is a plot development, and so on.
One could even argue that this lack of a plot twist elevates the classic nature of the story in Toy Story, so perhaps we can leave it at that.
A Bug’s Life – N/A
I almost considered one moment in A Bug’s Life to classify as a plot twist: when Flik stands up to Hopper and reveals that together, the ants are collectively stronger than the grasshoppers. But this isn’t a plot twist because an earlier scene between Hopper and his cohorts reveals this theme, and it’s not a “twist” so much as it is a plot development.
Everything else in A Bug’s Life is pretty straightforward. Flik lies about the circus bugs being warriors, and the audience is in on the subterfuge the whole time. Which brings us to…
Toy Story 2 – 7/10
With Toy Story 2, we see the first official Pixar plot twist (by my estimation), and I have a feeling a lot of fans will consider this one their favorite. The reveal that Stinky Pete was manipulating Woody the entire time for his own benefit, and that he long resented Woody and Jesse’s popularity among children, was especially potent, though a little obvious for older viewers (hence the 7/10).
Still, it’s a solid twist that serves the story and provides the film with a more relatable antagonist than Al (the “chicken man.”) This is a tough one to top.
Monsters Inc. – 5/10
Come on, who didn’t see this coming? The issue with this plot twist is the timing. It’s evident Waternoose is in on the whole scheme almost the first moment he’s revealed as a character. I do give the twist a little credit, however, because of how it weaves in more interesting motivations for Randall, plus the impetus to kidnap children and steal their screams is horrific and memorable.
Still, it’s clear that the film wants you to be shocked that Waternoose is the real villain, and the reveal takes far too long to come around to trick any viewers, even the younger ones. It’s a fair twist, but definitely not all that compelling, especially since this film came right after Toy Story 2 and mirrors the Stinky Pete reversal.
Finding Nemo – N/A
By my estimation, nothing in Finding Nemo can classify as a major plot twist, though I do understand why some might consider the Bruce subplot as one.
And sure, it’s genuinely funny and surprising that Bruce, a great white shark, isn’t trying to eat our fish friends (at first) and is trying to reform his ways. But this isn’t a “plot twist” because it doesn’t affect the plot. It’s just an amusing step in a bigger journey, and the reveal for Bruce is entertaining, but not all that important.
Later in the film, the twists are normal plot developments and examples of “try/fail” scenarios. Marlin has to learn to trust Dory in the same way he should trust Nemo. Dory continues to impress with her quirky abilities throughout the whole movie. Nemo essentially comes of age and learns to be self-reliant. The movie doesn’t really need any plot twists, in my opinion, so this one is easy to settle.
The Incredibles – 8/10
We might have an early winner, here. The more I think about the twists in Incredibles, the more I deeply appreciate the entire movie. To be clear, there are several twists worth mentioning.
Obviously, the big twist is Syndrome’s reveal as Buddy, Mr. Incredible’s “superfan” from the film’s opening scene. This twist works well because even though most in the audience saw it coming that Mr. Incredible would be betrayed by this “organization” recruiting him to relive his glory days, many didn’t predict that the villain would be the boy he shunned years prior. Like any good plot twist, the audience falls victim to some clever misdirection, thinking they’re ahead of the movie when they’re not.
In some ways, it’s almost a gimmicky plot twist because not that much information sets up the reveal. We only get a handful of scenes with Buddy, and they establish resentment, rather than this inevitability that he would go on to seek vengeance. But the twist is still great because it serves the plot immensely and is revealed at the perfect time for when it’s still surprising. Syndrome’s motivations directly tie into the overall “anti-super” sentiment teased throughout the whole movie.
Cars – 6.5/10
Not joking. The Pixar plot twist in Cars is actually pretty decent, even though it exists in a mostly underwhelming story. We find out that Doc Hudson, who has been putting Lightning through his paces and displaying a mysterious affinity for racing was once a Piston Cup winner, before he discovered the fleeting nature of fame and glory after a major accident.
The twist isn’t all that inspired, and elements of it are easy to see coming. But it works because the drama between Doc and Lightning is strong (strong enough, even, to carry much of the plot in Cars 3), and it relates to the overall message of the film, to slow down once in a while appreciate more than just winning (a lesson Lightning ultimately takes to heart, making this a one-two punch of a twist).
Ratatouille – 8/10
I think it’s fair to say that Brad Bird (who also directed The Incredibles) just has a knack for plot twists in Pixar films. Well, two of them at least.
At first, I honestly couldn’t think of anything that counts as a plot twist in Ratatouille, mainly because I was thinking of the dynamics between Remy, his father, Linguini, and Skinner. The twist that Linguini is related to Gusteau is certainly a plot twist, but ultimately it’s kind of minor. It’s revealed halfway through the film and has little to do with what makes the movie good, in my opinion.
Instead, I consider the Anton Ego twist to be what makes Ratatouille one of the best Pixar films, period. It’s revealed that “ratatouille,” a peasant dish as Colette describes, is Anton’s favorite meal. He loves Remy’s cooking so much, he insists on meeting the chef and goes on to write a review that declares Remy to be the best chef in France. Unlike other Pixar films, the plot twist is that Anton Ego isn’t the villain or antagonist. And his contention with Remy serves into a bigger twist, that the oft-quoted phrase “anyone can cook” really means “a great cook can come from anywhere.” This is one of those sneakily brilliant twists that manages to re-contextualize the theme of the movie, making it a strong contender for the best Pixar plot twist yet.
WALL-E – 5.5/10
I love WALL-E for a lot of reasons, but its chief plot twist surely isn’t one of them. Granted, it’s surprising to find out that humans have been purposefully kept trapped in a space limbo due to the programming of our robot overlords. It’s a potent message, but the logic doesn’t really check out all the way.
If Auto doesn’t want the Axiom to ever return to Earth (even in the face of new data), then why not suspend the E.V.E. program? What’s the point of letting it continue? The Captain wouldn’t have noticed the program ending (he didn’t even read the manual or have any apparent knowledge of what was going on outside the ship). So the twist only confuses the motivations of a new villain, and too early in the film to be all that surprising.
Sure, it’s not a terrible twist, and I do find the reveal of how much time has passed since the evacuation to be terrifying. But ultimately, I find this plot twist to be far from Pixar’s best.
Up – 4.5/10
The plot twist in Up is a mess for a variety of reasons. The main one is that it’s fairly easy to predict, which is only amplified by how common this twist has been used in previous Pixar films. The seemingly friendly supporting character is a villain? You don’t say.
But this twist is also harmed by how uninteresting Muntz is as a villain. His main drive for glory and proving his critics wrong has basically nothing to do with Carl’s story. He was Carl’s hero, but that doesn’t tie into Carl’s past with Ellie, and you have to stretch to put the themes together.
Additionally, the movie fails to make sense out of his age difference with Carl, and how it’s possible he’s still alive. Part of the plot early on was to reveal that Kevin, the bird Muntz has been hunting for decades, has a supernatural element tied into her eggs, giving Muntz the ability to live longer. To be fair, cutting this out of the movie was likely for the best, but no counter explanation was ever given to balance this weirdness out.
Toy Story 3 – 7/10
Most people will probably think “the” twist in Toy Story 3 is the reveal that Lotso is the villain, but I definitely disagree. Yes, it’s a plot twist, but it’s nowhere close to the film’s chief plot twist. It happens very early on in the film, and the audience is led to believe something is “wrong” with Lotso because of Woody’s initial reaction to the situation.
No, the true plot twist is that Bonnie will go on to take care of Andy’s toys. The central mystery behind the film isn’t “Will the heroes defeat the villain?” It’s “Will the heroes ever be played with by Andy again?”
The final scene answers both questions in a way that’s more emotionally surprising than contextually surprising, because Bonnie is set up throughout the film to be a possible replacement for Andy. So I wouldn’t go as far to say this is a great twist. But it does serve a clear, satisfying purpose.
Cars 2 – 2/10
It’s one thing to make your surprise villain as obvious possible. It’s another to do that in a film that already has so many problems going against it. The “2/10” is being generous.
Brave – 4/10
There are multiple plot twists in Brave you can consider to be the most important one, but no matter which one you pick, they’re all a bit weak and confusing. Probably because Merida’s simple motivations are needlessly made complex by a vague desire to “change her fate” that is never paid off.
A possible main reveal is that this movie is really about Merida’s mother turning into a bear, which the marketing doesn’t spoil. It’s then revealed that Mor’du, the antagonist bear, was once a person as well. The Witch who “helps” Merida instigates this entire situation but disappears after her first appearance, and the lessons learned along the way are obvious, frayed, and mostly uninteresting, save for the raw dynamic between mother and daughter tested by some brilliant key scenes.
But the plot twists actually get in the way of the good stuff, here. This is a good example of a Pixar movie that would have been better off ditching the twists like in the first Toy Story. Instead, the reveals throughout Brave feel like minor building blocks that don’t add up to much of anything.
Monsters University – 8/10
When I first considered evaluating Pixar plot twists, I thought of Monsters University first. Maybe just because the movie has a lot of good twists, and one that is genuinely great. When the film gets dismissed as a straightforward “college movie parody,” I actively cringe because in a lot of ways, it totally defies typical messages in these and other movies.
One of the good plot twists: how the movie shifts entirely from act to act, much like semesters in college. The first act establishes the characters and is sort of a “mini movie.” The second act introduces new characters (like you would the second semester) and new goals for the main characters that naturally extends from the first act. The final act, which is instigated by the “great” plot twist, mimics the high stakes of “finals” and subverts the entire message of the movie: that Mike deserves to get what he wants because he worked hard.
Most movies would reward Mike with being the best because we like him and he does the work. But that’s not how it always works out in real life. No matter how hard Mike tries, he can’t force himself to be naturally gifted at one thing, but he learns how to use the gifts he has to find fulfillment elsewhere. This is a bold and innovative twist that is executed in a bold and innovative way, notably with how Sully cheats for Mike after the typical “He did it!” celebratory moment, only for them to get expelled.
This movie changes up the plot constantly, but it never feels jarring or incomplete. For that reason, it’s an easy favorite to win this whole thing.
Inside Out – N/A
The closest thing you can call a plot twist in Inside Out is probably the revelation that it’s OK to be sad, and that bittersweet memories are just as important as joyful memories. But this isn’t really a plot “twist,” it’s a plot development, similar to Toy Story and Finding Nemo. The story lays the groundwork for this message (which is a strong one) throughout the whole movie, so it doesn’t reframe the goals or motivations of the characters, it simply teaches them lessons.
Some might also want to consider Bing Bong’s sacrifice to be a plot twist, but that wouldn’t be very accurate, either. Again, this is a sudden choice that makes sense within the context of the character and deals with his inward decision to let go of the past for Riley’s sake. It’s a beautiful moment, but not really a plot twist.
The Good Dinosaur – 4.5/10
On the one hand, the plot twist early in Good Dinosaur‘s second act serves the plot just fine. It’s genuinely surprising to see that these Pterosaurs are scavengers, and when they consume one of the characters out of nowhere, it’s both horrifying and a welcome reminder of Arlo’s dangerous situation. It also establishes his need to look out for Spot.
But there’s nothing else in the movie that takes this message further. When Arlo confronts these creatures later on, it’s all pretty straightforward, and the minor twist/reversal with Arlo seeing his father in a vision feels rather cheap. All of the other revelations in the film (Spot’s backstory, what “earning his mark” means for Arlo, and so on) are all developments, not twists.
Finding Dory – 6.5/10
It’s not Pixar’s strongest plot twist, but the reveal that Dory’s parents are indeed alive mostly works and is probably a high point of the film. This counts as a plot twist in the first place because the audience is led to believe that Dory’s parents died by the end of the second act, only for this to be proven false a few scenes later.
That said, this twist is easy to see coming. But what makes it work anyway is how the twist is told, by the striking visual of the purple shells leading Dory to where her parents have been waiting for her, showing that they never forgot about her.
Cars 3 – 6.5/10
The big twist in Cars 3 is that Lightning recognizes he’s past his prime and decides to elevate Cruz by coaching her to take his place mid-race. This is coupled with Lightning winning the bet he made because she races with his number.
It’s not a jaw-dropping twist or anything, but it’s solid. The big mystery behind Cars 3 isn’t just “Will Lightning beat Storm?” It’s “Should he?” And the twist works to reframe the protagonist by focusing on how exclusionary sports can be when it comes to new talent, a theme built up just enough to justify the final lap of the film.
Coco – 7/10
My only real gripe with the plot twist in Coco is how obvious it is. And if this were the only reveal, I’d consider it more of a 5/10.
But what saves this twist and makes it genuinely good is how it’s followed up by the reveal that Ernesto de la Cruz actually murdered Hector, raising the stakes of the movie to an important degree. It immediately shifts Hector into a much more sympathetic character, rather than rely on the simple familial connection between him and Miguel as a reason to care about him seeing Coco again.
You could argue that Ernesto is another Muntz or Waternoose, but unlike those false villains, he doesn’t have much of a supporting role until he shows up close to the end of the second act. The movie plays on Miguel’s expectations of who this legendary man is in a way that serves the plot, to show that not all people in history are worth remembering or idolizing.
And again, this one has more to do with how the twist is told, in this case by putting the literal pieces together (of the photo) and the unforgettable lullaby scene that immediately follows. Which brings us to our last Pixar film!
Incredibles 2 – 4/10
I think it’s safe to say that Incredibles 2 is a great film in spite of its uninspired twist, which like so many of the other gimmicky reveals mentioned (Waternoose, Charles Muntz, Axelrod), it misses the mark in terms of predictability (her name is literally “Evil Endeavor”) and satisfying storytelling.
Specifically, the film puts too much stock into a mystery it solves almost right away. Who is the Screenslaver? Well, probably the only characters in the film we know the name of, right? How about the one who invents all the gadgets and is immediately chummy with Elastigirl and has a reason to hate supers because her parents died?
It’s also a weak twist because it doesn’t serve the plot. It feels more like a pulpy comic book twist than it does a film with a strong narrative. It doesn’t tie into the gender dynamics between Bob and Helen, and it isn’t resolved in any meaningful way. It’s just…there. Even worse, it frustrates the motivations of Evelyn, in that she actively thwarts what her brother is doing in the most convoluted way possible.
The worst Pixar plot twist is clear enough, thankfully, and that’s undoubtedly Cars 2 But for the best Pixar plot twist, I can see it going to either The Incredibles, Ratatouille, or Monsters University.
And there are different reasons to prefer any of these. I think the most surprising twist, for better or worse, belongs to the Syndrome reveal in The Incredibles, coupled with Jack Jack’s superpowers popping up in the end. The most profound twist might be the Anton Ego reveal in Ratatouille, which manages to convert the theme into something much more original. And the most innovative twist belongs to Monsters University, which excels at telling multiple twists along the way, finishing out strong with one that maps the whole movie to the college experience.
But if I have to choose one, I’d go with Ratatouille. It manages to put its big twists toward the end of the film and still be surprising, plus the ending isn’t quite what you’d expect yet still satisfying and inevitable. We’re led to believe that Remy and Linguini will win the day if they can save Gusteau’s, but they lose it anyway. Only to make their new restaurant, unshackled from the legacy of their respective fathers.
Agree? Disagree? Surprise me with a plot twist of your own in the comments.
7 thoughts on “Which Pixar Plot Twist is the Best? (And Worst)”
I agreed with basically all of this, but I think I would have given the edge to Syndrome over Ratatouille. Something about his turn is just so prophetic today with toxic fanboy culture being the way it is. And the Jack Jack reveal was so good when you see it for the first time.
I would have gone with Syndrome too, but that Monsters University explanation was truly inspired.
This was a great breakdown! I still can’t believe Toy Story and Finding Nemo and Inside Out are so good without any big twists, but I guess it’s understandable in our post-Star Wars culture to think that’s all you need. Jaws didn’t have a big twist either, but that’s one of the greatest blockbusters ever. Just saying.
Do you count the Tank Gang non-escape as a plot twist 😉
Great review! I’m glad you gave Monsters University the recognition it deserved.
I think Woody revealing itself to Sid is surprising if you’ve seen the other iterations of the franchise first, as you know how much the toys are committed to their secret. This was my case seeing Toy Story 2 first. But even then, it probably wouldn’t score high, as it doesn’t have big consequences.
I’d like to you explore the twists of recent Disney movies, but it´s fine if you don’t want to.
I like how you write about Ratatouille. Thank you for sharing the post! It’s very interesting.